Radiating Microbes and Fuzzy Anthropologies

As humans in our household, my wife and I are collectively outnumbered as a species by dogs, cats, and an aquatic turtle. I write from my home office in the company of one of our pups. She is tired from morning walks, eating neighborhood flora and soils, and monitoring our backyard for squirrel activity. Our other pup is in the living room, tuckered from playing fetch with one of her orange rubber balls. It is covered with dirt, her saliva, my imprints, and the unique microbiota we likely have created together by exchanging it on a daily basis. I envision unseen microcosms when I pet our cats, remove my gardening gloves, transfer laundry from the washer to the dryer, fill a glass with water, etc. Similar to our social relationships with other humans, pets, plants, etc., our “microbiomes have wide-reaching tendrils that root us in the wider world.” I cherish these interconnected worlds that, although not fully visible to me, are part and parcel of our daily lives. I also value my fuzzy anthropological worldview that does not take “biology” or “nature” for granted in ways that I am concerned Ed Yong does in I Contain Multitudes.

One of Yong’s most interesting points is that we not only rely upon and are affected by microbes, but also that we radiate and transform them. In his journey through time and space Yong lingers at the edge of taking a critical stance stance on ideas about biology and what he often refers to as “the natural world.” This position is important, especially for a book as widely read by non-scientists and acclaimed as his has been. But does he go far enough? As a social scientist I am convinced that without a robust worldview that questions the supposedly inherent nature of “nature” and “biology” we cannot understand ecologies of health and illness, appreciate microbiota, or account for the costs of human activities among species. At the same time, I wonder how I would convey that critique to a wider audience if I were in his position.

Yong suggests that one “could equally argue that we are still living in the Microbiocene: a period that started at the dawn of life itself and will continue to its very end.” This does not mean that humans are out of the picture, as Yong makes clear in his accounts of over-prescribed antibiotics, the Home Microbiome Project, and historical debates about the root causes of disease. Moreover, humans “have one huge advantage that all other animals lack: we know that microbes exist…We have tools that can decipher the rules that govern their existence, and the nature of their partnerships with us.” (italics in original text). To me this sounds a lot like an anthropological explanation of how capacities for imagination and symbolic representation distinguish humans from non-human primates and species. But at times, even when he emphasizes the relationships at the heart of his grand microbial worldview, Yong seems to prioritize “the natural” as the ultimate basis of human and biological social life.

This brings me to Yong’s discussion of the limits of labeling microbes as “good” or “bad.” He argues that: “there is no such thing as a ‘good microbe’ or a ‘bad microbe’…These terms…are ill-suited for describing the messy, fractious, contextual relationships of the natural world.” I could not agree more. Yong is concerned about how the good v. bad dichotomy drives powerful, multi-billion dollar anti-microbial and probiotics industries. He’s clear that there is no “natural history” of disease; we are all archipelagos. Yet as the chapters proceed, I become confused about where he stands; I find it interesting that Yong partially clings to a notion of “the natural world” even as he works to question it.

My research has taught me first-hand that biology and the natural world are contingent outcomes of social, historical, and political processes, and that this can be a matter of living and dying. For example, in my own book on responses to tuberculosis in the country of Georgia, I learned about how laboratory technicians, physicians, and prisoners created multiple meanings of tuberculosis. For them, tuberculosis was not a static entity that could be firmly diagnosed based on the presence or absence of the microbe Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB) in sputum, on a microscope slide or grown in culture.

For lab techs, microbiologists, and health care practitioners MTB was something to be targeted for elimination, often with limited resources for doing so. However, for some of the prisoners I studied who lived at most detention facilities in darkness, filth, overcrowding, and severe interpersonal violence, a positive diagnosis of tuberculosis was a means to escape those conditions. When TB services were first made available to prisoners in post-Soviet Georgia, treatment was only available in one renovated establishment where detainees had access to fresh air and sunlight, better food, and far less violence. To improve their daily lives, prisoners circulated sputum (bronchial mucus) infected with MTB within and between sites of detention. Although detainees did not want the physiological symptoms of active illness or to take antibiotics that have severe side effects, the perceived presence of the microbe in an individual’s sputum sample became a highly desirable route to “better” prison conditions. These complex ecologies gave rise to social networks of exchange that converted supposedly “naturally” pathogenic microbes into a valuable commodity. TB professionals thought of securing a false TB diagnosis as “cheating,” but I saw it as a rational survival strategy.

This story parallel’s Yong’s critical historical analysis of germ theory of disease and the post-Pasteur worldview that all microbes (especially bacteria and viruses) are by their very nature pathogenic, a worldview that still overshadows a more symbiotic perspective. Granted, in the case of tuberculosis, a symbiotic perspective does not take away from the reality that active infection means that one is living with illness and potentially harmful antibiotics. But it does urge us to see the meanings of and experiences with infection from multiple viewpoints.

We radiate microbes and, as Yong makes clear, also transform them and our local and broader worlds. This is one reason why his book, written as “popular science”, is so important. At the same time,

Yong seems to embrace notions of “the natural world” even as his historical analyses, provocative interviews with scientists, and his own personal experiences and analyses destabilize the nature of “natural” microbes. Or maybe not. I’ve waffled a bit on this point over multiple readings of his text. After all, reading can be a dynamic and symbiotic process, too. At the very least, I think Yong would agree on that point. The mutual strengths and weaknesses of this text underscore how important it is to establish clear lines of communication between social and biological scientists, and the broader public in ways that make scientific practices, theories, and findings accessible, but not unquestionable. Yong also reminds me of why I’m obsessed with microbiota.

Erin Koch is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky.