by Matthew Wolf-Meyer
Microbial science may be the new solutionism in science and medicine. It’s hard not to see the last several years of hullaballoo over the microbiome as not an extension of scientific panacea-seeking from the late 20th and early 21st centuries: first cracking and cataloging the genome would solve all our health problems, then the rise of neuroscience and the Decade of the Brain (which has turned into a Century of the Brain), and now it’s the microbiome’s turn. And nanotechnology is in there somewhere too.
Except that this solutionism is much older than the DNA sequencing, neuromolecular reductionism, nanomachines, and synthetic biology. Medical and scientific solutionism extends back to the very origins of allopathic medicine and its disciplinary unification in 20th century biomedicine. New technologies open ways of seeing the world, but also the imaginations of scientists, the public, and journalists in their constant search for a panacea for our individual and social ills.
Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life brings together many of the voices in contemporary biology (under its largest possible umbrella), from gastroenterologists and evolutionary biologists to urban planners and public-health oriented scientists fighting mosquito-borne diseases. Yong has a point to make: we are not alone, nor have we ever been. The world is full of microbes, good, bad, and always indifferent, and by recognizing the crowded nature of our bodies, our inhabited spaces, and our evolutionary histories, we’ll come to a fuller appreciation of the abundance and complexities of life on Earth.
But it’s worth being a little skeptical about the microbial animism Yong and some of his interlocutors are invested in. Yes, microbial life is abundant, but the promises of microbial medicine and science have yet to be fully tested. Their broad application is still subject to the economic, institutional, and political forces that impede and propel any new science and medicine – especially one that seeks to trouble the hold that molecular understandings of disease and medicine has on biomedicine as practiced in the U.S. and around the world. We may be on the cusp of a paradigm shift, resulting in advances in human – and environmental – well-being. Or we may not.
Yong’s aim is captured in the subtitle of the book: to draw the reader’s attention to the diversity and splendor of microbial life, and to complicate the simple human-centric conception of the world we live in by demonstrating the integral functions of microbes in evolutionary, environmental, and dietary functioning of humans and all life on Earth. Yong offers a multi-sited survey of the field of microbial science – if a field can be said to exist in any strict sense, since many of the practitioners are widely dispersed and work in remarkably different disciplines. Yong’s interest in the microbe is served by this broad swath of contemporary (and a few historical) actors; microbes really do seem to be creeping into many disciplines and their conception of life, its maintenance and control. And yet, other than knowing they exist, it seems like there’s very little we can do to affect our microbial environments and selves – despite an increasing awareness that they might determine our health, behavior, lifespan, susceptibilities, attitudes, and relationships to food, pets, other people, institutions, and environments.
Although Yong engages with the commercial context of selling the microbe to consumers, especially in relation to probiotics (which have largely proven to be ineffective, yet a significant market), there’s very little attention paid to the broader economic and political contexts in which these microbial sciences are developing and in which scientists are trying to solve specific problems (like microbially-infused mosquitoes helping to eradicate dengue fever in the global south). One of the lessons we should be learning in this recent anti-intellectualist turn in global politics is that science is always political, and science journalism needs to embrace the need to not just describe science, but also the situations that scientists and their funding agencies find themselves in – and how these forces will shape science, scientists, and human and environmental well-being in the years to come.
Yes, I’ve grown a little cynical in my relationship to science reporting. Or maybe, as Yong points out, it’s my microbes inclining me towards a certain cynical reading. Microbes are increasingly seen as affecting mental states, as well as health more generally, and it’s possible that I’m not quite who I think I am – I’m the servant of my microbial colonies. We’ve been together for a long time, gifted to me by my mother, shaped by the various environments I’ve inhabited, shaped by and shaping my diet, influenced by the relationships I’ve had, and the relationships that those people have had, their diets, their environments, their parents, and so on, back through our shared evolutionary history.
Microbes, as Yong tells us, do wondrous things, shaping our bodies and their abilities to respond to environmental and dietary influences; they might even have such influence over us as to shape our tastes – for food and for relationships. As much as we contain these ‘multitudes,’ they control us – or at least it would seem that way based on the various animal models that Yong’s interlocutors work with. Yes, microbes might affect a mouse’s ability to absorb fat, but would we allow that they shape life to such an extent that they helped Yong produce I Contain Multitudes as their manifesto? Or my own slightly cantankerous set of free associations? Taking microbial life seriously means adopting an emergent animism; there is microbial life everywhere, and its forces are inscrutable, yet real. And this animism may be the final nail in the coffin of humanism – microbes are the true masters of Earth, and we are merely containers.
Yong’s interlocutors admit that life is possible without our microbial colonies – it’s just miserable. Just ask all the animals they raise in germ free environments, animals who have been carefully protected from inheriting their mothers’ microbiomes, eat highly curated diets, and never touch a creature from outside of their microbial void. Yes, you can reject these microbial masters; reject symbiosis and assert your true self. Live in a bubble of your own making. You’ll be miserable too. Your diet will be limited to what your body can easily process, your growth might be impacted, your social impulses might be abnormal. When you come back to the microbial fold, the microbes will be happy to have you – and synthetic biologists and pharmaceutical companies will be happy to help them colonize you with a curated, highly personalized cocktail of tiny imperialists. We’re better together, after all.
