biology zoology blog soul animals


Soul-Searching: the frustrating search for something we assume to exist, but cannot find

I think I am correct when I claim that most people once in a while think of the soul and accept the concept that all living beings must have one. There is, however, no single organ or anatomical structure in any species that could be identified as the seat of the soul (even if René Descartes, the famous 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher, had thought he’d found it in the pineal gland of the brain). Since he was wrong and all others searching for the physical manifestation of the soul were unsuccessful, we, therefore, have to conclude that, if present at all, the soul must pervade an animal’s body totally.

That, however, would then beg the question, what might happen if an organism like that of a starfish, for instance, were broken or split into two halves with each of them growing into a new and complete individual. Or more extreme still: what would happen to the soul if you took a planary flatworm, famous for its regenerative ability, and cut it into a hundred small pieces with each of them surviving and growing into a new and healthy worm? Would they all have a soul, too? And if so, does that mean souls can also be cut up and recover their full “size” or are there perhaps hundreds of souls in an organism right from the start?

Transplantations are another headache for the soul-searcher – and I’m not only thinking of transplanted hearts, kidneys lungs, and livers in humans. A former colleague of mine in France, Dr Jacques Durand, once performed a marvellous experiment in which eyes from a seeing species of newt were surgically removed and exchanged with the rudimentary and hardly functioning photoreceptors of Proteus anguinus, cave salamander considered to be blind. The result showed that the swapped eyes behaved like they should have if left in their original positions and animals: the newt Euproctus that had received the cave animal’s eye rudiments became blind, while the cave species that should have lacked functional eyes, now possessed them.

Stranger still are experiments by another Frenchman, Dr Jacques Bierne. He used different parts of several species of ribbon worm to “create” one new mosaic individual out of them. Which piece provided the soul in this situation? Or did all the pieces contribute a fragment? In the trematode worm Diplozoon paradoxum, which parasitizes the gills of freshwater fish, separate male and female worms when they meet quite literally “tie the knot” during copulation. The two individuals will then stay together for as long as they live: the knot is never to be undone again after it is formed and it actually leads to a fusion of the two animal bodies. Have the souls of the two individuals joined before our eyes in the single “double animal” with one single solitary soul or are there now two souls in one body? If that’s the case, would the male or the female soul be dominating? Will we ever be able to get to the soul of the matter? Here even the biologist is baffled and confused and gives up.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2018.
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