Nature of Souls

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This essay has morphed into a monster which has consumed almost as much time and energy as all the others combined. It needs to be completely reworked, restructured, and streamlined. I am sure there are inconsistencies and duplications. I will return to this if I get a chance. [Most of the READ MORE links are inactive currently.]


Purpose of this Essay

We have a lot of knowledge of the physical world and we are leaning more all the time. Although many things are uncertain, we have a lot of confidence about most of what we know about the physical world. The same is not true about the spiritual world–much of what we know is speculative. Our task is to build the best model of the spiritual world so that it can guide us in the spiritual aspect of the physical world–moral behavior. This rather too-long treatise is an attempt to update our understanding of the soul based on current scientific knowledge, in order to guide our ethical behavior relative to the other organisms we encounter in our daily lives.

I start with one assumption: we have a non-material soul. It is an act of faith–it cannot be proved–or disproved. Some will call this wishful thinking–a dream of immortality. I hope they will be pleasantly surprised someday. (This assumption also implies there is a God–also an act of faith. Although the more scientific among us, who presumable believe in cause and effect, must admit to some sort of prime mover. But I digress....) Why is it important to understand the soul. Because it affects how we see ourselves–our priorities in life. Because it affects morality–how we should treat other individuals. Because it affects our perception of reality–our relationship with God.

As I travel through life, as I observe the world around me, as I (indirectly) scan the sky with telescopes, as I (very indirectly) study stuff under microscopes, I am confronted with the incredible cacophony of reality. [The assumption being that reality is what is seems to be. READ MORE: Reality and Existence. NOT DONE YET] Where does the soul fit in? We are taught that man has an immortal soul and animals have a material soul. What about trees and rocks? Does the Universe have a soul? Are there group or shared souls? My survey of reality tells me there are many types of soul or functionality. You may disagree with me–fine, this is America. What I am trying to get at is how to define soul by examples.

History of the Soul

The concept of the soul has been a feature of most cultures, philosophies, and religions, around the globe and throughout history. Here is my short list of the men who have been most influential in shaping our thinking about the soul in the Western intellectual tradition:

Name Birth:death Ethnicity Contribution
Plato 428:347 BC Greek allegory of the cave
Aristotle 384:322 BC Greek father of Western philosophy
Augustine of Hippo 354:430 AD North African City of God; Confessions
Thomas of Aquino 1225:1274 Italian Summa Theologica
Descartes René 1596:1650 French Cogito, ergo sum.
Leibniz Gottfried 1646:1716 German polymath; calculus
Kant Immanuel 1724:1804 German categorical imperative
Spencer Herbert 1820:1903 British evolutionist; survival of fittest
Huxley Thomas 1825:1895 British biologist; evolutionist

My notes contain comments from three dozen other writers on the soul–I am sure there are more. You might make a different short list. But the point is that the soul has been scrutinized by some of the deepest thinkers of all time.

Teilhard (1881:1955)

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (aka Teilhard) was a visionary Frenchman, a Jesuit priest, and a paleontologist. He spent his life trying to integrate religious experience with natural science–specifically Christian theology with the theory of evolution. He saw a universal consciousness arising from the material world which would reflect God's glory. He wrote several books explaining his ideas. The Catholic Church told him to stop; as a loyal Jesuit, he obeyed. However, it appears that the Church was closing the proverbial barn door after the horses had gone. It seems to me that much of his thinking can be found in homilies every Sunday at your local parish church. I have waded through a couple of his books. His style is very mystical. His prose is very dense. [Unlike mine, which is so light, lively, and witty.] But what I have been able to understand resonates with me. It fits with my concept of time and all to which that leads. You will find his ideas reflected here and in my other essays on theological cosmology.

Philosophers have found that the soul is a particularly tough nut to crack. The ideas to explain the soul have varied widely–many of them contradictory. Here is a list of questions about the soul which have been addressed:

I will now attempt to briefly state the current position of the Catholic Church (coded CC) on each of these issues, followed by the most prominent Dissenting Viewpoint (coded DV). Why Catholic teaching?

  1. This church has a fully thought-out and well-articulated doctrine on the soul.
  2. Christianity is the dominant world religion, with 50% more members than second-ranked Islam–2.0 vs. 1.3 billion adherents.
  3. The Catholic Church is the largest (1.1 billion) and most cohesive Christian communion. There is virtually no daylight between Catholic and Orthodox teaching. And together these two communities constitute 70% of Christians.
  4. I am more familiar with the Catholic Church than any other.

Full disclosure: I accept less than half of the current, orthodox, Catholic teaching about the soul. But it's still a good place to start.

Defining the Soul

The chemicals, molecules, and atoms of our bodies are in constant state flux. Yet there is a continuity of life which is maintained. The thing or force or power which maintains this continuity is what I call the soul. For a long time, I have struggled to develop a better verbal expression for the concept of soul. I find the word too vague and loaded with misconceptions. I have considered terms such as operator, controller, conductor, director. The best word I have been able to come up with is functionality. The soul is what makes the whole function in way which is more than what the parts can do individually. The soul is what drives something to operate in a particular way which is normative for that something–how it should perform. (We can argue about what the norm should be in any particular case.) In the vernacular, if you have soul then you are acting like a real human being. So I have adopted functionality as my working definition of soul.

There is some confusion today about the difference between the soul and the mind. (This is reminiscent of the confusion between the soul and the spirit, which is found in early writers such as Paul of Tarsus.) The mind encompasses the rational functions of the soul; while the soul includes the vegetative and sensitive aspects as well as the reasoning or thinking aspects.

Misconceptions of the Soul

Those who would deny the existence of the soul, because no dissection of any human body has ever found a soul, are completely missing the point. Let me tell you the short story of a very wise man, who was struck by a car and killed. When the medical examiner performed the autopsy, he was puzzled–no matter how carefully he looked, he was unable to find any wisdom. The soul is the principle of life; like wisdom it is not physical or material. (And anyway, when a dead body is dissected, the soul is already gone.)

Likewise, on a fool's errand is the best way describe those who pursue the development of a mechanical mind or a human machine. I remember reading about a Russian computer scientist who was just about to finish decoding the operation of the brain and complete a computer program which would have all the functions of a human mind–including self-consciousness. That was in the late 1960s–fifty years ago. Just the other day, I read another story about a project to develop a similar automaton by 2014–I'm not holding my breath.

It is possible to write a computer program which would seem to replicate human functionality, but as soon as it encountered a situation outside the boundaries of its rules, the program would crash. In order to become self-aware of its current state, a digital computer would have to change its state from not-self-aware to self-aware. At which point it would be aware of its previous state, not its current state. It would continue to chase its tail in this manner until someone pulled its plug. Analog computers can achieve a real-time steady-state condition, but they are very limited in scope and can solve only one specific problem, such as naval gun fire control, using complex parameters of relative speed, direction of target, wind conditions, and the roll, pitch and yaw caused by the sea.

How God Works

From our observation of the world around us–living and inanimate–as well as the distant Universe, we can surmise how God operates. God creates the Universe and maintains it with a set of rules or parameters–the laws of physics and chemistry:

God could alter the rules. [Maybe God put a 27 lb. bar of gold outside your front door. Go look; I'll wait here for your return....No luck? Well, there's always tomorrow.] Yes, God could change the rules in the middle of the game; but God does not intervene in the day-to-day happenings of the World and the Universe–except on very rare occasions, maybe.

Nature, and by extension God, does not act in an arbitrary manner. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but without consistency the Universe would be total chaos. Granted that we are not always able to determine what the laws of nature are and that what appears as randomness is just our ignorance. Take evolution, as an example.

Evolution is a fact. Creationism is a fact. The question is: how directly does God act in the world? Is God a hands-on activist who is involved every time an electron drops to a lower energy level, thereby creating a photon which is ejected from the atom? Or is God more like a manager who establishes the rules of the game and then delegates the outcome, letting the chips fall where they may? The way I see it, the issue is not a choice between direct creationism by God or Mother Nature rolling dice. Rather, God directs Mother Nature to roll the dice. [I hope that does not sound too cute.]

What evidence is there to prove the point? Well, let's start with the free-will God has given us. God permits us to do some truly heroic and courageous acts; and likewise God gives us the freedom to make some colossal blunders with terrible consequences.

Then, there is the existence of evil in world:

If God is personally and immediately involved then God is the cause of every cancer tumor, every heart attack, every birth defect, every natural disaster. How does that square with a your concept of a loving God?

God is not a Democrat–God does not ensure equality of outcomes. Some humans are smarter, or healthier, or stronger, or wiser, or richer, or prettier (like me) than the rest of us. Some die peacefully in their sleep at the ripe old age of 84; others live for years in terrible pain. Some children are crushed in earthquakes; others die slowly from starvation. Such is the human condition. If God wanted us all to have good lives, God would have created a different Universe.

It appears to me that God appreciates the struggle, rather than the achievement. How we deal with the adversities of life. How well we succeed in being a good person relative to our physical, mental, and emotional gifts. How much compassion we have for our fellow beings. That's what God appreciates.

Soul and Time

Flush with my success at defining my theological time-line [READ MORE: Theology of Time], I made my first attempt to define the soul by applying the same concept to the soul. I came up with a large circle and a straight line tangent at one point on the circle. The line represents one person's soul (there are countless numbers of these lines); the circle equals everything else–the world, the cycle of life, the sum of human history. The soul comes in contact with the physical world for a brief moment during the body's life. The idea is that the soul (like a line) has no beginning or ending–it is eternal. It always was and always will be, because it exists outside of time. [The illustration below will win no prizes for graphic creativity. It looked better in rtf; I can't get it to work in html.]


I realize that an eternal human soul is not exactly the traditional viewpoint. The catechism teaches that the soul is created at the moment of conception. I remember disputing this point with one of my religion teachers in high-school. [Always a rebel.] I believe the concept of an immortal soul originates with Justin, who was rebutting Gnostic theology. The idea of an eternal soul was denied because an eternal soul would imply humans are equal to God. However, coexistence does not deny dependence. The spiritual Universe (and all the creatures in it: angels, souls, etc.) emanates from God, just as does the physical universe (the space-time continuum). God is the only self-creating entity. To repeat, eternal only means existing outside of time–i.e., not bound by time.

To the extent that a soul has intellectual and spiritual characteristics, it transcends time and space–it is eternal. All spirits are eternal because they are not physical–they do not change. Time is just the measure of change (movement) in the physical universe.

