A couple of weeks ago, I looked at my three-year-old and thought, “If he’s made up of trillions of cells that aren’t ‘his,’ what does it mean to love ‘him’?”
As I almost always do when facing a question I can’t fathom answering, I sat down to read. I quickly found Michael Pollan’s “Some of My Best Friends are Germs” in New York Times Magazine. It began, “I can tell you the exact date that I began to think of myself in the first-person plural — as a superorganism, that is, rather than a plain old individual human being.”*
I didn’t finish the article; I’m more of a book-reader. Beside that, I’d found enough to hold me over: Pollan had shown me that others outside “me” were doing the work of updating their mental models of the world … and themselves.
About a week ago, it struck me: There’s probably entire books already written about microbiomes! Within seconds, I’d found Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes within Us and a Grander View of Life.
In his article, Pollan estimated that each human is “only 10 percent human.” Yong suggests otherwise: “The latest estimates suggest that we have around 30 trillion human cells and 39 trillion microbial ones – a roughly even split. Even these numbers are inexact, but that does not really matter: by any reckoning, we contain multitudes.”
I’m about fifty pages into Yong’s book now. This morning, I’m reading it while my eight-year-old watches cartoons and snuggles me on the couch. The book is so fascinating that I can’t help but chuckle to remember my initial response to the idea (1) humans aren’t mostly human and (2) “germs” are more than an occasional annoyance.
That initial response: panic.
Roughly two years later, wonder has superseded panic. I hold this book in my hands–hands that contain an abundance of non-human cells–and marvel at the fact of usually unseen worlds within worlds.
The book cannot help me see the cells themselves, but it’s helping me see their context. Far from being unsettling, that’s joyful; as I strip away the things I understood erroneously before, I make space for a more nuanced, fuller view of all that exists within and outside of me.
* “Superorganism” doesn’t appear to be the correct term; according to Wikipedia’s “superorganism” entry in Wikipedia, a superorganism (more accurately, a supraorganism) is a “group of synergetically interacting organisms of the same species.” Containing many different species synergetically interacting, humans are a kind of holobiont:
Host-microbe associations have likely enabled many key evolutionary transitions over time, as microbial functions can confer adaptive faculties directly to hosts, and hosts mediate microbial colonization and survival through a multitude of physiological and biochemical pathways. This shared selective and adaptive platform challenges notions of a macroscopic singular “self,”- rather, humans can be considered as “holobionts,” or the sum of their host and microbial interdependent parts.
This is related to the idea of “holons,” about which I wrote in August.