Mereology: the study of the relationship of parts to the whole.
Stomachs don’t eat lunch, mouths don’t talk and eyes don’t see… We would never use this kind of language because we know it doesn’t really make sense. However it is not unusual in an anatomy class to be told that a bicep flexes the elbow. These parts play a role in the functions described but they can’t elicit these actions on their own. This kind of thinking falls prey to the ‘mereological fallacy’, yet it runs deep in our study of anatomy – and nowhere is it more evident than in yoga anatomy books; often beautifully illustrated books showing exactly which muscle does what action, on a perfectly clean skeleton. Just in case there is any doubt, the origin, insertion, innervation and function are usually described on the same page.
There is something really appealing about these books and a satisfying and logical simplicity about this structuralist way of thinking. A way of thinking that, with a bit of thought, can put together a fully working human being by describing the contraction of the various muscles acting over levers, pulleys and fulcrums to facilitate balanced movement over joints. It derives from the study of cadavers; a body is dissected and a muscle is found, with its beginning and end noted. On careful inspection, the path of the nerves running from the muscle can be traced through the spinal cord and up to the sensory motor cortex of the brain. An obvious conclusion can be drawn: when the motor neuron fires, a signal will travel down the nerve and cause the muscle to contract and carry out its function.
However, like many things in life, it turns out that things aren’t that simple. The body is not like a machine, an assembly of various parts put together to create a greater whole, and we must stop thinking of ourselves like that. We are organisms that evolved in complex ecosystems, with layers of interdependence built on other layers of interdependence. There are no units that act alone or have any sense of autonomy – there are only relationships.