Mortal beginning and ending
Immortal beginning, no ending
Eternal no beginning, no ending

I am happy to report that two or three times in the last few years, I have heard an eternal human soul mentioned in church homilies. [Progress comes so slowly.]

Purpose of Biology Study

Going back to the discussion of living in a consistent Universe, the laws of physics and chemistry seem clean-cut and clear relative to biology. But that is not completely accurate. For example, radioactive decay seemed arbitrary and inconsistent until we understood the weak nuclear force. In biology, it seems every species lives by its own rules. Even the definition of what constitutes each species is arbitrary. An since each individual has a unique set of DNA, each individual must have a unique set of rules. Right? Even identical twins and all the rest of us have small genetic mutations in our cells–so there must be different rules for our left foot and our right foot. Yes?

Well, I for one refuse to live is such a chaotic Universe! Who is with me? Today we know more about biology than we did 100 years ago or 1,000 years ago. And 100 years or 1,000 years from today we will know much more. It is a moral imperative that we base our morality, our theology, our metaphysics on our current understanding of reality–the reality of the physical Universe God has built for us. In that way, morality, theology, metaphysics are constantly being perfected. They will never be perfect in this physical Universe; but they can always be improved upon. Isn't that the way God created us?

To answer the questions posed at the beginning of this essay, we will explore the bizarre world of biology. On our field-trip, we will examine a lot of strange creatures (mostly lower life forms, as opposed to us high-brow humans). Why study flat-worms (ugh!) and slime molds (double ugh!!) Because we want–or should want–to build our morality, our theology, our metaphysics on reality. Otherwise, what is the point?

So, we study biology to develop a better understanding of:

Having addressed these issues, we should be able to construct a superior model of the soul.

Biology 101

When I was a lad, virtually all living organisms were classified as plants or animals (Plantae Kingdom or Animalia Kingdom). Not any more!

Here is a Tree of Life for the first two/three hierarchical levels:

[The relationships among Eubacteria, Archaebacteria, and Eukaryota are not completely settled.]

The point of this section is that biology is much more complicated than a simple plant or animal classification and that the boundaries among various types of organisms is not very clear. This also serves as an introduction to other topics we will be discussing shortly–such as: symbiosis, colonization, regeneration, reproduction, evolution. All of these subjects are inexorably linked to our understanding of the soul. And if we misunderstand their implications, then we will not understand the nature of the soul as well as we might.

Types of Organisms

There are two basic types of organisms: single-celled (e.g., bacteria) and multi-celled (e.g., us). In addition, there are multi-nucleate cells and colonies of single-celled organisms, both of which fall in between the two basic types.

Here are some of the questions we will be looking to answer:

Single-celled Organisms

Let's start by looking at single-celled organisms, such as: alga, yeast, amoeba, protozoa. Gone are the good old days when a cell consisted of a nucleus inside a bag of protoplasm. Now cells are stuffed with about 16 different types of organelles (little organs). There are two types of cells: prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (animals, fungi, plants, and everything else). The structure of prokaryote cells is much simpler than the structure of eukaryote cells. Prokaryote cells contain a nucleoid, plasmids, ribosomes, and micro-compartments or polyhedral organelles. (We will not spend much more time on prokaryote cells.) Eukaryote cells look like this:

Animal cell organelles Plant cell organelles
Nucleus Nucleus
Nucleolus (within nucleus) Nucleolus (within nucleus)
Rough endoplasmic reticulum Rough endoplasmic reticulum
Smooth endoplasmic reticulum Smooth endoplasmic reticulum
Ribosomes Ribosomes
Cytoskeleton Cytoskeleton
Golgi apparatus Golgi apparatus
Cytoplasm Cytoplasm
Mitochondria Mitochondria
Vesicles Plastids (Chloroplasts, etc.)
Lysosomes Vacuoles
Centrosome & Centrioles Cell wall

Not every eukaryote cell contains all these little organs. The concept is that organelles are to the cell what organs are to the body.

Examples of single-cell organisms are amoebae and ciliates. They have complexity and organization and perform nourishment and reproduction. They have metabolism–they are alive and have souls. Organelles, on the other hand, have no individuality–they cannot function independently without the cell. They do not have souls. (At least, not most of them.)

Multi-nucleate Cells

Most single-cell organisms contain a nucleus which houses two sets of chromosomes inside a membrane. During reproduction by cell division (mitosis), the double helix of DNA, which composes the chromosomes, is split in two and the genes are replicated. The duplicated chromosomes are segregated on opposite sides of the cell so that there are two complete but separate sets of chromosomes in two nuclei. Mitosis is usually accompanied by cytogenesis, in which the cell membrane pinches inward, separating the two new cells (animals), or a cell wall is constructed between the two new cells (plants). But sometimes the cytogenesis in incomplete or absent. The result is a multi-nucleate cell–or two cells with no wall or membrane between them. (Is the glass half full or is the glass half empty?)

For our examination of the soul, there are three cases:

Multi-nucleate cells (or should I say, incomplete membrane cells or partly-unwalled cells?) are not the norm, but they are not that unusual either. Examples include: siphonous algae, filamentous algae, filamentous fungi, even skeletal and cardiac muscles found in humans and other mammals. (Large skeletal muscle fibers are formed by the fusion of thousands of individual muscle cells.)

Plasmodial Slime Mold

But the organism which best illustrates this enigma is the misnamed plasmodial Slime Mold (which in neither slime nor mold). [More Info Here]

When a Slime Mold spore germinates, it releases one, uninucleate, haploid (one set of chromosomes) amoeboid cell, called a myxamoeba. The myxamoeba travels by cytoplasmic streaming. In order to move, cytoplasm is diverted away from the trailing edge and towards the leading edge. As it moves, the myxamoeba assimilates bacteria and other organic matter–it ingests and then digests, a process called phagocytosis. As the myxamoeba feeds and grows, it will divide and reproduce by mitosis and cytogenesis. If there are available nutrients and the environment remains favorable, myxamoebae continue to proliferate for an indefinite period of time.

When two myxamoebae of different mating types with different ancestry encounter one another, they will act as haploid gametes and merge or fuse to form a diploid [two sets of chromosomes] zygote. The zygote itself does not divide; rather it grows as its nuclei divide mitotically, forming a large, multinucleate cell, called a plasmodium. Mitosis occurs simultaneously throughout the organism. The plasmodium is essentially a big bag of protoplasm containing thousands of individual nuclei without cell membranes between them.

As in the myxamoebae stage, the plasmodium travels by cytoplasmic streaming and engulfs organic material by phagocytosis. The plasmodium also has the ability to subdivide itself and establish separate plasmodia. Conversely, separate plasmodia which are genetically similar and compatible can fuse together to create a larger plasmodium. Occasionally, during rainy periods, a large plasmodium (upto several feet in diameter) rolls out of the woods and into residential lawns and gardens.

When it runs out of food, or environmental conditions become harsh, the plasmodium will migrate to the surface of its substrate and transform into a spore-making structure, called a fruiting body. (These look like the fruiting bodies of fungi, which is why Slime Molds were once thought to be fungi.) The plasmodium becomes denser and differentiates. Its protoplasm becomes knotted into discrete nodules, which elongate into stalks with fruiting bodies on top. Spore formation comes about with the construction of cell walls around the diploid nuclei. The nucleus in each spore will undergo meiosis twice to produce four haploid nuclei, of which three degenerate–only one myxamoebae results from each spore. The dormant, haploid spores are released from the fruiting body–completing the cycle.

Soul Searching Questions:

Multi-celled Organisms

Now let's study multi-celled organisms, such as: Blue Whales and Sequoia Trees. (I think we can agree that Blue Whales and Sequoia Trees are alive and have some kind of souls.) The difference between single-celled and multi-celled organisms is much more than the quantity of cells. The main distinction is that multi-celled organisms develop specialized cells–the first are usually reproduction organs. Higher organisms have a host of organs–everything from brains to toenails.

Like organelles, organs cannot exist independently (for very long). Are they alive? Yes. (Except for hair and nails.) Do organs have souls? No–can't reproduce. What about the individual cells? As single-celled organisms, they have souls. What if several of them get together and start functioning as a multi-celled organism? Does it depend on how many cells? Does it depend on the extent to which they are operating as one or as many? Does it depend on the degree of specialization? Is it all or nothing? Can it be 25% individual souls and 75% group soul? How about this: each cell has its own (cell) soul and the overall organism has it own (organism) soul?


Single-celled and multi-celled organisms are not the only possibilities. There are several degrees of organism in between. These are loosely grouped together into a category called colonies. Colonies are aggregations of single-celled organisms which behave like multi-celled organisms. (Colonies differ from symbiosis in that members of a colony are from the same species.) Colonies present some interesting challenges to the concept of the soul.

Colonies behave like many individual organisms during some part of their life-cycle and like one composite organism during another part of their life-cycle. Some times the individual organisms unite to form a composite entity; other times a composite organism separates into individual components. Usually individual organisms from a colony can survive on their own, while independent cells from a multi-celled organism cannot–although this is not always the case. Most of the time individuals of the colony specialize to perform different functions. Specialization involves physical changes which normally cannot be undone. It is hypothesized that colonies were an evolutionary midpoint between single-celled and multi-celled organisms. The best way to understand colonies is to describe some examples.

Cellular Slime Molds

There are three types of cellular Slime Molds, which are NOT closely related to one another. However, one of the three is closely related to the plasmodial Slime Molds. [More Info Here]

Free-living amoeboid cells of cellular Slime Mold hatch from spores under warm and moist conditions. For most of their lives, these haploid (one set of chromosomes) amoebae feed on bacteria and decaying matter in the soil. (They are able to detect folic acid, secreted by bacteria.) Periodically they divide by mitosis. When the supply of food is depleted, amoebae secrete a chemical signal. The signal is repeated by others, who begin to move toward the highest concentration of the signal. (Different species use different chemicals.) At this point there are two courses of action available, depending on conditions: creation of a fruiting body or production of macrocysts.

When conditions are bright and dry, most of the time, most species will follow the route to asexual reproduction. As they travel toward each other, amoeba produce glycoproteins which causes them to stick together. Streams of thousands of amoebae converge on the central location and form an aggregation which can number upto a hundred thousand cells. The amoeba form a tiny, multi-celled, slug-like creature and create a slime sheath or cap which covers the entire mass.

