The human body is a wondrous thing. Since the earliest days of recorded history it has been a source of fascination and inspiration for scientists and artists alike. This has been true whether the focus has been on the sub-cellular workings of mitochondria and RNA creating energy and building proteins, or the organism as a whole, creating thoughts and building cities. Yet it seems there are quite a few people unfamiliar with its various parts and their specific uses.
The body is made of chemicals, molecules and cells, of course, but these are organized into organs, each with a unique function vital to the overall performance of the finished product. It is on this organ level where there appears to be the most confusion and upon which I will attempt to shed some light.
The premier organ, the one separating us from all other species, is the brain. Comprised of neurons interlinked in countless ways, secreting a variety of neurotransmitters, the brain is responsible for our motor and sensory function. More importantly it is the organ responsible for higher thought, reason, logic and deduction. The human brain allows us to absorb information, learn from it, and make decisions based on that knowledge. 2 + 2 = 4, E=mc2, and cogito ergo sum are all products of the brain.
All the other organs are, in a way, part of the supporting cast, vital players to be sure, but all working at the pleasure of the star. This would likely inspire some envy among them if such a thing were possible. I don’t think it is. I’m not sure all of us agree.
Let’s look at some of these lesser organs, the role players, to better understand my concerns, starting with the skin. It forms a barrier between the outside environment and the organs within. It allows for temperature control and protects us from the elements. It is stylish, and comes in a variety of colors. Remarkable, really.
Then there is the gut, or gastrointestinal system. This provides both nourishment and pleasure. Eating and drinking are two of the most popular and enjoyable functions in which we humans engage. Dining, whether at home or in a restaurant, is central to our social structure, regardless which part of the world one occupies or with which cultural group one identifies. As the saying goes, ‘ya gotta eat’. The gut makes this possible and we are grateful. It tells us when it requires filling, when it needs to be emptied, and in between it processes all that is presented to it in a way that ensures our continued wellbeing.
Another remarkable organ, or organs, actually, are the sexual ones. While the skin and gut are connected to the brain in subconscious, autonomic ways, the sexual organs reach into the white matter. The interplay between libido and logic, passion and reason, has been at the core of countless dramas, triumphs and tragedies over the history of man. Our sex organs don’t think, exactly, but they, more than the rest, have the ability to affect our thoughts in substantive ways. Pleasure and procreation when properly employed. Catastrophe and procreation when allowed to run amok.
The last organ I’d like to discuss is the heart. My first year medical school physiology professor described it as a pump. Period. Blood goes in one side, gets pumped to the lungs for oxygenation, flows to the other side and gets pumped out to the rest of the body. Of course there are seemingly miraculous aspects to its function, like the automaticity of certain cells that generate the electrical impulses initiating contraction and its ability to sense the need for more or less vigorous pumping. It is also significant that failure of the heart to function properly is the number one cause of death in much of the world. Still, it is a mechanical machine that goes about its business in a workman-like, dispassionate way.
And here we come upon the confusion. Aside from the brain, none of the organs I’ve discussed are capable of thought and reason. Yet many, I’ll even say most, humans insist on ascribing these sorts of higher functions to organs inherently designed not to be able to perform them. I call it anatomic anthropomorphism, and it is responsible for much of the misery in the world today.
A classic example of anatomic anthropomorphism is the person who says, “I have to go with my gut”. Unless that person is going to lunch or the bathroom there will likely be problems. Allowing ones gut to do ones thinking makes no sense. That’s the brain’s job. The same can be said for the heart. “I have to go with what’s in my heart” is a common and well-respected phrase, but for no good reason. The only thing in a person’s heart is blood, and as important as that is it is no more capable of informing an intelligent decision than is the content of your gut.
This kind of thinking becomes devastating when applied to the ballot box. That is where decisions are made which will affect entire populations, not just the romantics or anatomically challenged who think that way. Nowhere is it more important to use ones organs as they were meant to be used as it is in the ballot box. Unfortunately this is exactly where so many choose to do otherwise.
We vote with our gut, our heart, our skin and our genitalia. We vote for what we feel is right, what is familiar. Too few of us vote with our brains and that has gotten us to where we are today. We all have ‘gut feelings’, we all have some idea what it means to do something from the heart, but what we are really saying is that we are being motivated by a deep sense of what is correct based on something generated by the brain which we are not yet able to clearly articulate. It would be better to think about these feelings until such clarity emerges before acting upon them.
Anatomic anthropomorphism is not a disease. There will probably never be a telethon or 10k held to raise money for its eradication. Yet it needs to be confronted. Refusing to think things through is an insult; to the brain, to the body, and to society. The ability to do this sort of thinking is what makes us special. Neglecting or refusing to do so makes us just foolish.