(For this project I’m using, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text1).
1 Nephi 1:1
Nephi opens the first chapter of The Book of Mormon identifying himself as the author of what follows, establishing who it is that writes and credentials the books of Nephi. The ‘I’ signals a first person account and confirms that an ‘I,’ a single individual, a unique self, will provide the viewpoint from which the text will be positioned. This account will be from Nephi’s perspective.
Nephi calls to us, “I Nephi,” a yawp that signals to us his existence in the world. He pulls himself out of the background and presents himself. He stands forth. As messenger. As writer. I Nephi. I. Am. Nephi. Like a robin singing in the spring, he is marking a boundary of exclusion (This is my territory/No one else is responsible for these my writings) and offers an invitation (come join with me to make a nest, I am strong/I call to you to give you of my self, of my learning, of things I learned from God). I Nephi. The establishment of an ‘I‘ is one of the requisite moves that life made to kickstart its evolutionary trajectory on Earth. To evolve, there must be individuals that survive. That survival is conditioned on selection among variants of those traits that best equip an organism to deal with the messiness of life. It also must be possible to pass these winning traits to its descendants. To get off the ground (to come forth out of the ground?), life needed to protect its metabolic machinery and its genetic resources for building that machinery. Once protected evolution could begin with a vengeance. That is why the cell wall was a game-changing innovation. Its arrival created an inside (where the stuff that makes it work could be protected) and an outside. A ‘me’ and a ‘not me.’ There were brought into the world individuals, not a soup or a foam of some sort. (Let me forestall you from invoking the ‘God of the Gaps’ here. True, this step is not clearly understood fully by science, yet inroads are being made, and there are currently multiple theories of how life could get started, and I expect progress will continue to be made until solutions become apparent. I’m wagering that the question of how life got started will not be a problem for your grandchildren’s generation.) Passing information (and material like food, nutrients, and other useful chemicals) from outside the ‘I‘ into the inside of ‘myself’ has been one of the great innovations of life. All of the senses evolved to take advantage of this inside/outside distinction as a way to get useful information about the outside world inside, so that mechanisms within the individual have a way to react to the representations they receive in survival-enhancing ways. If you see a delicious fruit, pick it and eat it. Within the ‘I’ are mechanisms to keep out those things that don’t belong. The entire immune system is designed to recognize self from non-self2. Keeping the ‘I‘ an ‘I,‘ takes tremendous metabolic resources because much wants to dissolve it. But maintaining the self is critical if things like traits, modes, information, etc. are to be passed to the next generation. Evolution requires the individual. Making the individual possible is how life got off the ground. When Nephi says ‘I.’ He is drawing on a long evolutionary history that makes this possible.
In understanding what life will be like in the Antropocene and how The Book of Mormon informs that, we need to know something about life and its individuated nature. This individuality is vital. Despite a self’s complex and multiple contents and internal ecosystems, it is still one thing in the world. Still individual.
Well, we are not off to a very rapid start on our reading, but two words is a beginning–A journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step and all that.
1. Skousen, R. (2009). The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text: Yale University Press.
2. Pradeu, T. (2012). The Limits of the Self: Immunology and Biological Identity: Oxford University Press, USA.