The slug has a definite anterior (front) and posterior (rear) and responds to light and temperature gradients. (The polarity of the anterior and posterior ends is established by oxygen gradient.) The slug is capable of coordinated movement by producing a cellulose sheath in its anterior cells through which the slug moves toward light in a forward-only direction, leaving behind a trail of slime (hence the name). When the slug has found the right place, the posterior cells differentiate into one or more balls of living, drought-hardy spores; while the anterior cells form a stalk to lift the spores into the air for better dispersal. These spores are inactive, haploid cells protected by resistant cell walls. When they germinate, new amoebae restart the cycle.

When conditions are dark, wet, and ideal temperature, some of the time, some species with take the path to sexual reproduction. [Yes, even Slime Molds are embarrassed and have hot, sweaty sex in the dark!] During the aggregation phase, two haploid amoebae of different mating types can fuse into a giant, diploid cell (two sets of chromosomes). (There are upto six different mating types in some species.) The giant cell then proceeds to engulf (eat) the surrounding amoebae, increasing in size.

Meanwhile, some of the cells at the periphery form a cellulose wall around the entire group, preventing escape. This subdivides the large aggregation into a number of smaller precysts. When the cannibalism is complete, the giant cell is engorged with many partly-digested prey. As it continues to assimilate its prey, the giant cell surrounds itself with a thick cellulose wall and can now be called a macrocyst. Inside the macrocyst, the giant cell first divides through meiosis, and then repeatedly through mitosis to produce hundreds of haploid amoebae. After an appropriate period of maturation, which varies among species, the macrocyst germinates and releases the amoebae to begin the cycle anew.

Soul Searching Questions:

Colonial Algae

The Volvocaceae are a family of colonial green algae which illustrate why it is difficult (if not impossible) to draw a line between single-celled and multi-celled organisms. [More Info Here] All the colonies are a single layer of cells embedded in a gelatinous envelope of glycoprotein which holds them together. Neighboring cells may be interconnected by strands of cytoplasm, which enable adjacent cells to chemically communicate with each other. Anterior/posterior polarization and cell reproductive specialization varies from none to complete and roughly corresponds to colony size (number of cells) from small to large. This table summarizes the relationships:

Genus Cells (range) Shape Polarization Specialization
Gonium 16 ...... (4:32) flat square none none
Platydorina 32 .... (16:32) flat square slight slight
Volvulina 16 ...... (4:32) spherical partial slight
Pandorina 16 ...... (8:64) spherical partial slight
Eudorina 16:32(8:128) spherical partial partial
Yamagishiella 32 ...... (8:32) spherical partial slight
Pleodorina 128 (16:128) spherical full full
Volvox (512:65,000) spherical strong complete

Green algae are ancestral to land plants (such as trees). However, the Volvocaceae have some characteristics which are usually associated with animals:

Swimming on the water's surface–flat, squarish colonies spin like a Frisbee; elongated, spherical colonies roll like a football.

Anterior/posterior polarization and reproductive specialization:

There are two types of reproduction: asexual and sexual. Individual colonies can reproduce both ways.

Soul searching questions:

Filamentous Fungi

Filamentous fungi are a very common form of fungi. Although they are related to all the other members of the Fungi Kingdom, they are not closely related to one another; rather they are scattered through out three different divisions of the Fungi Kingdom. It seems the filamentous life-style was a popular evolutionary track taken by many organisms. (There are also a large collection of filamentous algae which have a very similar life-style and biology.) These filamentous fungi are more commonly known as molds and mushrooms. They are no doubt THE classic colony–completely independent and self-sufficient, while living together in a very cooperative manner, with minimal specialization.

Filamentous fungi get their name from the cylindrical, thread-like structures they grow. These filaments are actually elongated cells growing end to end. The filaments branch and criss-cross, creating an extensive network of interconnected cells. Although you may occasionally see filaments growing on exposed wood, most of the time the network lives out of sight, underground in the dirt, hunting for food.

The business end of these fungi is the tip at the end of the filament. Fungi live in their food and they secrete enzymes from the tip to digest the food so that it can be absorbed by the cell wall of the filament. Fungi grow by adding new material to the wall of the filament near its tip, increasing in length but not diameter.

Fungi excel at reallocation of resources. When one of the filaments contacts a rich food supply, the entire colony mobilizes and reallocates resources to exploit the new source (e.g., stimulation of filament tip growth). When the food in a part of the network has been exhausted, the colony extracts whatever nutrients and metabolites it can re-use and transports them to where they will be better utilized. In other words, everything but the cells walls of abandoned filaments is fungible. This is a colony of individuals acting as one organism.

In many fungi, the filament is one very long chamber without divisions–one continuous cytoplasm pool with multiple nuclei–essentially a supercell. However, in most fungi, the filament is divided into compartments by septa, which are partitions, but less than true cell walls. The septa are perforated with pores which can be opened to allow the passage of cytoplasm, ribosomes, mitochondria, and even nuclei. The pores can be closed so the septum functions like a water-tight door to prevent the leakage of contents if the filament is damaged. But this does not make these fungi single-celled.

(Keep in mind that fungi cells are haploid (one set of chromosomes) except during sexual reproduction. If the dikaryon nuclei fused, the resulting nucleus would be diploid (two sets of chromosomes).)

Sexual reproduction is possible for some fungi under certain conditions, but is infrequent. Asexual reproduction through vegetative spores or through filament fragmentation is much more common. Asexual spores are produced without any cross-fertilization, so most spores are genetically identical to the parent cell.

The larger the network of filaments becomes, it is more likely that it will suffer disruptions and fragmentation. The parts of the original network can continue growing independently, since each fungus cell is completely self-sufficient. As they continue to expand, it is possible that at some future time the currently disconnected networks will come into contact. Then, since genetically identical filaments can fuse, the two networks can re-unite.

Filamentous fungi can get quite large. The record holder is a clonal colony of Armillaria Ostoyae (honey mushroom) living 3 ft. underground in the Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. It covers 2,200 acres (3.4 sq. mi.); weighs 600 tons; and is thought to be 2,400:7,200 years old. [That's some mushroom!]

Soul Searching Questions:

Corals, Jellyfish, and Relatives

Corals and jellyfish are the best known groups in phylum Cnidaria. [More Info Here] The distinguishing characteristic of this phylum is that all members have, around their mouths, tentacles armed with stinging nematocysts, which inject neurotoxin to capture prey or deter predators. Cnidarians have an alteration of generations with two distinct body forms: anchored polyps (e.g., corals) and swimming medusae (e.g., jellyfish). Unlike most animals, which are bilaterally symmetrical, cnidarians are radially symmetrical–polyps like a tube and medusae like a wheel. Not all species live through both stages–many omit the medusa stage; some omit the polyp stage. Polyps reproduce asexually and medusae reproduce sexually. Most polyps are colonial; almost all medusae are solitary.

Most cnidarians have a polyp phase and most polyps form colonies. Colonies vary from simple to complex–measured by the number of specialized polyp types present. These specialized polyps are called zooids and they do not have all the functions of solitary polyps–they usually have only one function. Here is the best list of zooids (and their functions) which I have been able to compile:

combination of gastrozooid and dactylozooid functions
four types; leaf-like; gives some protection to other parts
tentacle(s) with nematocysts for defense against predators and capture of prey; conveys prey to gastrozooid
combination of gastrozooid and gonozooid functions
three types, generally least modified from basic polyp, envelops and digests prey with mouth, can expand or contract, may not have tentacles for prey capture
generates many tiny medusa (gonophores) by asexual budding; the gonophores produce gametes of just one sex
collection of nectophores, which are studded with medusae (swimming bells), whose pulsations propel the colony
founding member and central stem of colony, produces an air-filled float which supports the entire colony
the stem, which all siphonophores have, connects the other specialist zooids
(no-name zooid)
outlet-valve which releases water to deflate a colony
water pump to re-inflate a deflated colony
long, mouthless polyp, probably protective in function

On the lowest rung of the ladder, colonies have two types of bases:

In either case, single polyps grow into or from the base, depending on the perspective.

At the next level of complexity, trees of polyps grow. There are two common forms of trees:

More complex tree structures are possible. In all the cases so far there is very little specialization. Here, and in all cnidarian colonies, the connections between the polyps and the openings with the base allow food and water to flow freely among all the polyps in the colony. A simple nerve net also connects the polyps.

Climbing the ladder until we reach a middle rung, we find order Pennatulalcea, which includes sea pansies and sea pens. [They have such cute names.] Here the polyps are more specialized. The founding polyp develops into a tall, rigid, erect stalk (the stem). It loses its tentacles and forms a thick root at its base. This root can be extended into the substrate to better anchor the colony. The other polyps branch out from the central stem. Most of the colony are feeding autozooids, which look like small sea anemones. Other polyps include reproductive gonozooids, outlet-valve polyps which release water to deflate a colony, and water-pump siphonozooids to re-inflate a deflated colony.

At the top rung of the ladder are two different orders, each with one family which contains just two nearly identical species:

The two different orders/families have taken different evolutionary paths to reach almost the same place. Superficially, these colonies of polyps appear to be jellyfish (non-colonial medusa). They float on the surface of the oceans and catch prey using tentacles armed with stinging nematocysts. Most solitary hydra attach themselves to the substrate with an adhesive pedal disc (foot pad), but these two families have found different ways to modify the pedal disc into a float. This causes the colony to hang upside down in the water and also allows the growth of extraordinarily long fishing tentacles, which makes them more effective. The colony is connected by a canal system which enables all to share ingested food. Communication is maintained through a network of nerve fibers. Like most cnidarian colonies, the polyps are either all male or all female.

The colonies of family Porpitidae are radially symmetric. The pneumatophore is a flat, oval disc with many gas-filled compartments. One species has a somewhat rigid triangular sail of translucent chitin on top of the float; the other species does not. Under the float hangs one central, large gastrozooid without tentacles for digestion. Around the gastrozooid is an inner ring of gastro-gonozooids for digestion and reproduction and an outer ring of dactylozooids for capture of prey and defense against predators. Using asexual budding the gastro-gonozooids produce and release many tiny medusae, which in turn generate and spawn gametes of one sex (ovum or sperm).

