Us and Them

Science upends the world. That’s what makes it different. Philosophy and religion can stick with the old questions as they are unanswerable. Were the old sages wise? Do they still teach us? That’s enough material to keep anyone going. It’s good stuff, but it’s not new. Science alone does that—it finds out new things.

Here’s one:

There are more bacteria in your gut alone than cells in your entire body.

Our parents and grandparents didn’t know this. They might not have cared. But it would have upended their world. After all this is what that bit up there means: there is more of them than you.

If that doesn’t mess with your head consider a check-up. Seriously. There is more of them than you. What is our most sacred and treasured thing? Our autonomy. Our sense of self. Our individual identity. Our uniqueness. It should be said that unless you are a twin or somesuch you do indeed have a unique arrangement of alleles on your genes. This notion of apart-ness is powerful and important, especially in a capitalist society. But now we know that there are more of them (tiny critters) than there are of us (folks).

I think we ought to shout that from the rooftops. I have a lot of rooftops, and it’s hot. But think about all the foaming at the mouth we do over stuff like immigration. We as a body politic worry about whether there are more of them than there are of us. That’s nothing. We are already there. There’s more of them than us.

We aren’t who we think we are. Science has shown us that our idea of race is a fallacy. We all have the same genes. Some of us have different characteristics, but we are all united by common ancestry. We’ve all got the same DNA. Now we’ve found out that our very notion of individuality is a joke.

You’ve got a monkey on your back. Me, too. All of us. It’s inside, and microscopic, but it’s there and it’s as much you as you. More, in fact. Imagine the genetic possibilities, all the many, many non-human genes living within you. That blows my mind. Think about the diversity of creatures. It’s like your own wilderness area. A private ecosystem. Well, except for the stuff you excrete. Thanks for sharing, by the way. Nothing is truly private in nature, it all has to go somewhere. Closed systems are temporary things; the Second Law cannot be violated.

I’m not an “I” anymore I’m a “We.” Me and my flora. There’s more of my flora than there is of me. And before you get upset about these alien invaders it turns out they are the older ones. I’m the newcomer. These living things came first. It may be that they made me come about, that their role in the evolution of hominids was a crucial one. After all without them I can’t digest my food or void my wastes or fight infection or any of a host of things. We live within an intricate metabolic energy balance, whizzing and pasting and pooting through the day. We have to have air, fuel, and water to keep things pretty close to 98.6 Fahrenheit. We are constantly on, we have only a shutdown button and there’s no reset. Our very lives are flux as we live inside this permeable membrane that continually exchanges stuff, like air and other chemicals—the stuff of life—with the outside world. If it stops, we stop.

And now it turns out a whole bunch of other things are in there with the me I thought was just me. I’m in this bag of skin and bones with armies of them and only one of us. I mean me. Here’s some science-speak:

The gut harbors trillions of bacteria that modulates the host homeostasis within and outside the intestinal tract.

Good thing! I like homeostasis. You should, too. So these trillions of fellow travelers with me are keeping the me alive. I can’t kick ’em out. I’m stuck with them. They make it all go and I suppose I ought to take a more neighborly outlook. Hey, I eat live-culture yogurt! I drink homebrewed beer! I’m very pro-biotic, man. My bacteria ought to be happy with me. I’m thinking it’s smart to keep them that way.

Science is a human endeavor. It’s filled with all that’s good as well as all that’s bad about people, just like any other human endeavor. But this new stuff that pops up is truly new. People may have guessed some of the things about nature back in the day. The Greeks came up with the idea of atoms, for example. But those were just ideas then. They are tangible now. Not literally, you can’t touch them. But they are real. Ideas in science are all fine and dandy, but repeatable results matter more. And when the facts come, we have to be ready to see the world anew.

We are not what we think we are. Our social conditioning and mental outlook are holdovers from more ignorant times. We know more now than we did then when we constructed these schemes about individuals and societies. Science has out-stripped cultural norms. We aren’t autonomous beings. We are ecologies. That’s a very different thing. So different we don’t know what to make of it. We aren’t mentally evolved enough. I predict that will change, and sooner rather than later. The accumulation of such revelatory ideas will reach a crticial mass and we’ll be forced to adapt, as a species. Note the physical words, mass and force. See how hampered I am by the language of Newtonian mechanics? Surely these happenings will not be governed by Newton’s Laws. They aren’t billiard balls or rocket ships.

In the meantime I’ll try to be me and you try to be you and we’ll all be us together. But we better start thinking more about them. They aren’t going anywhere.

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