When you work within the Anatomy in Clay curriculum and use the special clay to craft parts of the body, it’s easy to think of those body systems as distinct and self-contained. The digestive system, for instance, runs from the esophagus to the anus and that’s that.
But researchers are finding that there is much more than meets the eye. They are helping to redefine anatomy as a study of something that may be decidedly less distinct and self-contained.
For instance, the digestive system is impacted by levels of neurochemicals and hormones which may fluctuate first in our brains. It is also awash with bacteria that may or may not occur naturally in our guts. Sure, some bacteria aren’t welcome and might create sickness and discomfort. But others are important to our digestive health; keep these phenomena in mind as you are rolling out the colon.
The skin is similarly inhabited by other organisms—such as fungi. Robert Macfarlane writes eloquently about fungi and its anatomy in his book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey.
He asks questions that stretch the very definition of anatomy as well as evolution. The answers dwell not in the certainty of black and white, but in the grey area of possibility and second looks.
Consider the honey fungus or Armillaria solidipes, in Oregon. It measures two and a half miles at its widest and covers a span of four square miles. (Try mapping that in an Anatomy in Clay class!) It’s the largest and one of the oldest known organisms on Earth. Scientists estimate that it is 1,900-8,650 years old.
Fungi are essential to the health of forest. They acquire needed nutrients from trees like carbon while the trees get phosphorus and nitrogen from the fungi. Thanks to the fungal network, trees can communicate and help each other to be more resilient to disease, like beetle bark infestations.
While it’s important to dissect (literally and figuratively) and break things down for closer inspection, it’s equally important to step back for the broader view.
Macfarlane, who won the Wainwright Prize (awarded annually for the best work of outdoors, nature and United Kingdom based travel writing) also helps us look again at evolution. Do we want to reconsider the meaning of “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection” as having most to do with a species’ place in the massive network of its environment and how well it gets along?
In this light, mutualism or mutual dependence, might bear more weight when it comes to the longevity prospects of any species.
Writes Macfarlane: “Nature seems increasingly better understood as an assemblage of entanglements. Our bodies as habitats of hundreds species of which homo sapiens is only one, our guts as jungles of bacterial flora, our skins as blooming fantastically with fungi.”
Macfarlane credits evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis for considering humans as “collaborative compound organisms.” And he praises philosopher Glenn Albrect for dubbing our lives as “ecological units consisting of trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that coordinate the task of living together and sharing a common life.”
So the next time you parse your clay into heart, gut, and muscle, keep in mind all the interesting features that you know about but may go unseen, at least for now.