The colonies of family Physaliidae are bilaterally symmetric. The pneumatophore is gas-filled, oblong-shaped, bladder-like float. An erectile crest or ridge along the top of the float acts like a sail. Under the float hang clusters of polyps (cormidia), each of which contains dactylozooids, gastrozooids, and gonozooids. Dactylozooids have a single tentacle of two sizes–long fishing tentacles and short ones in the cormidia. Gastrozooids are smooth tubes of varying lengths hanging with the short dactylozooids in the cormidia. Gonozooids are flattened tubes with clusters of medusa gonophores. Their single-sex gametes are shed directly into the water.

Just who are these creatures?

Cnidarian colonies span the range from fully independent polyps to completely dependent components of a colony. On the low rungs of the ladder, fully functional polyps live in physical contact, sharing nutrition and communication. They all can live independently and go off to start a new colony–sometimes they do, in a process called bailout. On the high rungs of the ladder, the polyps have given up so much functionality that they cannot survive, except in cooperation. The integration of the polyps is so complete that the colony acquires the character of an individual–a super-organism.

Soul Searching Questions:

Symbiosis and Endo-symbiosis

We all remember symbiosis from school–the bees and the flowers, or the birds eating parasitic insects on the backs of cattle. (Symbiosis differs from colonies in that symbiosis is between different biological species.) Actually, there are three kinds of symbiosis:

Further, there are two types of mutualistic symbiosis:

So, there are three combinations:

Probably there is a range of degree between facultative and obligate. The question–if each requires the other to survive, can either be considered an autonomous, independent organism? If not, then they must be a composite organism. The best example of this is lichen-symbiosis of fungi with algae or bacteria.

Estimates are that there are more bacteria living on the surface our bodies, including the inner surfaces of the digestive and respiratory systems, than there are cells in our bodies. It would be difficult to contemplate our lives without them–especially the one in our intestines. Are these bacteria part of our bodies and included in our souls?

Endo-symbiosis is one organism living within the tissue or cells or another. It is generally agreed that mitochondria (in animals) and chloroplasts (in plants), evolved from bacteria, which prokaryotic cells engulfed but failed to digest. Mitochondria originated from the alpha-proteobacteria; chloroplasts originated from the cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). The mated cells both flourished and the relationship became permanent and obligate. Mitochondria and chloroplasts contain their own DNA, which they separately replicate by binary fission during mitosis of the host cell.

Soul Searching Questions:

Eusociality and Super-organisms

The previous sections about colonies deal with might be called regular or standard colonies, in which the members live in constant physical contact with–are attached to–one another. But there is another class of colonies which could be called distributed colonies (like distributed computer networks), in which the members operate autonomously for short periods of time, but cannot survive without the colony for long periods of time. In the examples described below, you will find a range of organisms from solitary (not social), through primitively social, ending at eusocial (highly social).

The concept of a super-organism is an extension of eusociality. The term was coined 100 years ago to highlight the similarities between castes and division of labor in social insect colonies and the functioning of cells and organs in individual organisms. But the concept was panned and fell into disuse. However, more recent research has revealed that swarms of insects, schools of fish, flocks of birds, and herds of animals are leaderless systems which are more like a single living organism than a collection of individuals. The social colony functions as an integrated whole and its members cannot survive on their own, but the individual members are physically independent–two levels of biological organization coexist with equal importance–organism and super-organism.

The eusocial colony is an organism–not merely an analog of an organism. The colony has several qualities which confirm this status:

  1. It behaves as a unit.
  2. It is differentiated into more than one caste.
  3. It undergoes a cycle of growth and reproduction which is adaptive.
  4. It shows idiosyncrasies in size, structure, and behavior. Some of these are peculiar to its species. Others distinguish individual colonies of the same species.

The amazing thing is that colony life is self-organizing–there is no leader, no brain caste which implements a master plan. The super-organism exists through the continuous interactions of its members and the constant pooling of information through communication. A distributed intelligence is created which is greater than the intelligence of any one of its members–even greater than the intelligence of all of its members combined. It is the emergence of this swarm intelligence which makes complex, integrated behavior possible. Collective accomplishments dwarf individual achievements.

Social Insects (wasps, bees, ants, termites)

Social insects [More Data Here] share a number of common characteristics:

  1. Division of labor by caste (physical or behavioral);
  2. Specialization creates dependency–individuals cannot survive alone;
  3. Decentralized, self-organized system of activity;
  4. Collective intelligence used to solve problems;
  5. Group achievement greater than what lone individuals can accomplish.

Wasps fall into two main categories: solitary wasps and social wasps, which can be further divided into highly eusocial and primitively eusocial, meaning that the queen is not much differentiated from the workers. Highly eusocial colonies are larger (upto 5,000 wasps) and primitively eusocial colonies are smaller (upto 100 wasps). Queens do not have any special status within the colony–they are just the founding member and reproductive element of the colony.

There are three types of wasps: fertile females (queens), sterile females (workers), and fertile males (drones). Females are diploid (two sets of chromosomes) and males are haploid (one set of chromosomes). The queen controls the sex of the offspring, by fertilizing eggs with stored sperm to produce females and by NOT fertilizing eggs to generate male wasps.

Colony life has an annual cycle. Near the end of summer, the queen begins to run out of stored sperm to fertilize more eggs. The last eggs develop into fertile males and fertile females. The males (drones) fly away from the nest to mate elsewhere. The females (future queens) mate in the vicinity of their home nest with one or more males from elsewhere. The male sperm are stored inside the queen for future use. After mating with a female, the drones die.

When the worker wasps and founder queen begin to die off in the fall, the future queens leave the nest to find a place to hibernate for the winter. Emerging from hibernation in the spring, the queen finds a site and builds a small nest, into which she will begin to lay eggs fertilized with the stored sperm. These eggs produce sterile female workers. As more of these workers mature, they take over care of the larval offspring, foraging for the colony, and construction of the growing nest. The queen can now focus on reproduction.

Bees evolved from predatory wasps. Most bee species are solitary, nesting alone. Among the eusocial bees, there are many more species of primitively eusocial bees than highly eusocial bees.

Primitive eusocial bees live in small colonies with only a dozen bees on average. Although, some colonies may get as large as 200. There is no physical difference between queens and workers, except that the queens may be slightly larger than the workers. Colonies have an annual life cycle. In the fall, reproductive females and males emerge and mate. The males die and the females hibernate during winter. In the spring, the queen founds a nest by making a small tunnel in the ground and does all the other work, including tending the eggs she has laid. As female workers emerge from their cells, the queen's role is reduced to egg-laying. The workers take over other tasks, such as guarding the nest entrance, excavation of tunnels and egg cells, foraging and provisioning cells. The workers are not sterile and the queen suppresses competition by a combination of pheromonal signals and physical aggression (pushing and shoving the workers and refusing to let them pass her in the tunnels).

Among the highly eusocial bees (which can live in colonies upto 80,000), there are three distinct physical castes. Workers have larger eyes, pollen-carrying baskets on their hind legs, more hairy bodies to collect pollen, and barbed stings (one-time use). Queens have smaller eyes, no pollen baskets on their legs, less hairy bodies, and a sting without barbs (for repeat use). Male drones are also physically distinct (intermediate in size) and have only one set of chromosomes (haploid) because they come from an unfertilized egg. Female eggs have two sets of chromosomes (diploid) and can develop into a fertile queen or a sterile worker depending on diet. Worker eggs are laid in smaller cells and the larvae are fed a carbohydrate-rich mixture of nectar and pollen. Queen eggs are laid in larger cells and the larvae are fed a glandular secretion of young workers which is rich in protein and fat.

Queens live for two to four years. There is normally just one alive in each nest. Workers specialize at a variety of task as they mature, starting with care of the larvae. They move on to nest maintenance, then storage of nectar and pollen, next guarding the hive, and finally, in old age, the dangerous job of foraging for food. When a worker finds food, she returns to the nest and communicates the location by excited dancing in an attempt to excite other workers and entice them to explore the same location.

Colonies of highly eusocial bees reproduce by swarming. The number of workers in the colony increases during the spring and then the workers rear new queens. The old queen stops laying eggs and prepares her body for flight. She leaves the nest with about half the workers in a swarm, which flies to a nearby staging spot (usually a tree branch). Workers from the swarm scout out nesting sites and return to the swarm where they dance to show the location of the potential nest. Other bees visit these sites and a consensus about the best one emerges based on the dancing of scouts. Meanwhile at the old nest, a young queen emerges from her cell. She kills the other potential queens and then goes on mating flights, until she has mated with 10 to 20 drones, who die in the process. Her ovaries enlarge and she is soon laying hundreds of eggs every day. The queen signals her presence to the workers in the colony by constantly producing a queen pheromone.

Ants evolved from wasp-like ancestors. They form colonies which range in size from a few dozen ants living in small, natural cavities to highly organized colonies which may occupy large territories and consist of millions of ants. Most colonies have one fertile, female queen (who is physically larger than all the other ants) and some fertile, male drones. But colonies consist mostly of wingless, sterile, female workers. Ant colonies can be long-lived. Queens can live to 25 years; workers live one to three years; while males survive only a few weeks.

In most species only the queen has the ability to mate. However, some nests have multiple queens, while others can exist without queens–breeding workers reproduce. Winged drones do nothing except eat and mate. In some species, workers have three size castes: minor, median, major. Often bigger ants have much larger heads and stronger mandibles. So they are called soldiers, because they are more effective fighters. They are still workers and do what workers do. In a few species there is no median caste, making a clear divide between minors and majors. In other species worker size is a continuous spectrum.

Life starts with an egg. If it is fertilized, the ant will be female (diploid–two sets of chromosomes); if not, it will be male (haploid–one set of chromosomes). Ants have larval, pupal, and adult stages. Immobile larvae are fed and cared for by workers. Differentiation into queens and workers and different castes of workers is determined by what the larvae are fed. A new adult worker spends the first few days caring for the queen and her progeny. She graduates to digging and other nest work. Eventually, she moves to defending the nest and foraging for food. This sequence is explained by the high casualties involved in foraging and fighting, making it an acceptable risk only for older ants.

During the breeding period, winged males and females leave the colony in a nuptial flight. Males fly off before the females and secrete a mating pheromone which females follow. In some species females mate with just one male, but in others they may mate with many different males. Mated females find a place for a colony, where they break off their wings and start laying eggs. Queens store the sperm from their nuptial flight to fertilize eggs selectively.

Ants communicate with each other using pheromones and their antennae:

Termites may look like ants but they are most closely related to wood-eating cockroaches. They live in colonies which number from hundreds to millions of termites. Workers and soldiers live one to two years; queens can live upto 50 years.

