Shikohin: The Connection Between Logos and Physis. Interview with Biologist Shinichi Fukuoka

Food items such as alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee are not consumed for any nutritional value, but for enjoyment. These food items are referred to as “shikohin.”. Why did mankind pursue these items that, at first glance, seem to have little purpose in survival?

“Shikohin” is a term that is difficult to translate outside of Japan and unique to the Japanese language. It is said that the first person to use this term was Ogai Mori, who described “shikohin” as something that is “a necessity in life” that is also “a poison” in his short story “Fujidana” published in 1912. Being both a poison and a medicine, “shikohin” is surrounded by ambiguity. In the DIG THE TEA series, we will explore modern day “shikohin” and its role in our society through interviews with leading experts both in and out of Japan.

For the fifth installment of this series, we visited biologist Shinichi Fukuoka. Fukuoka researches molecular biology and has also published a number of bestselling books, including “The Difference Between Living and Non-Living Things.” He criticizes the viewpoint of looking at living things in a mechanistic way. His theory on what defines life is that, “Life is a continuous flow, in a state of dynamic equilibrium between synthesis and decomposition.” In the first half of the article, we will discuss the two concepts of “logos” and “physis.” “Logos” is the power of words that human beings have developed to attain

freedom. “Physis” is “nature,” or the natural state of life itself. Starting with these two concepts, we talk about the role “shikohin” has in returning to the ways of “physis” in a world that has become overrun by extreme “logos” mentality. 

Interview&Editing: Masanobu Sugatsuke Co-Editor: Masayuki Koike & Takumi Matsui Photos: Mayuko Sato

Logos freed humans from DNA-bound fate

── Shikohin is often seen as something that is unnecessary for survival because it does not have any nutritional value like other foods. Do you think this is true?

I think the existence of shikohin is very closely related to what makes the human species unique. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins had a theory of the “selfish gene” where he argues that the sole purpose of living organisms is to mate and reproduce. From that viewpoint, an individual organism is simply a vehicle for reproduction. Insects and fish lay thousands of eggs, and although thousands of those eggs hatch, most of them do not survive into adulthood. However, as long as a few of them survive, find a mate and reproduce to pass on their DNA to the next generation, it is not a problem from a genetic standpoint. The cruel reality for living organisms in nature is that the “individual” is merely a vessel for the survival of the “species,” and this means that the lives of individual organisms have no great value. 

However, when humankind became aware of this fact, they began to contemplate and question it. Of course, we cannot completely free ourselves from this genetic scheme, but humans began to approach it differently and began to think about other ways in which to exist. Humans were the first living things that realized that they can be free of the genetic schemes of nature, and this led to the idea of valuing the life of an individual over the species. This was the beginning of the modern concept of basic human rights, which is a fundamental part of what makes us human today.  Humans were able to defy the genetic order of simple breeding and reproduction and live life as free individuals. This is the paradigm that humans have achieved after a long evolutionary process. 

── What allowed human beings to exist outside of the genetic order?

Simply put, it is because our brains got bigger, or in other words, we developed what the Greeks called “logos.” “Logos” is defined as language, logic, algorithms and things that structuralize or give something meaning. Because our brains developed to be able to see the world through “logos,” humans were able to understand DNA and base sequences of genetics in a structural way, and this gave us a new perspective that freed us from its restrictions. 

Historian Yuval Noah Harari argues in his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” that it is the power of fiction that made us human. What he calls “fiction” here refers to “logos.” The ability of humankind to informatize and verbalize the world gave us the ability to develop and enjoy human rights, laws, nations, economies, agriculture, information technology, AI and other technologies. 

Impossibility of controlling all life with logos

── So, because humankind acquired “logos”, we became able to fulfill our lives as individuals. 

However, “logos” is only a concept, or a piece of fiction created by humankind to organize and understand the world around us. There is no way to understand all of life with “logos.” In fact, the real essence of life and nature is the opposite concept of “logos”, which is “physis”. 

“Physis” is a Greek word which means “nature” and it signifies the whole of life, which is a tender existence. 

The closest example of “physis” for us is our bodies, or in other words, the fact that we are alive. Through “logos” it is possible to see “physis” from a different perspective. 

For example, science has used “logos” to understand the structure of genes and the mechanisms by which proteins are producers in cells. However, nature is inherently something that we cannot control and it cannot be completely suppressed by the power of “logos.” We cannot control when we are born, when and how we die, what illnesses we get, what desires we develop. These are the fundamental flows of life that we cannot control. 

While humankind develops culture and civilization through “logos,” we are forced to accept the fact that our lives depend on “physis” and respect that. The coronavirus that is now having a large impact on our societies is a part of “physis,” and it is part of something that has existed with humans for a long time. Although viruses sometimes cause disease and death in their host bodies, many viruses are harmless and invisible. They are altruistic entities that upset the dynamic equilibrium of an entire gene pool by tearing off and passing on pieces of genetic information from one organism to another. They are not some alien species that came to invade humans. We cannot eradicate or conquer them, so we have no choice but to keep coexisting with them.

