Our plastic essence

India’s characteristic is « evanescence, » wrote Hegel. This image may surprise us if we confront it with the contemporary Indian reality. But Hegel was aiming for something else: to capture the spirit of India’s ancient religion.

Between transience, brevity and immateriality, evanescence is a terminal transformation, a final metamorphosis. Within the world, at the heart of reality itself, the evanescent form becomes subliminal, gradually impalpable. It constantly dissolves until it disappears completely. In this way it is likely to serve as a visible metaphor for invisible transcendence. Hence the idea of India.

Evanescence challenges matter, its weight, its durability. It escapes any assimilation, any seizure. In short, it is the exact opposite of what happens in any vital process. In the life of nature as in the life of the spirit, the essential thing is assimilation, the transformation of what comes from the outside into something internal, the ingestion of the other into the same. What is evanescent cannot be ingested, assimilated, by life, since it is nothingness that primarily absorbs it, engulfs it.

Evanescence is intended to be total, complete. But for a long time, from the « vanished » thing, there is still a small remnant, which no longer offers enough material for assimilation, and which resists nothingness. The evanescent weakly signals that something has happened, that something has almost completely disappeared, and continues to wave, in the form of a shadow, echo, effluvium, or some imperceptible nuance affecting the background of the set.

By refusing to resist its disappearance, evanescence gives hope for reversibility. It retains a potential for regeneration, reactivation.

Under certain conditions, the evanescent can indeed regain form, return to the world, return to life.

Evanescence is an eminently plastic metaphor. Everything dissolves and everything takes on a new form.

This is why we may be tempted to compare it to another metaphor, that of « genetic plasticity », which often serves as an image for the fundamental plasticity of life.

The implementation of the genetic program is not a linear process. RNAi (i for « interfering ») has the property of « interfering » with protein coding. We must abandon the notion of a « genetic program » that is too mechanical, too determined.

Even more surprisingly, it is now necessary to recognize the possible reversibility associated with the program. Already adult cells can continue to be transformed, de-differentiated, deprogrammed and reprogrammed into new stem cells to obtain either totipotent cells (embryonic cells), multipotent cells (adult cells from the same tissue) or pluripotent cells (adult cells from other tissues).

Until recently, this plasticity of life was unsuspected. The consequences are staggering. We can awaken the sleeping potential of adult cells, reprogram them to behave like totipotent cells. Stem cells can be made by diverting olfactory bulb cells to fight Parkinson’s disease, in order to regenerate the areas of the brain affected by the disease.

The « plastic » possibilities of these genetic interference mechanisms are infinite.

Just over 25,000 genes in the human genome code for proteins. They represent only 2% of the genome. But there are also thousands of genetic sequences encoding RNAi whose function is to regulate the expression of these 25,000 genes encoding proteins. It can be assumed that these genetic sequences can themselves be regulated by similar mechanisms. And so on and so forth.

The genome is therefore not a « program », stable, determined in the cybernetic sense of the term. It is eminently mobile, plastic, metamorphic. It has all kinds of means to reprogram itself, and therefore to modify its coding action, means and ends, according to the conditions encountered. The metaphor of the « programme » is not suitable to account for this complexity, which escapes determinisms, and which never ceases to leave all their place to contingency, fortune, hazards, without however being durably dominated by them.

It is as if a higher intelligence or a deep instinct, apparently unconscious, constantly took full advantage of the chance thus systematically produced, and thereby constantly shaped the new means of survival, and perhaps even the new ends of life.

The metaphors of totipotency, pluripotency and multipotency refer to the concept of « intermediate » (in Greek: metaxu), in the sense given to it by Plato in the Banquet. The genome is a kind of metaxu, capable of all metamorphoses. It contains, hidden in the entangled regulatory cycles, a potential for variation that never ceases to apply to itself, varying the conditions of variation of the variation, transforming the conditions of transformation of the conditions of transformation, to infinity.

We can only describe from the outside, and very approximately, this phenomenal stacking, and seek to observe through experience some of its actual possibilities. But we are unable to grasp its deep essence.

Is it already a little better to try to grasp this essence than to call it a « mystery », for want of a better word?