Nicholas P. Money in Salon:
Our highly bacterial nature seems significant to me in an emotional sense. I’m captivated by the revelation that my breakfast feeds the 100 trillion bacteria and archaea in my colon, and that they feed me with short-chain fatty acids. I’m thrilled by the fact that I am farmed by my microbes as much as I cultivate them, that bacteria modulate my physical and mental well-being, and that my microbes are programmed to eat me from the inside out as soon as my heart stops delivering oxygenated blood to my gut. My bacteria will die too, but only following a very fatty last supper. It is tempting to say that the gut microbiome lives and dies with us, but this distinction between organisms is inadequate: our lives are inseparable from the get-go. The more we learn about the theater of our peristaltic cylinder, the more we lose the illusion of control. We carry the microbes around and feed them; they deliver the power that allows us to do so. Viewed with some philosophical introspection, microbial biology should stimulate a feeling of uneasiness about the meaning of our species and the importance of the individual. But there is boundless opportunity to feel elevated by this science. There are worse fates than to be our kind of farmed animal. In his fascinating book, “The Limits of Self,” French philosopher Thomas Pradeu examined the ramifications of modern immunological theory on the concept of the individual. Much of his argument hinges on the ways in which our microbiome transforms us into chimeric organisms whose functions are integrated by the immune system.
More than 30 years ago, approaching the British equivalent of high-school graduation, I often escaped the school with a girlfriend and wandered around a community garden. Do not imagine Hogwarts for one second; and, worse, ours was a mostly miserable companionship sustained only by the certainty that this was a teenage misfortune from which the future promised deliverance. We called our refuge what we thought it did not resemble: The Garden of Eden. This triangle of grass was ringed by spindly trees that attracted chattering sparrows, and the birds drew the attentions of grimy cats; old men with gray faces shuffled around the garden too, smoking cigarettes while their dogs exercised; candy wrappers and empty bottles decorated the grass. It was an ugly little place at the bottom of a slope beneath a busy road. Calling this Eden was our satire upon the dearth of beauty in our lives. In this twenty-first century, I have my Ohio woods in spring, washed with the colors of flowers and animated by the buzz of pollinating insects. Some of the apparent differences between the community garden and the Midwestern woods are an illusion. The beauty of a forest imposes itself on us through the look, smell, sound, and feel of its plants and animals. Its wider significance—the activities that sustain humanity—lies elsewhere, in the functioning of an intact ecosystem and its power to cleanse the air and purify the groundwater. This, like the microorganisms that perform much of the work, is invisible. The evident sensuality of the forest as well as its hidden functions are both important things from our perspective; important because the woods have the power to elevate our feelings, boost our mood, and because without them, our species cannot prosper.