── I see. “Logos” is only a part of “physis”.

Yes. However “logos” has a hard time accepting this fact. In our modern world, humankind has become overly confident in the power of “logos” and the desire to override everything with “logos” has become increasingly dominant.

We are headed towards a worldview of singularitarianism, where humans will be completely controlled by AI. It is the desire to algorithmically predict and control all of the world, including life itself. However, this is simply an evil falsehood of “logos.” It is impossible to control life, which is “physis,” in the web of “logos.” The reality is that there is so many things in “physis” that cannot be suppressed by “logos.” 

Consequently, “logos” started to turn some aspects of “physis” into a kind of taboo. 

The things that are considered taboo in our world today are the things in life that cannot be controlled by “logos.” Sexuality is suppressed or covered up, illnesses are pushed away into hospitals, and death is kept at a distance from daily life. Our modern world makes it seem like it is made up solely of “logos” by making “physis” taboo and hiding it away. 

Excess of logos and return to physis

── Since “logos” is a human condition and life itself is “physis,” it is impossible to understand everything through “logos.”  Are you suggesting  we are now making “physis” taboo in order to pretend that this contradiction doesn’t exist?

Yes. And I think that “shikohin” is the thin line that connects our overly “logos” society to our natural state of “physis.” The effects that “shikohin” have on our bodies are all things that shake up the “physis” within us. 

One of the reasons why the ethics of “logos” classifies “shikohin” as a kind of poison that should be restricted is because if we open the door of “physis” too far, we may lose control. The reason why drugs are so strictly regulated is because if it is not restrained by the power of “logos,” the “physis” may overflow. It is said that the pleasure of drugs comes from the same principle as that of sexual pleasure. Once one has experienced that pleasure, it is hard to give it up. 

Caffeine in coffee awakens “physis” when caffeine activates a reward system in the brain and cigarettes do the same with nicotine. 

I believe that “shikohin” are an important tool that reminds us that even though we live in a “logos” society, we are in fact living in “physis.” If we consume too much, the “physis” overflows and creates problems in human society, but I believe that in reasonable volumes, it should be allowed. 

The reason for this is because as long as we are living, we must remember that we are “physis.” “Shikohin” functions as a connection between the “logos” human world and our natural state as living beings. 

── I see. That is very insightful into the essence of what human nature is. “Shikohin” often has the effects of intoxication or arousal. Are these the things that connect us to “physis”?

I think so. Intoxication and arousal are exactly a state of “physis” and a necessary mechanism of our body in order to survive. One must be in a state of arousal if they are living in a situation where an enemy may attack, or where they must compete for food and partners. The arousing effects of “shikohin” stimulate the circuits we need in order to survive.

On the other hand, being aroused all the time is very stressful. For animals, when a stressful situation passes, they go back to their normal state. However, in our modern society we are constantly under stress. This is why we need “shikohin” that can numb and relax our neural circuits and has calming effects. 

In our overly “logos” world, “shikohin” acts like a metronome that reminds us that we are alive as “physis”. It is an external reference to that fact and I don’t think “shikohin” will ever become unnecessary. 

The dangers of stigmatizing shikohin

── In our modern world, many “shikohin” such as cigarettes are avoided for health reasons. Of course, there is a definite logic to that, but I feel our society has become overly obsessed with health consciousness. 

I think it is important to not look at something as overly “bad” or treat it like the enemy. Regarding “shikohin” as the enemy is the equivalent to denying the fact that we are living as “physis.” As an “logos” animal that utilizes languages and logic, we must also respect our way of being as “physis.” To move back and forth between the two, to move right and left, that is the natural state for human beings.

The ideology behind cleanliness and health consciousness in our modern societies leans too much towards “logos.” Of course, there is no denying that some “shikohin” are harmful to our health. If we become too biased towards “logos,” however, we may someday face a big retaliation from “physis.”

── What are the adverse effects when we become too biased toward “logos”?

The biggest negative aspect brought on by excessive “logos” mentality is that wealth does not perish with time. Everything in “physis” breaks down, rots, and deteriorates according to the law of entropy. The most obvious example of this is food. Living beings must eat in order to survive, and we catch our prey for this purpose. If we catch more than we can eat, rather than letting it rot and go to waste, we take the altruistic action of giving it over to another being. 

However, as humans turned more towards “logos,” they found a way to turn their excess resources into wealth that does not perish. That wealth is money, property and other assets. When resources transformed into something that does not perish with time, we were able to start selfishly accumulating them. That is the revolution that led to a capitalist society, and in our modern world it has gone too far. 

How abstinence opens new doors to physis

── On the other hand, there is a movement in Europe and the United States to legalize marijuana. You live and work as a researcher in both Japan and New York, but how do you view this current trend?

