Talking to the “Rising Waters Confab” group on Monday I introduced the idea of dividualism as opposed to individualism. Here’s a bit of what I had to say.
Some years ago we got the results of the Human Microbiome Project which had set out to catalog all the bacteria, fungi and otherwise non-human stuff that live in the human body–that live there usefully, helping us digest food, absorb vitamins, fight diseases. Here are a few surprising numbers: counting these organisms one by one, each of us is host to about 100 trillion non-human life forms. In each of us these organisms taken together weigh between two and five pounds.
As one microbiologist put it, human beings are like coral: “an assemblage of life-forms living together.”
The word ‘individual’ means ‘not divisible’; so conceived, an individual is assumed to be the elementary particle of social life, the atomic unit from which other things are made. In the Human Microbiome Project we find a neat example in science of the way that assumption can be called into question. In what sense, exactly, am “I” an in-dividual if I couldn’t live without the scores of other species that make my life possible?
Or let’s move from biology to social science. Anthropologists in recent years have shown an interest in splitting this individual atom, speaking now of a dividual self.
Working in Melanesia, for example, anthropologists find that persons are thought of as having the complexity of the social world inside the self, not just outside. By this notion, your friends, your family, your setting in nature, the animals you live with, the god or gods you worship…, all of these things are not just around you, they are inside of you as well; they are part of what makes you the person you are and if they were to disappear you would disappear (or, at the very least, you would not be your old self).
We are a nation that celebrates individualism, of course, though that has not always been the case. There have also been times when dividualism was valued just as much or more.
In 1630, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, preached a sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity” and famously imagined, in an phrase lifted from the Bible, that Boston might be “as a city upon a hill,” a shining example for all to come.
If you read the sermon as a whole you will find that it has nothing good to say about individualism. Here is just one Winthrop sentence: “We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own…, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes…our community as members of the same body.” For Winthrop, that was a religious creed; it is also a dividualist creed, the demand being that we live for and in one another, not just for and by ourselves individually.