There are three castes of termites, each containing both sexes, each with a distinct physical appearance, and each with different responsibilities. It is not clear how larvae become a particular caste. It is thought that maturity and the overall needs of the colony may dictate caste assignment. Research indicates that castes are not rigid and termites of one caste may change into another caste if there is a shortage of the other caste.

Reproductives have a black color, two pairs of wings, and well-developed eyes. Multiple pairs of reproductives within a colony are not uncommon. Females are queens and males are kings. The queen adds another set of ovaries with each molt, which increases her egg production (to more than 2,000 a day) and her body length by several times (reducing her ability to move). The queen is a primary source of pheromones (used for colony integration), are which spread through shared feeding (trophallaxis). The king grows only slightly larger after initial mating and continues to mate with the queen for life.

Workers have a white color, are sexually and developmentally immature, and navigate with their antennae because they are blind. They forage for and store food, care for the other castes, and construct tunnels and chambers for the nest.

Soldiers have anatomical and behavioral specializations for defense against attacking predators, especially ants. They are yellow-brown, with greatly enlarged heads and mandibles. The large mandibles make soldiers unable to feed themselves, so workers must feed them. A soldier's huge head can be used to block narrow tunnels. A tunnel-blocking soldier can rebuff attacks from many ants. More soldiers stand behind, ready to take the place of a fallen blocker. When the breach is larger than their head, soldiers form a phalanx-like formation and blindly bite at intruders or shoot toxic glue from their nose. Once the workers have repaired the breach behind them, there is no return and the soldiers on the outside will die.

Termites build nests which can be mud-based or tree-based. Most mud nests are under-ground; but some are above-ground mounds. Nests can be quite large. Under-ground nest can have a radius of 100 yards; while some mounds are upto 30 ft. high. All three types are complex structures which function in much the same way:

Termites build elaborate tunnel systems with tough exteriors which allow workers to gather and deliver food while remaining hidden from predators.

The life cycle of the termite begins with a mating flight, in which winged reproductive females and males leave their nests and join swarms of thousands or millions from the same species. Females and males form pair bonds and mate, after which they land, break off their wings, and spend the remainder of their life flightless. Both females and males survive beyond the mating swarm and they form a new nest, of which they are queen and king.

Workers are the main caste for the digestion of cellulose in food. The workers feed the other members of the colony with substances derived from their digestion of plant material (trophallaxis). This is one of the keys to the success of termites and ensures that bacterial gut symbionts are transferred from one generation to the next.

The main mode of communication is by pheromones. Trail pheromones guide foragers to food. Other pheromones regulate how many members of each caste are generated. And some other pheromones inhibit workers from becoming reproductives.

Naked Mole-Rats

Naked mole-rats are neither moles nor rats. They are more closely related to guinea pigs, chinchillas, and porcupines and are a genius of family Bathyergidae. [More Data Here] But they are naked–the only mole-rat species which lacks typical rodent fur. The naked mole-rat is native to the tropical grasslands of the horn of East Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya). They live in underground colonies which average 75 individuals (ranging from 20 upto 300). Their tunnel systems can stretch for three miles in total length.

Naked mole-rat colonies have a social structure in which the dominance hierarchy depends on size and weight, which are directly proportional to urinary testosterone levels. Because there is no sexual dimorphism, both males and females of the same social status are equal in size and weight.

Naked mole-rats have four, very large, protruding, front teeth, which they use for digging. These incisors are actually located outside the mouth and hairy lips close behind the teeth to keep dirt out of the mouth while digging. The eyes of naked mole-rats are so small that they can hardly see. Instead they use whiskers on their faces and tails to feel their way along the tunnel walls. This works so well that they can run backward just as fast as they can run forward. Their hearing is acute and they have a large repertoire of social vocalizations.

The colony life is filled with cooperative behavior:

They are so dependent on their social lifestyle that a naked mole-rat kept in isolation will die.

Human Beings

We have been called THE social animal. If there is any doubt that we are the most social species on the face of the planet, just consider cell-phones and Facebook. Social organization has allowed our species to dominate Earth like no other species. (Although, we still do not control it, not even the weather.) Although technological discoveries may be due to greater human intelligence, the application of technology requires social organization–Columbus could not have sailed to the New World by himself. Technology has allowed us to colonize all continents and adapt to every climate. With a population of over seven billion, humans are the most numerous of large mammals. This would not be possible without technology and social organization. Feeding a population requires more than just agriculture; it require a mammoth and efficient distribution system.

We have taken the concept of specialization to a whole new level. Not physiological specialization, but occupational specialization:

farmers, fishers, herders, hunters;
soldiers, sailors;
bankers, merchants, architects, engineers, programmers;
carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, welders, miners;
sea captains, air pilots, train engineers, truck drivers;
athletes, entertainers;
teachers, fire-fighters, police, lawyers, doctors;
scientists, professors, clergy.

Wikipedia lists 601 (and they missed about half of mine). No one can master more than a couple of these fields. Except for hermits, not many of us could survive on our own for very long. We are completely dependent on one another for everything.

Two other measures of eusociality are number of adult generations in the nest and the nurture and development of offspring. The eusocial standard is exposure of offspring to two adult generations. It is close to universal that children get to know at least one grandparent fairly well. And interaction with a great grand parent is not uncommon. Most mammals do little more than suckle their offspring. Sperm whales (largest water mammal, with longest gestation–15 months) suckle their young for 2-1/2 years; elephants (largest land mammal, with longest gestation–22 months) suckle their young for 5-1/2 years. Compare that with human childhood in the United States, which has just been officially extended by the Obama administration to 26 years. OK, a slight exaggeration. But you get the idea. Human offspring require a lot of care over many years to become contributing adults.

Humans belong to a large number of overlapping social structures–family, religion, school, business, government, sports, political, economic, cultural, even social. There is little doubt that humans are truly social–the gold standard for social behavior.

Asexual Reproduction

Almost all organisms engage in asexual reproduction–even humans. The topic is somewhat confusing because of overlapping concepts–some are two sides of the same coin. I will focus on three aspects of asexual reproduction. The goal is still defining the boundaries and limits of organisms.

Vegetative Growth

One of the major differences between animals and plants is that animals have a definite body plan and stop growing when that plan is reached, while plants never stop growing. This vegetative growth can result in a larger plant, a new individual, or something in between. Vascular land plants (such as Pachysandra, English Ivy, Azaleas, and Poplars) [More Info Here] have three components:

If a plant has a clear-cut set of leaves and a discrete set roots connected by just one stem, then the case is simple–one plant with one soul. However, there seem to be number of ways for vegetative growth to express itself which are ambiguous for individuality and for soul:

In most cases the new growth eventually forms all three functional parts: leaves, roots, and stem. The sharing of water, nutrients, and minerals is limited, at first. But later, it becomes impossible to know how much each leaf is connected to each root. Eventually, the connection may wither away or be suddenly severed by accident. At that point, individuality is re-established. In the meantime, it is very ambiguous.

Clonal Colonies

Plants which have reproduced by vegetative growth and remain connected are called clonal colonies (same genes). These clonal colonies can be quite extensive. The largest known fully-connected plant (by mass or volume) is a grove of (male) Quaking Aspen (Populus Tremuloides) in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. It has 47,000 stems, covers 100 acres, weighs 6,400 tons, and is 80,000 years old. All the trees have been determined by genetic testing to be part of a single living organism with one massive underground root system.

Soul Searching Questions:

Fragmentation and Regeneration

Fragmentation and regeneration are two aspects of the same process. First, an organism is fragmented; then, the fragments grow into independent organisms. In plants, algae, and fungi, the fragmented part just keeps on growing:

The situation with animals is quite different from plants. Crustaceans (crab), invertebrates (octopus and squid), fish (lamprey), amphibians (salamander, frog, toad), reptiles (lizard) and other animals can regenerate limbs and tails lost by injury or autotomy (deliberate self-amputation to distract a predator). But none of these can regenerate two or more complete organisms from less than half of the original. This is the focus of our search and you will be rewarded with three prime examples of animal regeneration below.

There are two distinct types of regeneration, both of which have impressive sounding names:

King's Lomatia

The only colony of King's Lomatia (Lomatia Tasmanica) known to be alive in the wild is found in the extreme southwest of Tasmania. King's Lomatia (named after its 1937 discoverer) is an unusual shrub, since all of the existing plants are genetically identical clones. Because it has three sets of chromosomes (a triploid), it is sterile and reproduction occurs only vegetatively–when a branch falls, that branch grows new roots, establishing a new plant which is genetically identical to its parent. Although all the plants are technically separate in that each has its own root system, they are collectively considered to be one of the oldest living plant clones. The group of about 500 plants extends for nearly 1 mi. Each plant's life span is around 300 years, but (based on radiocarbon dating) the plant has been cloning itself for at least 44,000 years.

Soul Searching Questions:

Echinoderms (sea star, brittle star, sea cucumber)

The most famous member of phylum Echinodermata is the five-armed sea star (aka, starfish). [More Data Here] Closely related is the brittle star, also with five or more arms which are thinner and more flexible. A cousin to these two is the sea cucumber, which may look like a cucumber lying on the ocean floor. But many species have such a wide variety of forms that they are almost unrecognizable. There are other echinoderms, but these three can reproduce asexually by fission and regeneration. The feature which unites all echinoderms is their five-way radial symmetry from a central axis.

Sea stars and brittle stars have a central disk with arms extending from it. Fission varies by species. Sometimes, one of the arms will just pull itself away. Other times, two groups of arms pull in opposite directions. Some species pinch off one or more arms. In other species, the disk softens and forms a furrow, which grows across the disc and separates the animal into two halves. Normally some part of the disk must be attached to the arms in order for regeneration to proceed. Fission can occur before new arms are fully regenerated, so that fission and regeneration can occur several times a year.

Sea cumbers reproduce asexually by transverse fission into two nearly equal halves. Most use a twisting-and-stretching mode of fission–the anterior and posterior sections slowly rotate in opposite directions, leading to a constriction of the body and separation at the middle. Each half then regenerates the missing part.

Soul Searching Questions:

Planarian Flatworm

Planarians are a type of flatworm in phylum Platyhelminthes. [More Data Here] Most of their relatives are parasites, such as the infamous tape worm. Planarians are cross-eyed, sad-looking animals. The two ocelli are not really eyes, but eye-spots, which can only detect light from dark. In the head is a nerve ganglion or brain, from which are two nerve cords which connect at the tail. In the center of the underside is an input-output mouth, which is connected to a three-branched digestive cavity which runs nearly the full length of the body.

