Sometimes when I’m reading a book, something hits me so profoundly that I have to pause for a few days or even more and let it sink in. The other night that happened while I was reading Whole, Dr. Campbell’s new book. I had just finished Chapter 7, “Reductionist Biology,” and the next day I expected to barrel on through Chapter 8. But what I found myself doing instead was meditating on how enzymes work. And how much like metaphor they are. That, in a way, they are the poets of our metabolism. Here is one sentence in particular from Dr. Campbell that sparked this thought:
“Enzymes are large protein molecules, present in all our cells, that, through a series of reactions, turn one thing (say, a sugar molecule called a substrate) into another.”
He goes on to use the metaphor of a factory for how enzymes accomplish this amazing feat. But really, for me, all he needed to say was there is a protein present in all our cells whose job it is to turn one thing into another. Isn’t that what we do when we use comparison in language to say one thing is another thing, as in “my love is a red red rose”?
The immediacy with which enzymes can change shape to do their work is breathtaking, and so far the book is worth reading just to get such an intimate peak into that. In fact, I love the diagram of the shape of an enzyme on page 99 describing how the chain of amino acids folds into itself, creating a three dimensional shape akin to a string of magnetic beads. These “beads” can shape shift in a faster flash than we can imagine to vary their activity. This means there’s an instantaneous correspondence between shape and function intrinsically involved in turning one thing into another. That sure sounds like metaphor in action to me.
The reason I’m so excited about this is I’ve long suspected that the action of metaphor is far more than a literary device. It actually might be the nature of reality, its basic building block. To read that we have such adept shape-shifting built right into each cell is lovely reenforcement of this intimation I’ve always had. Cognitive neuro-linguists like George Lakoff say language is literally wired into our brains with metaphor. If so, when I write or read a metaphor I might simply be outpicturing a process that constitutes the essence of being alive: the dynamic substitution of one thing for another, the seamless way in which what we say or do, and how we say or do it, are one. The non-linear way in which everything is not only connected, but somehow IS everything else.
This in-depth exploration of enzymes and the MFO enzyme in particular is such a beautiful example of one of the key assertions running through the book thus far: that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. I first heard this statement in a psychology course when I was 19. It had never occurred to me before, but it made perfect sense once I was able to wrap my mind around it. For that I have Professor Mary LeGare to thank, who spent many afternoons turning over such sophisticated concepts in conversation with me. I had never had a teacher who had asked much of anything beyond regurgitation of the facts or direct answers, so at first I was at sea with the requirement to apply something without having been told exactly how to do that. I remember turning in my blue book, unable to finish the essay questions, and going to her office to tell her I had just failed the test. What should I do? That began our Friday afternoon discussions of the material, often in the lab where she taught upper division students about the brain. I’ll never forget it. Although she might have been more of a reductionist than I’ll ever be, she knew a Wholist when she saw one. She introduced me to the writing of Loren Eiseley, a scientist who was memoirist and poet alike. So reading Dr. Campbell’s approach is like coming home to the place I was first taught to wonder at the big questions science tries to answer in a way that comes naturally to me.
So I’m taking a little break in my reading of Whole to let this much needed weave of science and poetry settle back deep into my cells. And then I’ll pick up the book again, willing to go wherever else it leads me.
The morning after my first “pause” in evening reading, I woke up musing on another aspect of that chapter: the series of diagrams that describes the evolution of our understanding of the metabolic process. The first one Dr. Campbell mentions that most of us would be familiar with is a chart depicting the Kreb’s cycle, something we might have seen in high school science. It’s basically a pared down sequential schematic, and tends to give us the impression that bodies actually function in this schematic manner. Next he shows us a groundbreaking map made of the process of glucose metabolism that he was using to teach at university level in the 70’s. This one is much less linear and sequential, but you can still make yourself try to see the pathway from start to finish. The next figure is an updated chart of this same metabolic “path” and it’s so complex the eye sees it as an entire design, rather than a sequence with an entry and end point. And finally there’s a figure with a “close-up” of this updated map, showing the complex multi-layered, directional pattern in maybe a square inch of it.
This breathtaking complexity is certainly a compelling case for the need to move beyond a reductionist perspective as the end-all and be-all of what we can know and how we can know it. It reminds me of a time in my manual therapy appointments when the practitioner, who was working on the elasticity of my ciruclatory system, was trying to give my brain a concept for what that plasticity might be like. A garden hose. Believe it or not, I was absolutely floored. Get out, I said. Really? And at that instant I realized I had never thought of any of my circulatory system as having any “give.” The metaphor I’d unconsciously used was more like pipes. And pipes are rigid, hard. They have to be. Yet it slowly dawned on me that to be healthy my circulatory system needed to be plastic, to move, to give. To breathe, if you will. It was a life-changing moment, because it changed the way I had unwittingly visualized the blood moving through my whole body. And it was metaphor that made that life-changing moment possible.
This vision of “Whole” science that Dr. Campbell is constructing in his new book is no less life-changing. His metaphor of a symphony to describe human metabolism is gorgeous, too. That he uses metaphor to explain such things is in itself drop dead gorgeous to me.
Which is why I’m taking my time reading it. And smiling to remember the first person who admonished me and my classmates to take time reading our science. It was my anatomy and physiology teacher in high school, Dr. Nuban. He was Persian (now we’d say Iranian) and his educational methods revolved much more around the community of the class and good natured public humiliation about less than stellar test scores than any of us had ever been used to. He would hand back the tests, calling each person up to his desk by name, and either admonish for a poor performance, or wildly congratulate, complete with pats on the back. “Yes, yes!! very good, very very nice, very good!! he would exclaim. Or, “This is bad, very very bad. What’s the MATTER with you?! You must study harder, try harder!!” And then he would remind us, “You have to read your textbook just a little bit exactly like steak. Chew a little at a time. Digest like steak. Yes, yes. Just exactly.” If you saw him in the hall between classes, or he greeted you as you walked into his room, he never just said “Hello” or “Good Morning.” It was “Hello-good-morning-how-are you today!!” all in one breath, exclamation included. Naturally, he was a favorite teacher to imitate. But when I did imitate him, I couldn’t help smiling and neither could anyone else. Truth is, he was right, and we all loved him for it, underneath our teenage ennui. No one else put such passion into telling us to be patient and take our time, that we could do better, or we had done great, whether it was getting to class on time or understanding–you guessed it–a reductionist attempt at how vitamins and minerals work.
This is one of the reasons I love to read, and to take a break and reflect on what I’ve read. I treasure the flights of memory and imagination I embark on, the new connections and ways to see old thoughts and beliefs that enlarge my view and my experience, and how both the reading and the pause from it bring me to new and deeper and more interconnected ways to know the world.
How is your reading of Whole going?