Thursday, April 28, 2005

Globalization and the language of life

Communication makes civilization possible. Words. Winks. Nudges. Scowls. Emoticons. If we didn't have ways to communicate with one another societies could not exist.

Of course, that's a truism. And it applies also to flocking birds and swarming bees.

What is less obvious is that it applies to the tens of trillions of cells that make up our bodies. Our bodies are societies of cells in communication with one another. The words are molecules: proteins mostly. The syntax is geometrical: proteins and receptors fit together like key and lock.

Microbiologists have begun to compile a dictionary of the language of life. The number of "words" in a cellular society is not dramatically different than the number of words in my American Heritage College Dictionary (there are about 30,000 genes in the human genome and 200,000 definitions in the dictionary).

Organelles, cells, multicelled organisms: All benefit from cooperation and specialization.

It's time to start thinking about the health of the ultimate collectivity: the society of all humans on Earth. The technology exists for global communication among individuals, what NYTimes columnist Thomas Friedman calls "a flat Earth." Now if we can just stop thinking of races and ethnicities other than our own as "inferior" and of religions other than our own as (in the words of the new pope) "gravely deficient."