A planarian can reproduce asexually by anchoring its tail-end and pulling forward with its head-end until it tears itself in half. Then the head-end regrows a tail and the tail-end regrows a head. Regeneration is by epimorphosis.

Planarians can completely regenerate from a piece as small as 1/279th of a whole animal (about 10,000 cells). Planarians are constantly remaking themselves. Well-fed animals will continue to grow until full size is reached, while starving animals will de-grow until they are the size of a hatchling.

Soul Searching Questions:

Cnidarian Hydra

Hydras are related to corals and jellyfish in phylum Cnidaria. [More Data Here] Unlike most of the phylum, who are colonial, Hydras are solitary animals. They have a tubular body similar to a balloon. At the closed end is an adhesive pad or foot. At the open end is a mouth, which is surrounded with upto a dozen tentacles, reminiscent of the Hydra of Greek mythology. At the ends of the tentacles are stinging cells which are used to capture food. When threatened, a hydra quickly reshapes its body into an inconspicuous spherical blob. All cnidarians can regenerate, allowing them to recover from injury. But hydras are the ultimate regeneration animal.

Hydras regenerate using morphallaxis. When a hydra is cut into two equal pieces, both parts reshape themselves into complete hydras, each half the size of the original. Once regeneration is complete, the two new hydra can grow to the size of the original hydra. Segments as small as 1/1000th can regenerate into completely new hydras, whose size is relative to the size of the segment. More amazing is that, if a hydra is passed through a gauze sieve and the tiny pieces are left in contact with each other, they regroup to form a hydra of the original size.

Soul Searching Questions:

Budding and Fission

Budding and fission are very similar processes in which one organism grows into two organisms. Budding is asymmetrical and fission is symmetrical. (Fission is called longitudinal fission or longitudinal division relative to multi-celled organisms and binary fission relative to single-celled organisms.) The two resulting organisms are clones and genetically identical.

Budding causes a new organism to grow from, or out of, another one–usually from the middle of the side. The child is smaller than the parent and stays attached, while it grows. Only when the child is fully grown does it detach from the parent organism. Examples of budding organisms are hydras.

Fission causes an organism to split right down the middle–almost like opening a zipper. The two sides remain the same size. As they split the two sides replicate their missing halves. The two organisms are like identical twins, not parent/child. Examples of longitudinal fission are corals.

Human Identical Twins

[Twinning occurs in all placental animals. However, we will focus on human twins.]

Occasionally a single fertilized ovum forms a zygote which divides to form two or more separate embryos during the first two weeks after fertilization. The embyros are called identical and have the same sex:

Identical Frequency
Twins 1 per 400 births
Triplets 1 per 200,000 births
Quadruplets 1 per 80,000,000 births

[Based on my analysis and model of disparate data. Not high confidence level.]

Depending on when the separation happens, the identical twins may develop their own placentas and amniotic sacs, or they may share the placenta but not the amniotic sacs, or they may have only one placenta and amniotic sac. If the division occurs very late the twins will be conjoined:

Placentas Amniotic sacs Frequency Division after fertilization
2 2 29.0% 0: 3 days
1 2 69.0% 3: 8 days
1 1 1.5% 8:12 days
1 1 0.5% 12:13 days Conjoined

Soul Searching Questions:

Conjoined Twins

Conjoined twins are identical twins whose bodies are joined in utero. The old theory is that the fertilized ovum separates only partially. The new theory is a complete split and then stem-cell bridging. This condition occurs in about 1 of 60,000 births. About half are stillborn and a quarter are born alive with fatal abnormalities. The overall survival rate for conjoined twins is approximately 25%. The condition is more frequent for females (75%) than males (25%). About one-third are joined at the stomach and can be successfully separated. About one-third are joined at the chest and cannot be separated because they share one heart–which is able to keep two bodies alive for only a few months or years.

The most unusual conjoined twins are Abigail and Brittany Hensel, born in 1990, living in Minnesota, attending college, in good health, two well-adjusted personalities, like to play sports, have their own driver's licenses, graduated college, want to teach on the elementary level, planning on marriage and children. They are the only known surviving dicephalic twins, with two heads and one body. They are fortunate to have 2 separate hearts and 2 separate spinal columns. Externally they are quite normal with 2 arms and 2 legs–left side controlled by one twin, right side controlled by the other. Internally they have two sets of organs above a Y-shaped small intestine and one set of organs below the Y-shaped small intestine.

Soul Searching Questions:

Sexual Reproduction

Parthenogenesis and Apomixis

Parthenogenesis in animals and apomixis in plants is usually considered a form of asexual reproduction. But I prefer to view it as mono-sexual reproduction–that is, sexual reproduction with just one parent (a mother). This type of reproduction involves the usual sexual process and organs, except that the ovum is never fertilized. The result is haploid [one set of chromosomes] offspring. Parthenogenesis and apomixis occur across the biological spectrum (but not naturally in mammals). Usually, it is used in mixed mode with sexual reproduction at different times of the year. Some species will fertilize some ovum and not others to control the sex of the offspring. A few species are unisex and can reproduce only by parthenogenesis. Rarely, it is just a freak event.

Alternation of Generations

It is natural that we tend to see life from our own particular vantage point. We are diploid (two sets of chromosomes) individuals who occasionally issue haploid (one set of chromosomes) gametes to create new diploid individuals. Ontologically, our gametes are no different than our red and white blood cells–they have no separate existence. Isn't this true for all organisms? Well, NO, it's not.

Almost all life-forms on Earth have alternation of generations by which, for one part of the life-cycle, they are haploid and, for another part of the life cycle, they are diploid. Some organisms are haploid for most of the life-cycle and only briefly diploid. In some species, one sex is haploid while the other sex is diploid. It is incorrect to associate haploid with gametes and diploid with organisms. Both haploid and diploid individuals have souls.

Because of internal fertilization, we think of our haploid gametes as extensions of our organism and not organisms in their own right. But think of all the life-forms which engage in external fertilization. Think of all the life-forms for which both types of gametes are free-swimming. Gametes are independent and autonomous; they have lives of their own. Most of their lives may be short, but who are we to judge how long a life must be in order for it to be meaningful. As individual cells, gametes have souls. But is there something more going on here?

Fusion of Organisms

On the cellular level, the most familiar type of fusion is sexual fertilization, which is the fusion of two haploid (one set of chromosomes) gametes to produce one diploid (two sets of chromosomes) zygote. Cell fusion is also an important process which occurs during differentiation of bone and muscle when the embryo is taking shape. Fusion of multi-celled organisms also occurs. Remember the plasmodial Slime Mold–well, OK, that may or may not be a multi-celled organism. But then there is the strange case of the Anglerfish, which we will look at next, before we get to our main goal in this section–human fusion.

Lophiiformes Anglerfish

Anglerfish are the members of the order Lophiiformes. [More Data Here] The fish are named for the unusual way the females catch their food. They have a long, thin spine protruding from the middle of their head above the eyes. At the end of the spine is a fleshy growth which acts as bait. The spine can be moved in all directions and the bait wiggled to lure other fish close enough for the anglerfish to devour them whole. The jaws are triggered automatically when the prey contacts the spine.

The method of reproduction for many anglerfish is even stranger than the way they feed. Sexual dimorphism is extreme: females may reach a length of 9 in., while males remain under 2 in. When it is mature, the male's digestive system degenerates, making him incapable of feeding independently. Using sensitive olfactory organs, the male detects female pheromones. When he finds a female, he bites into her skin with his otherwise useless teeth and releases an enzyme which digests the skin of his mouth and her body, fusing the pair down to the blood-vessel level and resulting in permanent attachment and a shared circulatory system.

Once fused to a female, the male reaches sexual maturity and develops large testes, while his other organs slowly atrophy–first his digestive organs, then his brain, heart, and eyes. This process ensures a constant supply of sperm when hormones in the female's bloodstream signal ovum release. Several males may attach to the same female, so the hermaphroditic chimera is able to have a greater number of offspring.

Soul Searching Questions:

Human Twins–Multiple Fertilizations

Most twins occur when two separate ovum are fertilized by two separate sperm to form two separate zygotes. In humans, siblings from multiple fertilization is much more common than identical siblings:

Multi-fertilization Frequency
Twins 1 per 52 births
Triplets 1 per 2,700 births
Quadruplets 1 per 140,000 births

[Based on my analysis and model of US data from 1980, before in vitro fertilization and selective reduction.]

This type of twin is as much related to the womb-mate as to any other sibling, younger or older. The twins do not have the same DNA and may not be the same sex:

Sex of Twins Frequency
Sister and brother 50%
Sororal (2 sisters) 25%
Fraternal (2 brothers) 25%

We would get the same results by flipping two coins. Each is 50/50 heads or tails.

Parasitic Twin

There are several conditions in which one twin fails to develop completely and operates as a parasite on the normal twin. The parasitic twin can grow along side the healthy twin or it can grow inside the healthy twin. Depending when the parasitic twin stopped developing, it may be anything from vestigial to almost fully-formed.

The parasitic twin can be considered alive in the sense that its cells have metabolic activity. However, it is totally dependent on and cannot live without the healthy twin. And in many cases, it threatens the life of the healthy twin.

It is difficult to see how such a biological growth can be considered an organism and have a soul. It is not much different from the scientist growing human liver or pancreas cells in a petri dish. Alive, yes; an individual with a soul, no. And this line of reasoning leads to tumors, both benign and malignant. Alive, yes; an individual organism, no–they are completely dependent on their host for blood, oxygen, nutrition. They are also grown in petri dishes. Are they part of our body and animated by our soul, I'm not sure. I guess I see them like viruses–not quite alive.

Vanishing Twin

There are more twins fertilized than born. Loss of a twin appears to be a relatively common occurrence. As many as 1 in 8 pregnancies may start as twins, but about 40% of the time only a single baby is born. Since it is possible for a lost twin leave no detectable trace, it is difficult to know the frequency of vanishing twin syndrome. An ultra-sound exam shows a twin, who later disappears. Option A–One twin dies and is then partially or completely reabsorbed by the other twin or by the mother. Option B–The twins merge and fuse to become one fetus–a human chimera–sort of like conjoined twins.

