Saturday, 8 March 2014

Haecceity



Our conversation takes strange turns some nights, and this week we’ve been talking about natural selection. We talked about the bits of our body that are left over from our ancestors – the tailbone, the appendix, wisdom teeth and the nictating membranes of our eyes. We talked about how many of the emotions we feel, as right as they feel to us at the time, are really just responses left over from our ancestors, and not necessarily helpful anymore. 

She was fascinated that each cell of her body contains a blueprint for her, and that it is the master-work of thousands of generations of survivors. Do you remember what the blueprint is called? I asked.

“Your haecceity!” She said, pronounced “hex-ay-ity.”

I’m impressed you remember that, I said – I just mentioned that in passing a long time ago. The Haecceity, though, is a term the Blackfriars used – Scotus, Ockham, Aquinas, those people . It was their word for your essence, the thing that makes you you.

What I was looking for, though, was your genotype -- your blueprint is written in DNA code, which make genes, which make chromosomes. All the genes together make your genotype, and the way they show up – all your qualities – is your phenotype.  

“Isn’t that the same thing?” The Girl asked.

Well, the haecceity is a religious idea, and the genes are a scientific one. People shouldn’t treat religion as science or vice versa – they do that too much these days.

“Is the haecceity like the soul?” The Girl asked, pressing the issue.

Well, I said, I don’t know if the monks thought of the soul the same way modern people do. These days we talk about it like it’s a ghost that lives inside us and floats out when you die, like you see in movies. They seemed to think of us more as an image that God projects onto our flesh, like the Mona Lisa on canvas or a cinema projection onto a wall. The painting is just powdered clay, the wall is plaster and we’re meat, but it’s made into an image, and that image is what matters.  

The Girl looked at me sceptically. Okay, I said – let’s back up and put it a different way. It’s like that Harry Potter book you’re reading, I said. It’s just ink on paper, except the ink forms letters, like DNA code. The words are the genes, the chapters are chromosomes, and the whole book of words is the genotype. But a book is just a book --- the actual story, though, is what scientists call the phenotype, and what the monks called your haecceity.

“So which one am I?” she asked.

All of those and more, I said. The story doesn’t really exist until someone reads it, and we don’t count for much unless we change the lives of other people.  

“I’m going to try to have a great story,” she said. 

I expect you will, I said. But it will surprise you, even as you’re writing it.