What Xenobots (and frog embryos) Teach Us About Personal Development

Biologist Michael Levin isolated embryonic frog skin cells and played around with them a bit.


He wanted to see what would happen when those cells were released from the constraints that caused them to develop into the skin of an adult frog.


One would assume genetic coding predestined those cells to look and act a certain way, without any other possibilities

What he found has given rise to new questions about the intelligence embedded in biological systems.


Liberated from the organism, the embryonic skin cells behaved like teenagers left alone in the house. They exhibited behavior they never would have if they were still part of a frog embryo.


Suddenly allowed to become whatever they wanted to become, the cells most certainly did not want to become a layer of skin.


Instead of becoming a skin-like structure, the cells formed a cohesive but totally novel structure. Levin called the novel structure a xenobot, from the Greek root word for “strange.”


The liberated cells also exhibited a remarkable level of creativity and intelligence that belies their lowly status as embryonic skin cells.


Levin’s work becomes an instructive metaphor for how to win the game of life.


When we remove ourselves from the constraints of our programming, we liberate ourselves to grow into whatever it is we can imagine becoming.


We allow other people to tell us who we are, what is possible for us given our physical or mental states, what our limitations are, and how much potential we have. We internalize what is possible for us, and when we do that, we don’t even bother trying new things or imagining what could be possible.


If the skin cells of a frog can become xenobots, imagine what you can become when you take yourself out of the environment that boxes you in.


Les Brown says, “A dog can’t be anything but a dog. A tree can’t be anything but a tree. Human being, you have unlimited potential.” It turns out Mr. Brown was only partly correct. All living organisms have power and potential–maybe not unlimited–but power and potential nonetheless.


Life is characterized by creative problem solving. When we adapt to adverse conditions using creative thinking, we alter the course of our own personal development. In some cases, we can even alter the course of collective evolution.


Being thrust into unfamiliar territory, like those embryonic frog skin cells were, we can do whatever we want, or at least try to.


It would be great if we had a Michael Levin to liberate us, so you’re just going to have to think like an embryonic frog skin cell.


“I can be what I will to be” is one of the root affirmations we learn when embarking on a personal development journey. Repeat this phrase over and over again, and remind yourself of the truth of that statement by referring not to New Age woo, but to science.


A unique feature of the xenobots was that they still cooperated with one another, forming a novel organism together rather than assuming individualistic roles. They levered the power of their relationships with fellow skin cells. Their behavior suggests that one feature of biological intelligence is instinctively understanding that collaboration is a smarter path than adversarial competition.


Left to their own devices, the skin cells would have assumed their roles, taken their place in the order of things. Left to our own devices, we do the same. Most of us don’t even question things like gender roles, let alone what is possible for an ex-con or a homeless person.


When you dream big, most people are going to laugh at you, cut you down, and tell you you’re delusional. If you’re lucky, you might have a few fellows around to help you shape your own unique future liberated from societal constraints. You can be what you will to be.


If you’re not that lucky, you’re still better off becoming a lonely xenobot than just another skin cell.


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