Tuesday, August 5, 2008

What the tick knows

This has been a bumper year for ticks. They are usually worst here in the spring and early summer. By August the population dwindles—thanks, I suppose, to drier weather and all the hungry young birds. But this year is an exception. The woods are literally crawling with dog ticks along with their accompanying “seed” ticks, which are far more annoying. These infant ticks are so tiny you can hardly see them until after they’ve gorged themselves on your blood. Sometimes you’ll look down to find a swarm of them crawling up your shoes. I’ve always been a tick magnet, ever since I was a kid, so I ought to be used to pulling the little bastards off by now, but they still disgust me.

I was extracting a stubborn little guy recently, and remembered a debate I once had with a friend. She absolutely refused to believe that the little brown ticks and the blobby gray ticks were the same bugs, pre-and post-prandium. This was before the days of instant bet settling with Google, so I never was able to convince her.

I was a little exasperated with her at the time, but her skepticism actually makes perfect sense—how could two such radically different things be the same creature? More to the point, why is it that I think they are the same creature? Why do I perceive a persistent identity between skinny tick and fat tick, given that they appear so radically different? I feel that my perception is simple, intuitive, ineluctable—but, of course, my friend felt the same way about her perception.

We confront this problem a thousand times a day, and we are oddly arbitrary about how we solve it. On the one hand, we’re very prone to assigning persistent identity to people. Most everyone (including me) would say I am the same being now that I was in the first grade. Likewise, I’d be the same person if I gained 400 pounds or became severely brain damaged. The person Maria Browning will even persist when I’m dead and buried—anyone who assumes my name and social security number will be said to have “stolen” my identity.

One the other hand, we’re much more fickle about the identity of things. Scarlett’s curtains and her dress are different entities, in spite of the fact that their substance is identical. Ears of corn and tortillas are different things. An acorn and an oak are different things, though everyone recognizes their connection. We can’t seem to decide whether their human counterparts—fetus and infant—are the same thing, which just shows how muddled our thinking is on the whole issue.

Philosophers have spent a lot of time puzzling over this one, and it causes us a lot of emotional agony. Even though we’re desperate to hang onto our individual identities—we order our entire existence around them--the inevitable changes in the organism assault our confidence in who and what we are.

Aging is the universal change that seems to throw everyone into a tizzy, as we each try to reconcile the transformation of decay with the static concept of “me.” Everyone deals with it differently. Some of us do battle with the flesh. Others try to tweak their behavior and ideas to fit the changing form without surrendering some fundamental sense of self. A few people just refuse to engage the issue and go on believing themselves to be children well into withered old age—which may keep them happy, but causes a lot of trouble for the people around them.

Which brings me back to the tick. The tick does not have this identity problem. Nothing in nature has this problem, except us. Not that identity is never an issue for the rest of the world. Deer have to know the difference between poisonous snakeroot and all the similar-looking greenery that is good to eat. The natural world is filled with deceivers and identity thieves, from the harmless scarlet snake who mimics the deadly coral snake, to the cowbird who sneaks her eggs into other birds’ nests.

But those practical, real-time identity problems are different from the one we inflict on ourselves when we recoil from the crumbling face in the mirror. The tick doesn’t mourn the loss of her figure, and she doesn’t have intimations of her own mortality as she happily sucks away someone else’s blood. She doesn't wish she could do anything over or be the girl she once was. She doesn't wonder whether she's "authentic" or leading a purpose driven life. She simply is what she is at every moment, and she changes without protest or resistance.

Photo of lone star tick from Wikimedia Commons.


Bozo said...

I love this piece. And it's an important issue. People went to the stake during the Reformation for wondering aloud how Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit could be both "joint and several" as the church fathers said.

BitterGrace said...

Thanks, Bozo. I am grateful to have readers who are willing to entertain tick blather!

This question has always fascinated me, especially as regards personal identity. It was my fixation as a philosophy undergrad.