Author: Ye Hwa (Raina) Lee
Bio: Ye Hwa Lee is pursuing a major in economics at New York University.
Plato’s Theory of Forms asserts all that is present in the physical realm is a shadow of its true essence and reality. Thus, in the subsequent decades following Plato’s discovery of his theory, philosophers, scientists, politicians, among many others, have been asking variants of the question: “What is the essence of mankind?” There have been a multitude of proposed theories. Some say mankind is the rational animal; some propose the essence of mankind is his or her eternal spirit. However, none of the propositions provided me with a satisfying answer, and I am beginning to realize that this may be because we have been asking the wrong question.
The idea of the principle of mankind has an anthropocentric connotation and therefore is flawed. One cannot separate the individual from the ingroup, society, ecosystem, or planet he or she exists in. For instance, the second wave of feminism introduced the argument that “the personal is political.” The quote stems from the idea that the experience one thinks is personal is in reality shared by many others. This is because the individual experience cannot be separated from larger social and political structures. In the same sense, the idea of mankind is a social construct based on a hierarchical categorization of species. For as long as we are human, we are biased in our perceptions of humankind. We think of ourselves as the positive that opposes the Other’s negative; in doing so, we illusion ourselves as deserving of power and control. In reality, Homo sapiens only comprise 0.01% of the planet’s biomass and their existence depends on their relationship with all life on Earth (Ritchie). This has become more evident than ever in the year 2020 as mankind strives to find ways humanity can co-exist with the COVID-19 virus. The existence of mankind is threaded and woven into Earth’s tapestry. Where does our identity start and where does it end? Perhaps the answer to that question is that there is no such thing as a beginning nor end to our identity; the borders we draw to separate us from them are ingrained, and we simply cannot think of ourselves separate from all life despite life’s multifarious manifestations. Hence, our existence is life. Therefore, the question we must ask ourselves is not: “What is the essence of mankind?” rather, we must ask: “What is the essence of life?” When examining Earth’s history, billions of species have emerged and gone extinct; if we put time into perspective, the length of time we, Homo sapiens, have been around is substantially minuscule. However, ever since the emergence of the first forms of life, life has never stopped living. The observable fact that life has never ceased is very telling when we examine the question: “What is the principle of life?” This is because perhaps the principle of life is life itself. Perhaps the essence of life is to ensure the continuation and sustainment of life.
When observing a colony of ants, many people may find themselves pitying the worker ant; the worker ants devote their entire work, resources, and life to the queen ant. It was later in life where I learned that this system among the ants exists because the queen ant is the only ant that can reproduce. Worker ants who cannot reproduce are an evolutionary dead end; the only way the individual ants can ensure the continuation of their species and therefore life is by devoting themselves to protecting the queen ant. This gives insight into the essence of life: there is a difference between life and survival. If the essence of life was survival rather than life itself, it would be detrimental to the species as individual ants forget they require the life of the queen as well as the lives of other worker ants to sustain their own life as well as their species’ life in the future.
Another example of the principle of life at work can be seen when we examine the cells that we are built out of. We, as multicellular organisms, are systems built upon systems, and the most fundamental blocks that make up our biological structures are our cells. The colonial theory of multicellular life suggests that multicellular organisms, as opposed to single-celled organisms, require an excessive amount of ATP to sustain itself and thus are energetically expensive (Baranski). Therefore, to sustain its existence, the survival mechanism of multicellular organisms was to invest in complexity by creating multiple layers of symbiotic relationships with other multicellular life (Baranski). For example, the cells that make up our nervous system depend on the cells that make up our lungs to provide oxygen, and the lungs depend on the nervous system to command it to breathe. However, as a trade-off of taking advantage of the emergent properties of multicellular traits, all multicellular life does not come without the probability of becoming cancerous. Cancer is when an individual cell forgets that they need to cooperate with other cells to sustain their own life. A cancerous cell only cares about its own survival and neglects the fact that its larger purpose is to sustain life, and therefore, the cancerous organism is basing its principles on survival rather than life. This is disastrous to not only the whole biosystem the cancerous cell interacts with but also to the cancerous cell itself. The notion of cancer sheds light on the fragility of life: the principle of life is life; however, our existence lies in the physical realm, and the physical realm is subject to flaws. If we, human beings, lose sight of life’s essence and forget the fact that our existence is dependent on all life both from the past, present, and future, we risk the destruction of all life including our own.
Today, more than ever, we ask, “How can we live alongside nature? How can we live alongside each other?” In an effort in answering these questions, perhaps we should look towards the principle of life. The principle of life is life, and life is living proof that unity exists among us just as much as diversity does. Life reminds us, “I exist because of the life that has existed before me.” Life reminds us, “My well-being is for the well-being of others because the well-being of others is the reason for my own well-being.” If each and every one of us comes to the understanding that we all have the duty to sustain and protect “life,” our collective respect for one another may one day achieve an equal and just society.