Human Chimeras

Surreal! How would like to be told that you are NOT the mother of the children to whom you gave birth? But that is exactly what happened to two women in recent years. One mother needed a kidney transplant. DNA testing for compatible donors found she was not the mother of two of her three sons. The other mother, pregnant with her third child, need to prove she was the biological mother of her two older children in order to qualify for government aid. But DNA testing showed she was not the mother of her children. She was charged with welfare fraud and possible kidnapping, and her custody of the children was threatened. A representative of the court was present at the birth of her third child; but nothing changed when DNA testing proved again she was not the mother of the new infant.

Tetragametic (four gamete) chimerism is caused by the fusion of two embryos, each of which originated from the fertilization of a different ovum by a different sperm. (2 + 2 = 4.) The combined organism has two intermingled but genetically distinct populations of cells and DNA. Often, all of the cells of a single cell type or organ will be composed of a single cell line. For example, the liver and heart may come from one cell line, and the kidney and lungs may grow from the other cell line.

The traits of chimerism are subtle: two different eye colors, one hitchhiker's thumb and one straight thumb, “checkerboard” patches of skin which are different hues, differing hair color growing on opposite sides of the body. Most chimeras go through life without realizing their condition because they have none of these characteristics. If the embryos were different sexes, then there is a chance of missing, extraneous, or ambiguous sexual organs–hermaphroditism. But here again, most chimeras with both male and female cells probably do not have an intersex condition because their sexual organs are from the same cell line.

(Identical twins are excluded as chimeras since they originate with a single ovum and a single sperm. And if identical embryos did merge, there would be no way of telling since they have the same DNA.)

Chimerism has been thought to be extremely rare in humans. However it may actually be quite common. No one really knows how many of us are chimeras. There have been about 40 documented cases, but the condition is probably grossly under-diagnosed. Estimates vary wildly. The most reasonable guesses are that 10% to 15% of the population may be chimeras. As the two women featured in the lead paragraph found out, it can take many different DNA tests from many different parts of the body to prove chimerism and motherhood.

Soul Searching Questions:


Fission and Fusion

Take a single-celled organism. It has a soul. What happens when the cell divides by mitoses, as cells are inclined to do? There are now two cells, each about half the size of the original cell and each with its own soul. Was the original soul divided–cut in two pieces or parts? That question has no meaning. It is like division by zero–it is undefined. Understanding what happened to the soul requires understanding the nature of the soul. Let me try a couple of analogies.

The soul is a concept, a quality, a principle, a characteristic, a functionality. In cell fission, each of the resulting single-celled organisms has it own soul. But there is no increase in soulness. Both of the cells has as much soul as it did when it was part of the larger organism. It's like a parent's love for the first four children after the birth of the fifth child–undiminished.

Identical human twins come about when a zygote divides itself into two identical zygotes in the first two weeks of life. The process is not much different than cell mitosis, except that the zygote contains more than one cell. In terms of the soul, the traditional explanation is that conceptually [no pun intended] one zygote is the parent and the other is the child. The parent keeps the original soul and the child gets a new soul. I never found this a satisfactory answer. Is each child the parent of the other? [Reminds me of the science-fiction time traveler who was his/her own grandparent.]

The traditional approach seems to be a case of circular reasoning. And the parent-child thing smacks of Traducianism: the idea that the child's soul comes from the parents. It is a belief which was abandoned by the Church centuries ago. Obviously I prefer my previous explanation in the last paragraph. Each of the identical twins begins separate life with identical souls–souls which have the identical history of the original soul upto that point.

A human chimera comes about when two non-identical twins merge in the womb. I have never heard an explanation of how the souls are supposed to merge. But the simplest way is to envision this as the reverse of identical twin fission–just run the movie backwards. The soul of the chimera has the combined history of the two twin souls.

Cellular slime mold starts life as separate amoebae. Then they join together to form the slug, which transforms itself into a fruiting body. Most of the amoebae die in the process–but not all. The survivors return to their life as amoebae. This is fusion, followed by fission. The rules for the soul are stated above.

Filamentous fungi build a network of interconnected filaments. Occasionally part of the network gets broken off; but both parts continue to grow unimpeded. It is possible for the two parts to grow together and merge eventually. This is fission followed by fusion. The rules for the soul are stated above.

If a flatworm is cut in half longitudinally, the two halves regenerate its missing parts. If the anterior end is cut in two and the split ends kept apart, two heads will form. If the posterior end is cut in two and the split ends kept apart, two tails will form. If the anterior end is split and them the posterior end is split, the result is an animal looking like an N with two heads and two tails. How many souls?

If a hydra is pushed through a gauze sieve and the resulting tissue piled into a small lump, the lump sorts itself out and forms into a hydra with the same dimensions as the original hydra. Does the reformed hydra have the original soul or a new soul? Is a hydra a multi-celled organism or a colony of single-celled organisms?

The conjoined Hensel twins–two organisms or one organism? Although they each have some of their own organs; she has only one set of some of her vital organs. Is this a colony of two, like the angler fish? Or, since they must do everything together, is she just one individual? One soul or two souls? WRONG! Three! Hers, hers, and theirs.


After all this poking and prodding, I must admit that my concept of the organism is very nebulous. The best model or analogy I have found is a common novelty toy–a clear plastic container filled with water and some oil. When the container is inverted the oil slowly rises to the top. The oil changes shape, it separates, it reconnects–it continually changes. This mirrors organisms–the life of individual organisms, the evolution of one kind of organism, the panoply of organisms at a particular time. And this gives rise to questions: Should decisions about what constitutes an organism be based just on physiological appearance and on physical connectedness? Or should it also be based on mode of living and behavior? All these characteristics are equally programmed into DNA.

Single cells have metabolism which makes nourishment and reproduction possible and allows the cells to respond to their environment. They are alive and have souls. But eukaryote cells contain organelles, such as mitochondria and chloroplasts, which have their own DNA, which are descended from autonomous bacteria, and which were engulfed by eukaryotes. Is there any reason why mitochondria and chloroplasts should not have their own souls? This is the first level of hierarchy.

Multi-celled organisms are composed of individual cells, which are in physical contact with one another and which have specialized functions to some degree (at least reproduction). These organisms have nourishment and reproduction and respond to their environment. Meanwhile, the individual cells continue to do their own thing. They are alive and have souls. This is the second level of hierarchy.

In between single-celled organisms and multi-celled organisms lie two other types of organisms: multi-nucleate cells and colonies of single-celled organisms.

The next step up the ladder is multi-celled organisms which form colonies. This is the third and last level of the hierarchy. There are two subtypes: connected and disconnected.

Social colonies can be compared to governments, which range from almost no integration (e.g., United Nations) to complete centralized control (e.g., France). Intermediate examples include the Greek city states, the German Federation, and the Soviet Union.

The evolution of the government of the United States is also illustrative of how social organizations evolve–from a collection of 12 [sic] colonies to the decentralized Articles of Confederation, through a federal government with semi-autonomous states and then a national government with little states rights, to a national government in which the executive has assumed almost complete power over the legislative and judicial branches, including the regulation of the CO2 we exhale and a pay tsar to control the wages we earn.

These organisms have all the functionality of multi-celled organisms except for the fact that they are not physically connected. Members are responsible for various functions–control and direction, food production, shelter against harsh elements, defense against outside predators, policing internal rogue elements, elimination of waste products, reproduction of members, repair of members' health, training of members, transportation and distribution of everything–nutrients, fuel, tools, members.

The Catholic Church teaches us about the Communion of Saints, the Mystical Body, and the Church. Surely these have souls. Remember the words of Jesus: Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there. It sure seems as if temporary prayer groups are social organisms. What about families, schools, companies, municipalities, countries, even sports teams? They all have complex structure. They come together for some purpose, so that the whole can accomplish more than the sum of the parts. They have life cycles just like biological organizations. They have intelligence and memory and they can make decisions–good or bad. They have souls–the type of soul is the question. Let's call them Teilhardian souls.


Life is a continuum across life forms today, from simple one-cell bacteria upto human beings. But there are gaps. Life is a continuum across generations, from extinct life forms upto the biodiversity of today. There are imperceptible changes, but random change there is. I can remember my father telling me about the Missing Link between animals and humans. Well, in the intervening 60 years, they have pretty much filled in more than one missing link. There is now a fairly-convincing and well-established continuum from bacteria 4 billion years ago upto humans at the present time.

But we are still confronted by a huge chasm which we have not been able to cross. It is not a missing link–it is a very long chain. How do we get from organic molecules (amino acids) upto simple bacteria (prokaryotes). How did life get started? There are a lot of ideas being kicked around; but no one has made any convincing progress in demonstrating an answer. However, I am reasonably confident that they will eventually figure it all out–and the solution will not require the hand of God reaching down and stirring the primordial slime with a divine finger.

Evolution is a fact:

The evidence is that physiologically Homo Sapiens evolved from Homo Erectus from 400 upto 250 thousand years ago. However, it was only 50 thousand years ago that Homo Sapiens developed a culture which showed signs of intellectual activity. So it appears that it was during the period from 250 upto 50 thousand years ago that mankind developed or received their rational soul. The question is–was it the instantaneous strike of a lightning bolt or was it an imperceptible glide, flowing over many generations? Or, perhaps, there is no substantial difference between the rational soul and the sensitive soul!!

Source of Souls

Where do souls come from? As I see it there are three options for the source of souls.

Option one (parents):

God infused immortal human souls into two proto-humans (Adam and Eve). But what happened when Adam and Eve's children interbred with cousins, or Adam cohabited with Eve's sister (or Eve with Adam's brother)? What happened when Adam and Eve's clan conquered a neighboring clan; or when their tribe was conquered and assimilated by another tribe? All of Adam and Eve's direct descendants have human souls–OK. But what of the intermarriage of their descendants with others who are not full descendants of Adam and Eve? Do the offspring have 1/2 human souls, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, etc.? For this approach to work God had to infuse souls into a very broad class of humans.

Then next question is when–at what point in history did God infuse human souls? The common ancestor of Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthalensis? The common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees? The common ancestor of primates? Etc.? Did God give human souls to everyone alive at midnight on New Year's Day in 50,000 BC? Or to everyone conceived after that moment? You get the drift. This option is unworkable.

(It also leads to the concept that souls come from parents–Traducianism–an idea rejected by the Church long ago. Further, if human children come only from human parents, what about genetically-engineered human life produced in the laboratory? It hasn't happened yet, but it will some day. Would it have a soul?)