For the last several years, I’ve been following the reinvention of fecal microbial transplant (FMT), which Yong discusses as one of the potential medical outcomes of the current microbial craze. FMT is very effective for Clostridium difficile infections, and the risks are so low that people are trying it for any number of complaints: irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, autism, type-2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and who knows what else, since you can do it at home without medical supervision. With the recognition that our internal colonies of microbes might affect our nervous systems – and our brain’s operations in particular – why not try and identify some healthy microbial strains and colonize unhealthy guts? Those unhealthy inhabitants might not like being pushed out in favor of a more mutually beneficial community of colonizers, and the humans involved will surely benefit from a happier collaboration. But if those strains are all standardized, might we unwittingly be doing the bidding of those tiny imperialists? Might be not be promulgating specific populations of colonizers without a clear sense of what they get out of it?
I can’t read Yong’s use of the word ‘multitude’ without thinking of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s discussion of global anti-imperial politics. Yong’s use of the term is apolitical. These microbes have no politics, they seem to have no desires other than sustenance and reproduction (if we can impute desire to them at all). They seem to be intent-free actors, just busying themselves with creating relationships with other creatures to help them eat and breed. Although Yong and his interlocutors recognize that there are some especially nasty microbes in the world, and that there are some bad relationships that can develop over time between microbes and their hosts, it also comes to seem like every microbe has its purpose – and in the grand web of life, maybe it does. But the ecumenical stance embedded in this kind of biological animism might benefit from synthesizing some lessons from political economy and political ecology (it’s not until page 260 of 264 of Yong’s book that there seems to be any awareness of something like inequality in the world), both in terms of what kinds of science and industry are benefiting from this turn towards the microbial, but also in thinking about the politics of microbes themselves. After all, wars are often fought for resources, and our microbial multitudes depend upon the resources we provide them. Politics would seem to be much more micro than we have been led to believe, and accounting for the motives of our symbionts seems to be increasingly necessary as we shepherd our internal colonies, who may be at war among themselves and with us as well.
Consider Yong’s encapsulation below of what’s at stake in the rise of the microbiome:
The microbiome is not a constant entity. It is a teeming collection of thousands of species, all constantly competing with one another, negotiating with their host, evolving, changing. It wavers and pulses over a 24-hour cycle, so that some species are more common in the day while others rise at night. Your genome is almost certainly the same as it was last year, but your microbiome has shifted since your last meal or sunrise.
If genomic science and medicine is what Michel Foucault referred to as ‘disciplinary’ – it depends on the unchanging unitary nature of the individual, seeking to fix wayward genomes or eliminate them altogether – then the emerging microbial science and medicine is what Gilles Deleuze referred to as a ‘control society.’ Control societies are in constant flux, highly individuated, and rely on the production of debt. We’re always catching up with our pasts in control societies, and the demands of the past, present, and future, are constantly shifting and unsettling. The microbial view of optimization – of the self, relationships, and our environments – is one that depends equally upon heterogeneity and standardization. Yes, microbiomes change over time and vary over space, but with the right environmental knowledge and microbial cocktail, everything could be so much better. Sustained self-monitoring and constant intervention are the routes to realizing the potential of microbial medicine, enshrining a new politics of microscopic risk.
So here are a few questions to consider (and which, I’ll admit, keep me awake at night from time to time). Are we seeing an ontological shift in biomedicine away from the molecular and towards the microbial? In other words, are we coming to understand that it’s microbes, not chemicals, that are the primary drivers of human health? Is it my diet that makes me cranky, or my brain chemistry? Because, in either case, society and social relations are off the table. If we are moving towards a microbial conception of health and disease, is this going to be a messy paradigm shift, or an effortless one? (I’m going with messy, literally and figuratively.) Is this the end of disciplinary medicine – are we entering an era when control societies more accurately describe the institutional demands and relational forms that produce our senses of self and being in the world? And what do these tiny imperialists want (if they can be said to want anything at all)? Did they kick off the agricultural revolution that humans have always been facilitating for our microscopic masters? Are we fully entered into an era of what Heather Paxson refers to as ‘microbiopolitics’ on the macro scale that we need a neologism for? With a nod to James Lovelock, will ‘gaiapolitics’ do?
It’s hard for me to read Yong’s interlocutors and their desires to seed our bodies, built, and urban environments with beneficial microbes without thinking about Greg Bear’s Blood Music. Bear’s novel follows a scientist as he develops and implants ‘noocytes,’ his own nanotech invention. Not to spoil anything, but the noocytes become infectious, moving from host to host, eventually liquidating all the life they come into contact with in an effort to produce one massive lifeform, no longer human, but truly multitudinous, marrying the organic matter that the noocytes have come into contact with into one homogenous living mass. The politics of the biological multitude are unitary. Yong’s interlocutors see a future in which they’ve successfully identified all the good microbes and their combinations, screened out bad ones, and developed technologies to harness benefits and minimized drawbacks. The future would seem to be microbial. But is there much room for humans in this future? And should we care?
Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that the true masters of Earth aren’t us humans, that the Anthropocene is just liberal self-flagellation, and that we’ve always been living in what Yong jokingly refers to as the Microbiocene, which will extend long after we’re gone. Maybe we should just accept that we serve at the grace of tiny, apolitical, thoughtless masters, and the best we can do is find a mutually-beneficial environment until the balance tips irrevocably against us. Or maybe that’s just the microbes talking…
Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University.