Ben on the natural history of the collective

To me, the story of the evolution of life on earth is all about increasing complexity. The first organism was a simple cell, comparable to a modern day bacterium, which appeared more the three billion years ago. Scientists found the fossil in the ancient sandstone of Western Australia, one of the only islands above the ocean surface. At that time, the Earth was a nightmare neighborhood. The beginning of the world looked a lot like how we like to imagine the end. Meteors bombarded the face of the planet, vaporizing the oceans, morphing the surface into molten rock. There wasn’t even oxygen in the atmosphere. Regardless of how our universal ancestor came about, the infinitely small creature was able to stay alive, finding food and avoiding poison for long enough to replicate its genetic code. There is no doubt about it; this is a miracle. Yet, to my mind, the most interesting development happened later, in the next act. For a couple of billion years, individual cells like the first went on evolving on their own, becoming different variations of themselves, populating the entire planet. However, suddenly, individual cells started to band together, forming groups. It was truly a great idea, so great that multicellularity has in fact evolved multiple times, throughout many biological kingdoms. Now, almost all of the organisms on earth are multicellular. Obviously, this includes human beings, and this also includes the larger structures created by human beings, the emergent networks of interconnected people around the world. In an increasingly complex environment, the collective would naturally seem more likely to survive.


In the summer of 2011, I had just moved into my first apartment. I was living alone. All I had was a mattress on the floor, two chairs scavenged from the street and staged to face each other closely, for intense conversations, and my grandfather’s old writing desk. My grandfather was a doctor in Washington Heights in the previous century, writing prescriptions to help people from the same desk at which I now felt I would fail to spell my own name. Isn’t writer’s block just another way of saying you are lonely and you just don’t know how to say so? I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood, to explore the outside world. I struck out onto Fort Washington Avenue, weaved into Jay Hood Wright Park and up onto the slate-rock lookout to the George Washington Bridge, back out and up past 181st Street to Bennett Avenue, with all its verdant pleasantness, and even up to Fort Tryon Park before finally heading back down Broadway, those awful thoughts finally stifled by the sound of my heavy breathing. I swear to you that this is exactly the moment when I came upon the empty storefront. It looked just like so many others, ghostlike, litter-bombed, and blacked out. Except that, through the glass exterior, I could see a girl inside. She seemed like the opposite of poison, and so I made my amoeba way inside. The place was empty and in obvious disuse, but there she was behind a folding table with paperbacks spread on top of it like thickset tarot cards. There were some other people around the table. “We’re starting a bookstore!” she said. “Wanna help?” In an abandoned pharmacy, surrounded by strangers, my multicellularity evolved.


Word Up is a creature you rarely find in the wild. We are not a shark, exploiting underlings for the sake of the elite, hunting the waters for prey. We are an organism made up entirely of volunteers, a group of individuals who are diverse in every way. We function as a collective. We have adapted to serve the community, first by the instinct of an individual, a pop-store because the neighborhood needed books to survive, and then as a coordinated movement toward a long-term literacy, education, and arts space. Although these are not the end times, the situation in the city does look dark sometimes. The government has cutting funding from resources such as after-school programs and libraries. Public schools are scaling back the arts. People can hardly afford to participate in mainstream culture. Word Up is a grassroots collective that is trying to help the neighborhood survive in this environment. We have formed a community and are becoming more complex. Right now, we are asking for money to fund the purchase of Spanish-language books and the programming of activities for kids. This is because our environment is predominantly Spanish speaking, with the largest number of youth in the city. With you donation, you can be a part of our unique evolution. Please help support Word Up, collectivism, biological interconnectedness, and the grand sweep of evolutionary history today!


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