I think it is a counter movement that arose in response to the excessively “logos” modern society. The balance of ideologies are always shifting back and forth, and as humans aim to regain a natural “physis” state, people are starting to make the assertion that marijuana should be allowed. Of course, there are two sides to the argument and there is some strong opposition, especially from people who are raising children, but in general the medical and relaxational benefits of marijuana seem to be gaining more acceptance. 

In New York, Juul e-cigarettes which contain CBD ingredients (cannabidiol: an ingredient extracted from the stems and seeds of the cannabis plant) are legally available on the market. There are even debates going on to allow 24-hour operation subway and bus drivers to use marijuana products to help relieve their stress. 

── I have heard that, because police officers in the United States have a very high level of stress due to the high-risk nature of their job, the rate of drug use is also high. 

Law enforcement is the authority of “logos” so of course it comes with a lot of stress. Regarding the legalization of marijuana, there is still a lot to be debated, but it can be said that there is a real necessity for some form of relaxation in order to alleviate the stress caused by “logos” in our world today. 

── There was a time when I was very committed to the macrobiotic diet. I found that it really improved how I felt physically, and I was also surprised to find that many other people who follow the diet were heavy alcohol drinkers. In fact, books on the macrobiotic diet hardly ever say that alcohol is bad for you. 

When one “physis” is restricted, the door for a different “physis” opens. In fact, the ideology to forbid certain forms of natural “physis” derives from Christianity. It is the idea that abstinence is a way to get closer to God.  Letting “physis” take over oneself is considered a defeat, so they use “logos” to suppress “physis.” It is believed that if they can overcome the temptations of “physis” through the power of their spirit, they can enter the kingdom of heaven and be closer to God. 

In the Gospel of John, there is a line that reads, “In the beginning there was the Word (logos).” In this sentence “logos” means “God.” Of course, I am not against anyone who chooses to live a religious life, but the choice to live otherwise should also be accepted. “Physis” will find a way to emerge into our lives in some form, even if it is forbidden. Rather than suppressing it too harshly with the power of “logos,” I think it is better to accept a certain amount of “physis” and let “shikohin” be a distraction and escape for humankind. 

Inspiring the “return” to physis

── How can one obtain a good balance between “logos” and “physis”?

That is a difficult question. Looking back at my personal career, I started off as a molecular biologist and researched life from an absolute “logos-oriented” mindset. My research was to break down organisms into individual cells and then further divide them into genes for PCR analysis. The process of reductionism to understand life in individual parts, the Human Genome Project that defined all the genes, and the discovery that uncovered how the cell is a micro-machine made up of 21 thousand microscopic parts was a huge victory for life sciences between the 20th and 21th century. 

However, no matter how much we defined life through “logos” and discovered all the various genes, we could not find any real answers to the mystery of life. 

As a young boy, I always liked insects. When a caterpillar suddenly becomes a pupa, all of their cells melt inside their cocoon and then come out as a butterfly. Why does such a mysterious process occur? This question I had as a child is still not answerable with modern science and it is a wonder of nature. At one point I had an epiphany. I realized that when we are children, we understand life in terms of “physis.” 

As I went on to study modern science, I realized that the pursuit of science with “logos” alone was not enough to understand life. In my mid-forties I wrote my book called “The Difference Between Living and Non-Living Things.”

I returned to the way of thinking that life is a thing of “physis” and it must be viewed in the flow of dynamic equilibrium. However, I do not think it is possible to reach this realization from the beginning. Once we have mastered “logos” and experience its limitations, we come back to “physis.” However, we also find that we must return to the world of “words” again. It is this kind of going back and forth that has brought humankind to where we are today. 

── I see. So it is important to rid oneself of “logos” once when we feel we have reached a limit, and come back to “physis.” There are some anti-intellectual movements in the world today that are very critical of all things academic, but I see what you are saying is different to that. 

This happens when there is a careless rejection of “logos” and a simplified bias toward “physis.” I do not believe this is a good thing. It is important to be able to speak in clear and definitive terms. “Logos” is the pursuit of logic and language. The reason why we can pass on our findings in science is because we are able to use a high level of language to talk about it and share it. 

At the same time, “physis” does not fundamentally deny the use of language. However, I believe that without the mastery of “logos,” one cannot gain the power to return to “physis.” People who try to talk about “physis” without any training end up only being able to describe it with very big and broad terms. They say things like “the universe is all connected,” “the earth is Gaia,” or “something great” and other rough descriptions which end up sounding very occult and spiritual. 

For people who find satisfaction in that, it is not a problem. However, for a person who studies modern sciences, I believe that “physis” needs to be described in more clear and definitive terms. Human beings are creatures that try to use language to express everything. Although it is an impossible task to express everything through words, I believe “physis” is looking for other ways to be expressed. Once we reach the extreme limits of “logos” to discuss “physis,” perhaps a new paradigm will emerge. 

Part 2 of 2 》How to Rediscover Your Sense of Wonder. Interview with Biologist Shinichi Fukuoka

Translation: Sophia Swanson