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50 Trillion Versions Make Up the Puzzle of You

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50 Trillion Versions of You… or more! No matter how many times we hear that number. No matter how easily the words spin off our lips. It’s so big we can probably never grasp it in a practical way. But it’s a number we really should think about. It’s about the number cells in the evolved contraption we know as our bodies. 

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

By David Stone

Assorted Ideas, Large & Small

550 Trillion Versions of You is an excerpt from A Million Different Things: Meditations of the World’s Happiest Man.

Each of us is different, of course, and no one has or ever will count them all. Future generations will arrive at a more exact count. But if the average turns out to be thirty, sixty or even a hundred-trillion, the organization and coordination among them will still seem miraculous. 

After a few hundred billion, the numbers have no meaning anyway. They’re too vast. 

It’s sort of like the perception I have when the temperature is five or ten degrees below zero. I can’t tell the difference from one degree to the next. Cold is cold, and an unimaginable number remains just as incomprehensible as it gets larger.  Fifty-trillion cells going about their business, mostly designed to operate without conscious management. 

The amazing thing is, although born with identical DNA, each still goes on to a specific purpose. As if they know which must get down to the business of building muscle and which must generate bone marrow. 

Lung cells produce lubricants hour after hour, day after day, without our posting a single memo or calling a meeting. Other cells get involved as distant bronchiole interact with blood cells near our hearts to trade oxygen for carbon dioxide. 

Fluids and temperatures harmoniously adjust

The oxygen flows through our blood streams all the way out to the tiniest capillaries in our feet and hands. They fuel metabolic engines, before veins carry back carbon dioxide, our blood now fouled and blue. Waste is shipped back to our lungs to be exhaled in a future breath. 

50 Thousand versions of you, DNA helix
50 Trillion Versions of You, DNA in every cell…

This version that doesn’t do justice to the dance of molecules working ceaselessly to generate energy that lets us live. Whole textbooks are devoted to the finely tuned details. It happens from the moment we’re born until our last breath. Unless we get into trouble, we never think about it.   Thousands of activities take place simultaneously. And in actual coordination, each knows enough about the others to adjust accordingly. 

Fluids and temperatures harmoniously adjust according to conditions. Mishaps occur, of course, and the chain reactions can be catastrophic. 

Yet, when we stop to think about all that is going on, even in the relatively simple process of transferring an idea to my fingers where they rest on a keyboard as I watch words appear on a screen and as I also cook up the next, connecting idea, a glimpse of the miracle of this wet machine begins to take shape. 

When we take it a step further and recognize that all those other millions of unrelated interactions continued simultaneously, it would be next to impossible to find a more apt definition of mind-boggling.     Our default way of seeing ourselves is as a collection of macro objects: arms, legs, mouth, etc, connected but independent. 

In the musical Hair, Claude joyfully declares his body parts in the song, I Got Life. For Claude and The Tribe, it’s an exclamation of wondrous discovery. 

50 Trillion Versions of You, An Impressive Operation

It’s an impressive operation, ordinarily taken for granted, when our legs carry us along above our cushioning feet while our arms swing or stiffen or search for tunes on our iPods. 

Claude throws off shackles to proclaim his affection for the body the world he grew up in wants him to stay silent about. “I got my ass!” he sings in a happy phrase. 

We get the message that he won’t be taking any of it for granted any longer.   When the show was still fresh and confrontational and not promoted as a close to the mainstream celebration of life, when its wrenching Vietnam war theme was contemporary and physical inhibitions were being blown apart, I went to see Hair at Shea’s in Buffalo. 

Ushers in blue jeans and ragged shirts taunted ticket-holders in the aisles. One insulted an older gentleman by fanning the scent of his exposed armpit in his direction. 

“You talk like you’ve been around for a thousand years,” he taunted. 

By the time Hollywood got hold of it and churned out a doctored, mass audience version in movie theaters, the show was cringe-worthy in its use of clichés and La La Land tackiness. Such is how rebellion filters down, diluted enough for Omaha.  

The greatest miracle of all…

Social networking and the immediacy of the internet are changing the mechanics, but because successful evolution engages protective filters, we will find ways to slow and smooth the bumps and grinds of change. The evolution of wisdom is too important to become a disorienting slugfest.  

Returning to the microscopic interactions that make each of us possible physically, I want to dip sideways long enough mention the generally accepted estimate that ninety percent of the cells making up the fluid operations we think of as a human body are nonhuman cells.   


Yes, ninety percent of the cells that make up the operations known as you and me as we walk, talk, eat and sleep are not human. 

Bacteria in vast numbers perform the rituals of digestion in our intestines. Viruses and fungi exist comfortably on and under our skin. Organisms without human DNA assist in making ingested nutrients usable for vital operations, providing essential bridges between dissimilar cells. 

The reason we are not aware of being outnumbered is that the human cells are, on average, much larger, and as a result, our bodies are more human than not in volume. We’re just lucky our bodies are not democracies, one cell, one vote.    We are an all powerful monarchy with a king or a queen dispatching orders, with chemical and electrical pathways, recognizing, organizing and maintaining the whole shebang, from the lowliest toenail growth to the highest impulse to search for gods. 

This monarch gets no days off. Never granted the leisure of a quiet soak in a soothing bath. An interesting thing happens if he or she decides to quit. 

Conclusion: 50 Trillion Versions of You

The rest of the kingdom collapses in rapid sequence. It comes to a chilly halt as all the operations cease, one by one.   Who really is in charge here? When did we last order the bacteria in our small intestines to team up with our pancreases to digest lunch or to build the scaffolding known as our immune systems? 

When did we tell the clusters of spongy cells that make up our brains to enact the process of changing connections to adjust for new thoughts and where to store fresh information and recent memories?    The greatest miracle of all may be that so much goes on – in fact, almost everything goes on – without our awareness or intervention. It’s one of those givens. It all just works, as does the physical environment outside and connected to us. We touch, we feel, we hear, we see.All of it enters our brains in such an unstoppable deluge that, here we go again, we have evolved a method for looking at only a necessary smidgen of it.  Management by exception. It’s why we have an unconscious anyway. 

Forget how badly some of us manage our invisible lives. Try getting your thoughts around the work of looking at and analyzing everything in every moment consciously. 

A day may come when we have enough brain capacity and awareness to do so, assuming evolution sees the value, but we are many, many miles from that place now. 


50 Trillion Versions of You…

As it stands, our minds are gems of efficiency, managing interlocked systems of massive complexity. We installed this perfect assistant, one who doesn’t bother us with any but the big things that we must know and decide about. The rest our assistant files and assigns without bothering our reverie, and life goes on.    On the other hand, if our brains house incredible assistants, we still haven’t decided who threw that rock.  

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