Inside all things, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a unique code. It might be a genetic code. It might be the traces of carbon-14 in tiny plant spores embedded in the rocks at the bottom of an ancient lake. The layered patterns of sediment that tell you this could only be the Grand Canyon, for no other place on Earth has this precise pattern. Or the tips of your own fingers. Like zebra stripes and leopard spots, our fingerprints are indistinguishable from a distance but unique up close. There’s something elegant and utterly beautiful in all this.
Fingerprints, of whatever kind, help us find out things that are true. Fingerprints help us identify who committed a crime. Fingerprints can become keys that open doors to secure places, protecting those spaces from harm or wrong-doing. DNA fingerprints help us know who really fathered a child, or where our ancestors lived. Fingerprints help us know things we couldn’t otherwise know. Fingerprints are hard to erase without deformation. Fingerprints keep us honest.
But that’s not all. As long as we have fingerprints, we know we’re alive. Whether DNA, carbon-14, or the tips of our fingers, fingerprints are very high-level expressions of order, and rocket scientists will tell you that order is intimately connected to life.
Here’s what they mean by order: fingerprints carry information that can only be in one place. This is the epitome of order. Fingerprints tell you what to count on, so that nothing is unexpected and everything is predictable. It’s the way mom wanted your room to be: everything in its own place. The opposite of order is randomness. In a random world, there are no patterns, nothing you can recognize, and nothing you can count on. Everything is new, everywhere you turn. Memory ceases to be useful in a random world, and we’re all Leonard Shelby.
Stepping down from fingerprints, there are many other forms of order, which can occur in multiple places – making them a little more random than fingerprints, but somewhat orderly, nonetheless. For example: the behavior of electrons along copper wires or in magnets. Wallpaper. Or the herd-like behavior of people, who at the social level are every bit as predictable as they are “unique” at the individual level.
This is where individuality and order begin to clash, because they’re not supposed to be related to each other. Fingerprints = individuality. Fingerprints = order. Therefore, individuality = order. How can that be? Individuality is the opposite of order, right? Back to Leonard Shelby: in complete randomness, everything and everyone is different but totally lifeless. Recognition is meaningless, knowledge is impossible, and therefore individuality is impossible. What we call “individuality” must be a symptom of order, for without order nothing could exist. Individuality, as an experience, must be somewhere between the expression of complete uniqueness (a fingerprint seen up close) and a kind of order that says “this is a pattern” (fingerprints seen from a distance). People are like wallpaper.
The trouble is that order is everywhere on the decline, and this has life-threatening possibilities. Orderly things are signs that the universe hasn’t exhausted the energy that makes non-randomness (e.g. life or fingerprints) possible. Orderly things are not always “alive” by our definition, but they make life possible if we can tap their energy. Atoms, for example, are orderly things that contain a lot of energy. Try splitting one (but don’t do it at home). Order = energy. And energy = life. Without energy there would be no life. Living things are, by definition, orderly and full of energy, but they get their energy by consuming it from somewhere. The laws of rocket science tell us that this is a losing game: energy can only ever be spent and never really recovered or recreated. This is what the rocket scientists call entropy.
So here’s the paradox: life stands in contrast to entropy. Life takes and spends energy, and spending energy only increases the entropy of the world. Life is the struggle against entropy, but no matter how you cut it, the truth about life is that living can only contribute to entropy. To live is the act of dimming the possibility of life in the future. It’s an awful, yet beautiful, burden to live with.
The beauty of uniqueness – of the self, of being alive, captured in the fingerprint as the epitome of order and therefore the fullest expression of living being – is itself an act of destruction. Preserved, it is not life. Moving and living, it only contributes to our mutual undoing, but it is all we really have. As Keats reminded us:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.