Friday, January 13, 2012

I sing the body electric

No, wait. I'm not quite ready to let go of Verghese's Cutting for Stone.

Let me quote just one paragraph, more or less at random, not having to do with the story, per se, but with the human body:
If the beating heart is pure theater, a playful, moody, extroverted organ cavorting in the chest, then the liver, sitting under the diaphragm, is a figurative painting, stolid and silent. The liver produces bile, without which fats are not digested, and the liver stores excess glucose in the form of glycogen. In the silence and without outward signs, it detoxifies drugs and chemicals, it manufactures proteins for clotting and for transport, and it clears the body of ammonia, a waste product of metabolism.
One might say something similar, I suppose, for the kidneys. Or the stomach. Or any of the other silent organs, those essential partners that don't beat, pulse, churn, squirt, or otherwise call attention to themselves -- except, of course, when something goes wrong.

Who thinks about the liver? Who even knows where it is or what it does? Yet it is as much a part of our Self as the heart, lungs, or brain. Or the hands, nose, eyes, mouth, ears, or genitals. We are all of a piece, a smoothly functioning, robust, resilient machine. A sloshing mass of chemicals, a tingling tangle of electrical impulses. Verghese give a stunning account of the long apprenticeship necessary for a physician to gain even a rudimentary knowledge of the body, and the lifetime necessary to become a specialist in malfunctions of the liver, for example.

Intelligent design? Was this miracle that is us worked out in a drawing room in the sky? I mean, the plan is all there, in the parental DNA. The liver. The fingernails. The chambers of the heart. The sloshing juices. Oh, it was worked out, OK. One tiny modification at a time, in the long workshop of the eons.

As I write, a gecko sits on the deck outside my window. It has a liver, as I can quickly verify from the internet. And eyes. And nose. And heart. And toes. Our sloshing juices are pretty much the same. It's been a long, long time since we shared an ancestor, but we have more in common that we humans are generally inclined to admit. How much more flattering to our sense of unique self-importance to imagine an angel rushing into the executive office from the heavenly R&D with a plan for the human body, shouting, "Hey, Boss, wait'll you see this one. I've solved the excess ammonia problem. It's our best design yet."