We are not individuals, We are ecosystems

We are not individuals, We are ecosystems

I spoke before about feeling isolated. 

I believe this is one of the things that capitalism does to us - it makes us feel isolated and alone. It forces us to focus on the individual - whose success or failure is determined by individual prowess. 

Even our scientific method has been based on this idea that you can actually understand a thing by isolating it in a lab, studying its components and properties. But as new science is teaching us, you cannot truly understand anything in isolation - it's relationships that make something what it is.

The old reductionist mentality has us all out here thinking about ourselves as individuals, rather than as a community that relies on each other, and our environment. This individualistic isolation has two important - and I would venture to say, not unintended - impacts: it makes us feel powerless to make change, and it makes us unable to recognize the impacts we are actually making in our environment/community. 

I say I think its intentional, because if we were all to see and understand the impacts that we're having on the earth and each other by participating in this current capitalist system, and we felt empowered to change it, I don't think it could continue. And if we were to look around and see that we actually rely on and are defined by each other - and that caring for each other and the earth is all we really need to do to close the loop and keep our system in balance, I think we would shift away from this current system. The enduring power of this dying capitalist system relies on our continued belief that we are individuals, and that we continue to behave as though we only have the power to impact our own lives.

Learning about microbes has made me feel less like an individual, and more like an ecosystem unto myself.

Our bodies consist of up to ten times as many microbial cells as human cells*. The DNA in our human cells carries between 20,000-25,000 genes, but the microbes inside us contain 500 times more! Which makes us truly more microbial ecosystem than human.

This has expanded my understanding of myself and my identity. It shapes the way I behave, as I think of myself less as a person whose actions only impact herself, and more as a caretaker of my own ecosystem. An ecosystem that has implications for the larger ecosystem and generations to come. 

And we are complex ecosystems.

There are more bacteria in your gut than there are stars in our galaxy. 

Each of our bodies have their own signature microbiome, and it is changing all the time. I am exchanging microbes with my keyboard right now as I type, and what I ate for lunch is impacting my gut microbiome.

My unique microbial ecosystem is different that yours, and even within my own body, the microbes have their own microclimates.  

The human skin microbiome is the domain of Propionibacterium, Corynebacterium, and Staphylococcus, while Bacteroides lords over the gut, Lactobacillus dominates the vagina, and Streptococcus rules the mouth…

On the skin, the oily lakes of the face and chest differ from those in the hot and humid jungles of the groin and armpit, or those colonizing the dry deserts of the forearms and palms.

Speaking of palms, your right hand shares just a sixth of its microbial species with you left hand. The variations that exist between body parts dwarf those that exist between people. Simply put, the bacteria on your forearm are more similar to those on my forearm than those in your mouth.
— I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong

It requires a real shift of consciousness to think about all the microbial life that is living in and amongst us - especially in our germophobic society that treats microbes as threats. The truth is, out of the 30 million bacteria out there, we know of only 70 that are pathogenic to humans. 

Our microbial partners are doing all kinds of stuff for us that we don't even realize. They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe. They replenish the linings of our gut and skin and help to build our skeletons. They ensure the sanctity of the blood-brain barrier (making sure things from the blood don't enter the brain).  And there is a rapidly growing body of research that is exploring how microbes in our guts affect our brain and emotional state - more on that later, it's super interesting! Microbes even send chemical signals out, communicating things about us on airborne messages to the world. 

So as we think about what defines us, on a micro level, let's try expanding our understanding of ourselves not as individuals, but as an ecosystem dependent on the interactions and relationships of millions of organisms. On a macro level, let's expand that consciousness out to see how we are each part of an intricate community of beings who depend on each other for what's possible in this life. 

We are ecosystems within ecosystems.


* Ed Yong points out this is a wild guess - it could be more like roughly even

Sandor Katz Fermentation Residency

Sandor Katz Fermentation Residency

microbes are our ancestors

microbes are our ancestors