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We’re Not Individuals, We’re Colonies

Our existence is part of a continuum shared by many other beings that exist outside our bodies

An excerpt from Matter & Desire, An Erotic Ecology.

It has taken a long time for biology and medicine to arrive at the idea that significant portions of an individual’s own body are foreign to it. Now, however, microbiology in particular is discovering that there is no reposing, solid core within us, but rather a lurking void around which life’s dance unfurls. In the human body, thousands of different players make the meaningful whole possible. We know that our body is colonized by microbes, particularly in the gut, which perform metabolic processes essential to our lives. Within our body, we carry our own, developed eco­system without which we could not break down and digest food. There is a reason that biologists call the “biofilm” of microorganisms that cover moist surfaces, “bacterial lawns.” With hundreds of species entangled on them — consuming, eliminating, extracting, and synthesizing matter — these bacterial lawns, like the Ligurian pastures, have the characteristic of an undulating meadow in the spring, inside of us. No wonder we have a feeling of recollection on such evenings.

photo of wildflower meadowPhoto by Alison Day"The meadow is a part of our body, folded outward, ready to be strolled through," Weber writes in Matter & Desire.

In this age of advanced gene technology, the true abyss of renunciation from which we speak “I” is only now becoming obvious to us. For only a few years, it has been clear that bacteria are completely dominant in a healthy human being: On top of our 10 billion body cells, there are 100 billion microbial cells that play a role in our metabolism. This enormously increases the options for our bodily processes: If we include the microbes’ genes, then we have over 100,000 genes at our disposal, as opposed to just over 20,000.This sort of bacterial aid leads, for example, to children in Papua New Guinea being born with nitrogen-fixing bacteria (like those found in some plants and algae) in their intestinal tissues. This allows them to subsist for years on a plant-based diet without suffering from symptoms of deficiency.

From this, the American microbiologist Bruce Birren concludes that, “We’re not individuals, we’re colonies.” And these colonies develop sensitivities collectively: The type of bacterial ecosystem that lines the intestine will partly determine how successfully we absorb nutrients. Patients with a tendency toward obesity have particularly efficient bacte­ria. From a bite of cracker they are able to extract all of the nourishment that simply slides unabsorbed through the digestive tract of slender types. Even the balance of our neurotransmitters and hormones might not be controlled solely by our brains and bodies: “Could a person’s happiness depend on his or her bugs? It’s possible. Our existences are so incredibly intertwined,” muses Birren.

Photo of cover for Matter & Desire

With these symbiotic microbes, our existence joins the ranks of a continuum shared by many other beings that exist outside our bodies. For bacteria are engaged in constant exchange with one another. During times of crisis, they share advantageous genes with one another like children sharing candies. This is why researchers nowadays are speaking less about the various types of bacteria in the world (as they are so trans­formative) and more about the diversity of their genes and the biological abilities they facilitate. Biologists are regularly stunned by this diversity: The US researcher Norman Pace investigated a teaspoon of silt from the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s and found more genetic diversity there than scientists had previously assumed to be present in the entire biosphere.

This diversity is not neatly divided between distinct species or types, but is available to all microbes within the context of symbiotic processes of exchange. The recently deceased biologist and symbiosis researcher Lynn Margulis believed, for example, that this exchange relationship meant that we should actually speak about all the bacteria on Earth as though they comprised a single biological subject — one body swarming with countless cells. Consequently, we who are dominated by a bacte­rial ecosystem ten times larger than our own body’s cells also belong to the great continuum of life. We are literally, physically, a part of the landscape. The moment we take sustenance from it, we enfold it and its inhabitants into our bodies.

For the Chilean cognitive scientist, biophilosopher and Buddhist Francisco J. Varela, this pluralism and otherness at the center of the self was a lifelong puzzle — one that a good scientist did not simply push off the table, but rather one in which the principle of biological existence reveals itself. For him, a being is fathomless, a sort of spiral whose firm edges are delineated on different levels by various agents: the cells, the organs, the body. But in the middle of the vortex engendered by a life-form in the material world, there is a void. At our center, which is comprised of nothing, like the hollowness in the middle of a whirlwind, we fall back into the world. Every being is so deeply rooted in others that it is never identical with itself in the final analysis — its essence is comprised far more of what it is not.

This same nothingness delights us when the meadows lie quiet and full below the night sky, when the small glowing insects fall into their shadows and fade like dying stars. The meadow is a part of our body, folded outward, ready to be strolled through. It is one of our sensory organs in which we feel something that we would not otherwise under­stand properly, certainly not now, in this age of competition, of forced individualization, of lone warriors battling.

The astonishing thing is that as soon as we no longer determine bio­logical laws using test tubes and electrophoresis benches, but using our sensory perception as living beings (which is perhaps more exact), every encounter with the world of other life-forms contains an unexpected lesson that far surpasses the findings of academic biology.

Excerpted with permission from Andreas Weber’s book Matter & Desire, An Erotic Ecology, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017, and reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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