PhagePunk (Guts of the Matter)


We are all split. From the moment a haploid sperm cell meets a haploid egg cell, the resulting diploid cell’s very existence depends on its being able to split—divide. For the first act of creation, a rift is formed in cellular DNA: the double helix is ripped apart to be copied by protein machinery only to be ripped apart again and again and again. This tearing asunder produces cell after cell, and a few days into gestation, structures in the growing numbers of cells emerge: brain, heart, lungs. But what forms first and foremost is the structure for that hollow tube which perpetually splits us from mouth to anus; our internal negative space that serves as a vital mediator to our world: the gut.

This split is not unique to the human condition but occurs in every cellular organism from a bacterial cell to a yeast cell to a human cell. But if you fast forward a few million years from the first cellular split in the primordial sludge to the ancient Greeks—later solidified by Rene Descartes, they’d have you believe that this dichotomy is unique to our species alone; in fact, according to them, it is what essentially makes us human. In the East, ancient Hindu philosophers kept mind and matter distinct, giving the latter its due respect but definitely preferring the former. Even now, we struggle with a nagging sense in our psyche that our bodies are sometimes enjoyable but non-essential components to who we are: “it’s the inside that counts,” we are told in countless ways as if the inside is this ephemeral and perfect being that is trapped in a doughy prison of tissue and bone. Industries have risen and profited from our species’ conviction that we can “tame” the flesh and reveal our true perfect inner selves.

These wise philosophers seem to have infected our culture with a peculiar type of amnesia that has forgotten the wisdom within the cell. We focus on structures: the body, a squishy, gooey, messy mass of chronically split cells, and the mind, a tidy, controllable, beautiful invisible entity. One is an active barrier between, or at best a sometimes fun inconvenience to, realizing our true being.

What if the inside is what actually counts in defining human? What if our true being can be actualized by looking within? But instead of searching for the mystical location of the soul, maybe we need to get a little bit messy and jump into the shit. Literally.

Perhaps we need to examine the wisdom of early Mesopotamia that is even older than the wise Greeks and is linked to the ritual of extispicy—an act which was still popular even while those Greek philosophers preached their paradigm of the ideal and pure soul. Perhaps we can understand more about what makes us human by examining a disemboweled sheep or a colonoscopy than by speculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Science is showing us today that ancient Mesopotamians did have it right: our bodies are what hold the mystery of life and tell a story of the past and the future. From the beginning of human culture, our bodies—particularly our guts—and what we put into them occupied most of early human cultural focus. Even before we started gazing at the stars, the ritual examination of entrails was thought to provide direct access to divine knowledge, literally imparting the ability to read the past and the future as it was being created. Despite our prevalent (or maybe it’s just the verbal) cultural preference for the spotless spirit, remnants of our species’ gut fascination still hold over today. “Modern man still seeks the answers to mysterious questions in the entrails of dead bodies: in autopsies,” claims controversial scholar Robert K. G. Temple about our fascination with the body in forensic science[i]. In Japanese samurai culture, seppuku or ritual disembowelment was the only way to right a self-inflicted insult to one’s honor. Virtually every historical culture used evisceration in one form of another as capital punishment from England’s “hanged, drawn, and quartered” to the Netherlandish practice of vierendelen. It’s as if in the exposure of our innards, truth, justice, and knowledge can be found. Even in our everyday speak, our most visceral cliches include “gut feeling,” “spilled your guts,” “no guts, no glory,” “gut check,” “gut punch,” and “hate his guts,” to name a few.

The gut or gastrointestinal (GI) tract is so deceptively simple that we often ignore it. It’s a tube after all. Stuff goes in. Stuff comes out. Further, it’s the site of not a few more embarrassing emissions that range from being culturally taboo to seriously awkward on a first date. Temple accurately notes the delicacy needed when addressing our entrails, “it is difficult to get hold of them, and too firm a pressure can result in malodorous consequences.” Indeed.

However, this seemingly simple tube is the ground zero of most of our interactions with the outside world. And, as such, is organized in complex structures that facilitate interactions not just between our species and inanimate morsels but between our species and other species. The gut is the first outcome in evolution of being multicellular and is the center of bodily activity. Before animals get brains and hearts, they get guts. And with guts comes an entire ecosystem.

[i] Robert K. G. Temple, “An Anatomical Verification of the Reading of a Term in Extispicy,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 34, no. 1/2 (January 1, 1982): 19–27, doi:10.2307/1359990.

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