Microbiomes

Einstein once said that you can’t solve a problem with the same consciousness that created the problem in the first place. So as I ponder the profound problems that plague our society today, and our seeming inability to gain real traction on them, I find myself wondering what ill-articulated and perhaps ill-chosen assumptions are preventing us from seeing effective solutions.

I think we inherit many such assumptions from the Enlightenment. Such as: there is no limit to what the Mind of Humanity can conquer. Meanwhile, both in physics (e.g. special relativity and quantum physics) and mathematics (e.g. Gödel) we now know there are some profound fundamental limits to what Humanity can know and do.

Another such assumption is the Primacy of the Individual: the rights of the Individual are primary, and the responsibility of the Individual to the Community is minimal at best. We see this in Adam Smith’s ‘free market’ model of economics: we’re all autonomous individuals making rational purchasing choices. (Really?) And we see it in Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, where rugged-individual organisms duke it out for survival.

But once again, recent science is painting a different picture.

As I recall my very rudimentary youthful education on how human bodies function: I’m essentially an enormous structure of cells all with the same DNA, and some foreign invading bacteria and viruses are running around inside of me which my immune system is dispatching with all haste.

If that really was the consensus scientific view in my youth, it certainly isn’t now. We now know that my body hosts an enormous number of foreign bacteria and viruses (not my DNA) – indeed, foreign organisms outnumber my own: cells with my DNA — approximately 1 trillion; foreign — approximately 1.3 trillion. In other words, less than half of Me is Me.

This enormous community is called the Human Biome.

To be sure some of these foreign organisms don’t have my best interests at heart. But many of them are absolutely essential to me staying alive. For example, there is a strain of E.Coli which lives in the human gut which can survive nowhere else, and that particular bacteria is absolutely essential to me being able to digest food. So this particular variety of E.Coli and I have a symbiotic relationship in which we depend on each other for our mutual survival. Many more examples could be cited.

So it’s not that Darwin was wrong, it’s that he only elucidated HALF the picture: it’s not just ‘survival by competition’, it’s also ‘survival by cooperation’.

Once again it’s the ability to simultaneously hold seeming opposites in one’s mind that gives us a truer picture of how things really work. It’s not “The Individual VERSUS the Community” – it’s not Either/Or, but BOTH/AND.

The challenge is embodied in our very language: there is ‘I’ – a singular thing, vs. ‘we’ – a plural. Since our very language embodies this perhaps false dichotomy, we are crippled from the outset in our ability to even think about the situation from any other perspective.

Thus, ideas like “Social Darwinism” in which folks at the higher end of the financial pyramid are ‘obviously’ more ‘fit’ – perhaps those ideas aren’t so obvious anymore. Would Bill Gates be a multi-billionaire today if he had been born in some forgotten rat-hole in Somalia instead of his multi-millionaire family and the connections that afforded him? Clearly the community into which Gates was born played a significant role in his success.

So: when I consider my own body, less than half of Me is Me — genetically speaking. And less than half of the physical You reading this article is You. We are all ‘walking communities’, and I could not live for long without hosting this larger community which has made ‘my’ genetic body its home. In fact, even within my own genetic body, if it were only ’survival by competition’ such that my pancreas decided it was ’kill or be killed’ by my kidneys, I would not live long.

Community isn’t ‘optional’. It’s not something I can do if I’m feeling generous after I’ve taken care of Me Me Me first. Community is something on which my/our very survival depends, deeply woven into Creation herself.