There is a dichotomy in the Church's thinking about the source of souls. The Church teaches that the soul is infused by God and does not come from parents, but that only human offspring get rational souls. Why can't God infuse rational souls into chimpanzees? Most humans are able to inform their souls about the nature of the physical world. Perhaps chimpanzees have rational souls but cannot inform their souls as well as humans. On the other hand, if God picks and chooses who get rational souls, maybe God does not give rational souls to all humans? A huge conundrum.

(This line of thinking can get us into deep trouble. If God picks out souls to give us, perhaps God gave saint souls to John Paul II and Mother Teresa and sinner souls to Stalin, Hitler, and Máo. This would enthrone predestination and destroy free-will. Ouch!)

Option two (DNA):

God infuses immortal souls into individuals which have a certain genetic make-up. The human gnome has 3 billion DNA subunits or bases–each of which can have more than one value. God may be able to keep track of all the combinations, but how do we know who is human and entitled to human dignity and respect. Except for identical twins, we all have different DNA. Perhaps the red-heads or the left-handed are not completely human (as believed 400 years ago) [READ MORE: Devilish Traits], or people with black skin (as believed 200 years ago), or homosexuals (as believed today in some parts of the world).

There are a number of conditions in which individuals are missing or have extra chromosomes:
Most of these chromosomal abnormalities have results which are strikingly similar (at least to me). And most of them have significant effects; although some can only be detected through genetic testing. There are countless other genetic problems which come from aberrations of a few genes, rather than a whole chromosome. Are these individuals not humans with human souls?

Ashkenazi Jews have statistically higher IQs than the ethnic European population average. The residents of Roseto, PA (all from the same southern Italian village of same name) have a heart attack rate less than half that of neighboring towns. Are either of these groups not human because they are different?

Not only is the gene pool of the human race varied, it also (slowly) changes over time. It has done so throughout history and will continue to do so until we go extinct. Where do we draw the line? Is there a line? Or is it a matter of degree–a continuous range?

Option three (spontaneous):

The body and soul are like electromagnetic energy. [EM energy is two forces (electrical and magnetic) traveling through space (but not time) in a synchronized manner such that they reinforce each other. The waves travel at 90º to each other and oscillate so that one is at its maximum when the other is at its minimum, and vice versa.]

The soul animates the body. The body, with its senses and brain, (in the physical world) informs the soul (in the spiritual world) about the real world allowing the soul to refine its intellect and free-will, based on its understanding of the world in which the body exits. The soul is then able to direct the body how to think and act–how to behave. The body is more than a puppet whose strings are pulled by the soul. Without the body, the soul is just a blank slate, an empty glass. The body and soul are mutually co-dependent–they cannot exist without each other. The soul exists outside of time; but it can change, learn, and perfect itself only within time and through the body.

Souls do not grow, but they can develop. They increase in character, wisdom, compassion, (or faith, hope, and charity, if you prefer). These and other virtues are not functions of the biological body, but of the spiritual soul. It is obvious that an infant does not have the same intellect and free-will as a typical adult. We (western Catholics) make children wait until they reach the age of reason before receiving most of the sacraments. It is also clear that all adults do not develop their souls to the same degree.

Aristotle and Aquinas understood this, although today most establishment theologians have abandoned this relativistic concept of the soul in favor of a discrete off-on or zero-one dichotomy. Aristotle believed organisms have higher functionality due to their more developed soul. Aquinas held that the soul progresses from vegetative to rational as the organism develops sufficiently to accept the higher level. I'd put my money on Aristotle and Aquinas any day.

Obviously some bodies are better equipped to interpret the physical world for their souls. The factors which affect the quality of the communication between the body and soul include: genetic make-up, life experience, physiological impairment. To me this model of the body-soul dynamic makes the most sense. It has the flexibility to handle all humans. It encompasses everyone alive today, everyone as far back as the dawn history, and everyone in the future of our evolution. It includes those who have been still-born and those who have traveled the world. It contains the great creative geniuses and all those in a persistent vegetative state.

Material Souls Vs. Spiritual Souls

The claim that there is a discrete difference between the material soul of plants and animals and the spiritual soul of humans reminds me of the Gnostics who claimed there were different classes of humans–the god-like elect and the animal-like dammed.

The boundaries between humans and animals or animals and plants are not clearly delineated. In my view, there are no boundaries–it is just a continuous range, varying in qualitative degree. The capacities of animal souls range from that of plants upto almost that of humans. And positing the obvious evolutionary development of the human race, at some point in the past there was a continuous spectrum of functionality or soul between animals and humans. And it could happen again in the distant future. (We have at least a few billion years before the Sun incinerates the surface of the Earth.)

Animals are more aware of their environment than plants and interact better with it. Animals with central nervous system are superior to protozoa and hydras; their sensory organs allow better understanding of world. Humans have capacity to be aware of the spiritual universe. They understand it to a limited degree and can interact with it. In a few more million years, humans, or our descendants, will be much more adept at perceiving and understanding the spiritual realm.

Universal and Eternal Souls

If you are still with me then let's take the next step–actually a giant leap. We have two options.

Option A:

We can try to develop a very refined, sophisticated sieve or filtering mechanism about who has an immortal soul (and thus who gets into heaven). Which proto-humans are admitted and which are locked out?–impossible to determine because there is no bright line separating them. When does human life begin: gametes, fertilization, implantation, gastrulation, viability, birth, age of reason, legal emancipation?–each of these have been advocated. Which animals belong to the protected class of the intelligent–chimpanzees, dolphins?–there is no discrete boundary. This direction just leads to frustration.

Option B:

Open the flood gate–eliminate the boundary condition–posit that every biological organism has an eternal soul. What?!?! Are you crazy, man?! Nope. [Even nut jobs can have good ideas.] Look around at the physical Universe in which we live. Consider the great biodiversity of life. Do humans need earthworms to pass through the gates of heaven? What about slime molds or jelly-fish? God has junked-up the world with a lot of unnecessary organisms.

Observe the planet, the solar system, the galaxy, the Universe–are they not all virtually a complete waste of time and energy? The entire biomass of Earth is puny relative to the inorganic mass of rock, dirt, and water. And Earth is a speck of dust relative to the Milky Way galaxy, which in turn is just one of billions of galaxies. [That's why the ancients had such a hard time coming to grips with the vastness of space and the enormity of planets and stars. They saw God as a frugal and efficient creator.]

Why did God create all this unnecessary stuff? Why would God do such a useless and wasteful thing? I do not have a clue why God would be so frivolous and profligate–from our limited perspective. But since God did create all this superfluous matter, it is not impossible to believe that the same God could clutter heaven with the soul of every bacterium and blade of grass which ever existed. And why not? What does it cost us? Yah, it offends our sensibilities. We are superior to flatworms.

Recall the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. We should not be jealous of God's extravagance and beneficence to other creatures. Since plants with vegetative souls have no intellect or will, their souls could exist in the afterlife, but they would have no appreciation of God. They would exist like zeros or empty glasses. Most of the animal sensitive souls in heaven would also be empty glasses, but so what? And we might be surprised how many of those glasses are not completely empty.

The concept that some souls would be better able to appreciate the beatific vision is no different than the fact that some creatures better able to appreciate physical Universe. Outrageous–God would never discriminate like that. Well, those who believe in angels generally accept that, since they are pure spirits, angels have a greater capacity to know and understand God than any of us mere mortals can ever possess. And even among the human race we find that God seems to play favorites. Some have easier lives; some have harder lives. Some are highly intelligent; some are as dumb as sticks. But all of us can appreciate God at 100% of our capacity.

This universal, eternal soul concept would:

Now, I am not going to try to write a complete manual of morality and ethics–at least not here. [Even I'm not that good.] But I will give a few examples, after describing the new yard-stick or moral imperative.

The new summum bonum or Pareto optimum is giving every organism the chance to reach its maximum potential, while not degrading the opportunity of other organisms. The maximum potential being defined in terms of the perfection of soul and its intellect and free-will. That is, filling up the glass as high as possible. It is recognized that not all organisms have the same potential. Further organisms with high potential can always go further–they never reach their full potential. Perhaps the greatest good any organism can do is help other organisms achieve their ultimate potentials.

Example #1–What to eat. There are two basic types of organisms: autotrophs, which produce their own food by photosynthesis (aka, plants), and heterotrophs, which get their nutrition from other organisms (aka, animals). Everyone reading these words is a heterotroph, we must eat other organisms to survive. There are two or three types of heterotrophs: herbivores (eat plants), carnivores (eat animals), and omnivores (eat both). Humans are classified as omnivores, but our ability to get nutrition from plants is severely limited. We cannot digest leaves and grass. We need to eat animal flesh for protein and fat.

We can make up a hierarchy of life forms which corresponds in gross terms to the food chain and to evolutionary history:

plants, fungi, insects, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals.

And within each class we can establish a pecking order of dumb herbivores, alert carnivores, and clever omnivores. But the fact is that, in terms of soul and its development, the curve is very flat until we get to our end of the list. There does not seem to be any difference between the souls of spinach and carrots and the souls of cows and sheep. The glass is not just empty–it is completely dry.

Example #2–When life begins. The issue of elective human abortion has divided our society more than any since slavery. Although the forces of life are slowly winning the war, the battles ebb and flow. Both sides have tried to establish the benchmark for the beginning of life during human development. (Half a dozen were listed above. Fertilization is the only one which fits every organism on Earth which practices sexual reproduction.)

[The latest absurdity is the claim that life begins at gastrulation (16 days after fertilization in humans), because the father's chromosomes have been largely dormant previously. The business end of trees is or are the leaves which provide all the nutrition through photosynthesis. Yet each winter, deciduous trees shed all their leaves and become largely dormant. They are still trees; they are still alive; they still have souls. Dormant does not mean dead.]

The universal, eternal soul concept gets around the issue of when life begins by focusing on human potential. Every human being, regardless of the stage of development, has the potential to be another John Paul II or Mother Teresa–or even more. Every individual deserves the opportunity to achieve moral greatness. To deliberately abort that human potential without a damn good reason is an attempt to cheat God.

Example #3–War and Peace. [coming later]

In any event, the concept of a universal, eternal soul is worth thinking about. Perhaps in six months, like my coworker and the theological time-line, you will come to recognize this concept as a great insight. [READMORE: God's-eye view of history]


It all comes down to four short sentences:

Keep in mind that God is the source of all creation and that time (and space) are part of that creation.

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