It is the whole elephant that is sick, not just its trunk How the insanity of specialisation turned me into a chronic, serial pill popper

2017-11-15 00:00:05

These days, when I go to a doctor, I feel like the elephant that was analysed by five blind men. I get shunted from the trunk-lady to the foot-dude who consults the tail-gal who speaks to the ear-guy who phones up the mahout.  

Each selectively tests everything from my teeth enamel to my toe nails. Each gives me five different types of medication specific to each person’s specialisation.  

They attack my wallet to the tune of fifty thousand rupees and turn me into a chronic, serial pill popper. Almost, I want to tap them on their shoulders and whisper “people, it is the whole darn elephant that is sick, not the elephant’s trunk. That is only diseased. Curing that will only cure the disease not the sickness”. I know it won’t do any good though. Specialization has blinded these people and telling them they are blind won’t give them back their sight. Nor will it give sight to those who equally blindly believe in these sightless scientific surgeons when they poke and prod at people, ideas and things, hitting a few, missing a lot and mostly destroying the things on which their intellectual scalpels land.  

I’ve written about this many times in many ways but this line of thinking started some fifteen years ago because of a casual statement made by an American busker (and biochemist) named Stewart on the banks of the Huron river at the University of Michigan.  

My guitar and his harmonica were talking to each other under a bower of maple, linden and aspen blazing their autumn shades off caramelized leaves. 

On one of the breaks from the music he waved his hand to take in the red-gold forest and casually said “AJ, did you know that most trees are standing on their heads?” and I’m like “huh?”.
He shrugged. “Think about it, most of them absorb nutrients through their roots and excrete oxygen and water vapour through stomata in their leaves”. hmm?! That was a new one for me although Stu’s observation is as old as the hills.  

“I’ve never thought of them that way before” I said as I put my guitar down. As I pondered what he said, something triggered, something kindled, something became. “mmm… so too is the tree of knowledge”. He’s like “huh?”

“Think about it” I said. 
“The source energy of the knowledge tree comes from the roots. Not the trunk, large branches, sub-branches, twigs, leaves or fruit. Those are the outcomes of processing root nutrients not the source of the nutriment itself. We cannot truly know anything by going up that tree. We must climb down from its sub-branches to bigger branches to large branches to massive branches to trunk to root. Each lower level providing baser, greater, wider levels of understanding as to why the entire tree from root to fruit exists”.  

Stu had this habit of rapidly popping his lips when he is thinking of something and he popped away for a long time, his double barrelled harmonica forgotten before he said (paraphrased)  
“So a huge branch would be the physical sciences, a big branch would be chemistry, a smaller one would be biochemistry, a twig would be Lipids, a leaf would be cholesterol and a fruit would be the finding that cholesterol is bad. So if a biochemist says cholesterol is bad, that finding is the excrement of some fundamental food intake of a form and source that chemistry knows nothing about?”.  
I nodded vigorously. “And, here’s the thing. You will have to drill down below chemistry to figure out if your conclusion about cholesterol is good shit or not. You have to know the reason why the massive branch of the physical sciences exists in the first place since chemistry is merely a sub-branch. That will give you a minor paradigm shift like the crossover from Newtonian to Quantum mechanics. But that is not enough. One level lower you land on the trunk which is a large paradigm shift such as those being proposed by the meta-physicists and noetic scientists. That won’t’ cut it either. You will have to mosey down to the root like the wise and the spiritualists do.

If you break a car into its component parts, you can understand exactly how it works and if you put it back together it will come back alive. Here is the fallacy: If you do that to a dog, once it is put back together it will remain dead

“Those feed off a plethora of nutrients that enable them to reflect, assimilate, consolidate, reject, interact, intermesh and direct their ever growing insight and understanding of wholes within wholes. Only then can one stabilize knowledge and obtain key clues as to how the food and why the waste”.  
I pulled out a piece of paper from my backpack and hastily sketched the figure that I have recreated here. He studied it, engaging in some very serious lip-popping.  

“You just now cooked this up?”

“Well yeah, because of what you said, but it’s pretty obvious and I am sure there are others who’ve come to the same conclusion before me Stu”.  

He shook his head. “No. This is simpler. Damn it man, following your reasoning, all that we have been doing for a long time is showering the world with shit. AJ? That’s some serious shit you are claiming and the thing is – it makes sense. We are no longer seekers, we are just excrement manufacturers”.  
Soon after, I returned to Sri Lanka and Stu?…well… I dunno. But folks, if all that French was confusing, let me try to explain this a bit more.  

For 400 years, we have refused to believe that understanding exists at the root of the knowledge tree and conveniently messed around with twigs, leaves and fruits trying to stand it on its head.  
Valiantly, we have attempted to legitimize the case for calling it’s excretory organ its intake organ. Responding exclusively to symptoms and surface observations, we have tried to re-label its backside as its mouth. 

A view that believes that everything can be broken down into their component pieces, studied in mutually disassociated states, deductively or inferentially linked together through analysis and understood as a whole.  

Here is the general rationale: If you break a car into its component parts, you can understand exactly how it works and if you put it back together it will come back alive. Here is the fallacy: If you do that to a dog, once it is put back together it will remain dead.  

Something very essential to the idea of the living dog, the whole of its existence is lost in the process of dismembering it. Similarly, when attempting to understand systems that exist dependent on an infinity of parameters (living beings, ecosystems, social groups, nations etc.), breaking them down has only one practical outcome – it breaks them.  

But we are never taught that. Instead, we are told that we must break things into sectors and pieces to know what is going on in the cosmos despite the fact that the cosmos is neither made that way nor exists that way nor functions that way. 

And so, we’ve landed ourselves with hundreds of specializations and thousands of minor ones, each basically a fact-bucket. Inside them lives that very strange animal – the specialist or, the fact-sop - answering a series of (mostly) irrelevant questions that yields a lot of nothings about mostly everything.  

 What has this type of science done for us? Have we understood the world clearer or made it better? No. Do we need fact-sops like climate specialists, agriculture experts, energy gurus, military strategists or money moguls to tell us that? No! Can we solve it? Sure.  

Instead of scrambling up into the branches and twigs of the tree of knowledge, we need to scurry down to its root. 

Arjuna may be contacted at To read more of his articles, please visit

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