DEEP BIOLOGY – DEVELOPMENT – Disintegration, renewal, and the ship of Theseus

in A&O, DEVELOPMENT is one of the primary biological themes.  It represents change in an individual’s  life  (as opposed to  EVOLUTION, changes across generations)

CHANGE was eloquently characterized by Marshall Berman as “a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal,”  the awareness of which is potentially an enormous stress  when either of these processes predominate (as when we are growing and when we are declining). (See excerpt from Berman below).   Heraclitus famously reminded us that we never step into the same river twice — [but then neither are we ever the same person]… “Change” he insisted is “the essence of the universe:” “All entities move and nothing remains still”  (The doctrine of panta rhei, “everything flows”)

This is also reflected in the epigraph to our A&O website:  “Always becoming, never is” (Schiller)

In the light of

change as “A maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal”

what do you think of the problem of about The Ship of Theseus ?

This is a traditional problem (discussed since 500 BC) about the metaphysics of identity: if an an object that has had all of its components replaced over time, is it  still the same object?  (a counter argument is that objects are less what they consist of than they are how their constituent parts are arranged)

What is truly new?

what does Ecclesiastes 1:9-11 say?

[And, sci-fi aficianados, visit the idea in the TV series, Battlestar Galactica’s, in which their spiritual literature, “Chronicles of Kobol” is often quoted (e.g., by Dr. Gaius Baltar in the 2005 episode, The Hand of God)]

Replace? Renovate? Restore? Repair?  Repairs in progress on two famous warships, the USS Constitution and HMS Victory  might update the thought experiment evoked by the ship of Theseus (see comment in Quora) … taking this further, every museum engages in some level of renovation.

Perpetual disintegration and renewal?  The poet Wendell Berry knew this:

I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities. Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse. And the clouds
—no mere measure or geometry, no cubism,
can account for clouds or, satisfactorily, for bodies.
There is no science for this, or art either.
Even the old body is new—who has known it
before?—and no sooner new than gone, to be
replaced by a body yet older and again new.

“VII.” by Wendell Berry from Leavings. © Counterpoint, 2010.  Listen to Garrison Keillor read the entire poem for The Writer’s Almanac, September-17-2019

PARABLE OF THESEUS’ SHIP  (from the A&O website with fascinating connections)

Long ago, the Athenian king’s son, Theseus, sailed to the island of Crete. He hoped to end Crete’s cruel demand that Athens send seven sons and seven daughters there as a sacrificial feast for the half-bull, half-human monster, Minotaur.

Theseus, with help of Ariadne, the daughter of the King of Crete, succeeded, and returned to Athens.[i]  Theseus became King and his ship was used to make the annual trip to Apollo’s sacred sanctuary on the island of Delos where the Athenians would reaffirm their devotion to the god.

For centuries, the Athenians cared for the ship, a tangible reminder of their beloved Theseus.  Whenever a plank on the ship showed signs of decay, it was replaced with a fresh new one.[ii]  The old boards were lovingly stored in a shed nearby.

When a scholar visited Athens and asked to see the legendary ship, he was taken to the harbor where the ship was resplendent in its place of honor.  He was very impressed and made a complementary comment to an old man standing nearby.  The old man said, “but that is not the ship of Theseus.”  His ship is in that shed, in many pieces.  And thus was born the paradox of change.

Like the ship, our worn out parts are, cell by cell, replaced. Are we who we once were?



Like the ship of Theseus, our worn out parts are, cell by cell, replaced. Are we who we once were?


Now the years are rolling by me
The are rocking easily
I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be
But that’s not unusual
No, it isn’t strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same
After changes we are
More or less the same

–Paul Simon (1968) “The Boxer”


There is a mode of vital experience‑‑experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils‑‑that is shared by men and women all over the world today.  I will call this body of experience “modernity.”  To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world‑‑and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.  Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology:  in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind.  But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity:  it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish.  To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air.'” (Berman, Marshall.  (1982)  All That is Solid Melts into Air.  Simon and Schuster, NY)


connect, enlarge, see:


continuing free association–the dynamic web of change:

  • “We all live on the great, dynamic web of change.  It links us to one another and, in some ways, to everything in the past.  And in the way that each of us influences the course of events, it also links us to the future we are all busy making, every second.  No matter how remote all these links may seem, over space and time, they are real.  No person acts without causing change on the web.  Each one of us has an effect, somewhere, somewhen.  Everybody contributes to the process.  In some way, anything we do makes history, because we are history.  The web is the expression of our existence, and of all those who went before us, and all who will come after us.”  (James Burke, from his book: ‘The Pinball Effect’; via PhysLink July 15, 1998).


continuing free association–Karl Jasper’s slipping into existenialism 

“Much like a hermit crab, a worldview is a shell that we enclose and encase ourselves within. That shell then insulates us from experiences that challenge our worldview. The task of psychology is to engage with this tendency in human nature, and bring the subject out of these shells (‘Gehäuse’). However, it is not that we are then without worldviews, but we exchange them constantly, in a process. The exchange of a worldview is simultaneously a dissolution and a re-founding, ‘not a one-off process but instead always a new Form of living Dasein,’ as Jaspers put it. That process of dissolution and reconstitution is necessary, as ‘without resolution there would be torpor, without encasement, annihilation’. Although not overtly a work of existential philosophy, traces of this work persist in Jaspers’s later, more existentialist oeuvre.” (Deborah Casewell’s AEON essay 2023) (added Jan 2023)





[i] Sadly, Theseus forgot to change the color of the ship’s sail from black to white to signal his success.  When his father, King Aegeus saw the black sail on the horizon, he was overwhelmed by grief and threw himself into the sea that now bears his name –The Aegean Sea.

[ii] “The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”  —Plutarch, Theseus[2]

Plutarch thus questions whether the ship would remain the same if it were entirely replaced, piece by piece. Centuries later, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes introduced a further puzzle, wondering what would happen if the original planks were gathered up after they were replaced, and used to build a second ship.[3] Hobbes asked which ship, if either, would be considered the original Ship of Theseus.

Another early variation involves a scenario in which Socrates and Plato exchange the parts of their carriages one by one until, finally, Socrates’s carriage is made up of all the parts of Plato’s original carriage and vice versa. The question is whether, or at what point, they exchanged their carriages.[4]




Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.