There is no basic agentive biological unit. But the cell is the unit of choice. So let’s look at the basic organismic atom—the cell.
But the cell gets props because it is so damn responsive. Organelles are responsive but only inside their functional channels; they are too self-absorbed to know how to compensate for their insufficiency, for dependencies they cannot take care of through their own action. Organelles are, by themselves, unable to supply or acquire the conditions for their survival. They are parasitic on other products of work. They are symbiotic, and this is why they are such good team players inside the cell.
Now, take a human body cell. Poor fella won’t last a minute outside the body. Throw a skin cell, or a neuron, or a chief cell into the wild and it will promptly die.
Throw an amoeba, and it will thrive. Oh mighty amoeba, greatest of all the cells! You are the cell become autonomous agent! Oh amoeba—you are a cell, but also a nomad. Always flying through spacetime:
Also the Holy One came upon me, and I beheld a white swan floating in the blue.
Between its wings I sate, and the æons fled away.
Then the swan flew and dived and soared, yet no whither we went.
A little crazy boy that rode with me spake unto the swan, and said:
Who art thou that dost float and fly and dive and soar in the inane? Behold, these many æons have passed; whence camest thou? Whither wilt thou go?
And laughing I chid him, saying: No whence! No whither!
The swan being silent, he answered: Then, if with no goal, why this eternal journey?
And I laid my head against the Head of the Swan, and laughed, saying: Is there not joy ineffable in this aimless winging? Is there not weariness and impatience for who would attain to some goal?
And the swan was ever silent. Ah! but we floated in the infinite Abyss. Joy! Joy!
White swan, bear thou ever me up between thy wings!
O silence! O rapture! O end of things visible and invisible! This is all mine, who am Not.
The amoeba knows two things:
- Moseying around
- Recoiling upon contact with non-food
This action of the amoeba cannot be unique to it. All cells are recoilers.
Conclusion: Our bodies are made of tiny recoilers! A person is a walking conglomerate of 40 trillions recoiling but lame amoebas.
The amoeba is a cell person. A self-sufficient and agentive cell.
The human is a colony of symbiotic invalids. Yet in their memory, when they were individuals, they were eaters and recoilers, expanders and retractors. Our constant state of existential anxiety makes us all chronic psychological retractors. Even whole-organism executive consciousness identifies with the body, and is always poised for flight, which is just whole-organism retraction. The basic orientation towards space of the survival-capable cell is one of retraction. This is one quality that has been transmitted through all the stages of emergent complexity—right up to the social.