Birds, bacteria, and complex human identities

This is a post about collective action.

But let’s rewind to the beginning.

Bacteria are weird birds: instead of having a specific audible call that allows them to identify members of their own species — “Me! I am here! I am me! I am here!”—bacteria emit and receive an identifying chemical which tells them whether enough of their own kind are in the same place, in which case they can justify spending energy on individual action which translates into collective action (this is called “quorum sensing”, see video below).

One chemical for an entire species.

Within such a group, in and through their chemical language, they are all the same.

Human language is incredibly complex. Why would we need such a complex mesh of meaning to identify ourselves and identify others? We could also ask the question in a way that puts us in a more passive position: what justifies such complexity for the purpose of being identified, being made visible, audible to other participants in the medium of language, more or less consciously and intentionally?

One answer might be that identification is only one function of language and so you wouldn’t expect its complexity to be justifiable solely by that.

But consider the implications and consequences of identity rephrased not just as a superficial label, but as a characterization of who we are, how we relate to others, what trajectory we are on, who we share experiences with, what we want to work towards: by that meaning, it becomes difficult to draw a boundary around identity and separate it from aspects of life independent of it.

When I say, through my varied elaborately assembled audible or visible sculptures, strings of words, signs: “this is me, I am here” and, through the responses I receive, I feel seen and accepted: that is a connection, a first step towards acting together.

Birds find each other over long distances. “Come over here!”

Bacteria team up for collective action when they’ve reached a sufficient density. “We are many.”

And humans?
How do we act collectively?

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