Why Liberals Love the Microbiome

Ed Yong has written a lovely book. He takes us into the new science of the microbiome, introducing the key ideas and the central players. His writing is clear, compelling and self-effacing. His enthusiasm for his subject and his characters is infectious. His book has been well received; achieving bestseller status, rave high-profile reviews in the liberal press, and even an invitation for an audience with Bill Gates. But the quality of his writing cannot alone account for this popularity. Instead, I want to argue that there is something about Ed Yong’s microbiome that resonates with a contemporary zeitgeist. Here, as Heather Paxson and Stefan Helmreich argue, microbes offer ‘model ecosystems’ for liberal hopes and dreams. Five dimensions to the liberal microbiome stand out here.

First, this is an ecological book for the environmentally minded. It is about understanding ourselves as part of a wider microbial world. We learn of the human as a ‘holobiont’: a multispecies chimera, kept alive by diverse microbial kin. In one compelling passage Yong suggests that the human is no different to a coral reef: a complex ecology kept functional by diverse symbiotic relationships. It is our microbes that make us human; we are multitudes. This account undermines models of human exceptionalism, revealing our entanglements with our wider environments and the vital roles played by microbes in keeping us alive. In a style that is surprisingly redolent of Donna Haraway’s recent writing, we learn that we have never been human.

Second, such ecological thinking shapes the focus of this book on living with microbes. Yong offers an appeal for a micro environmental ethics and a manifesto for microbial gardening. He encourages us to:

Say goodbye to outdated and dangerous war metaphors, in which we are soldier hell bent on eradicating germs at whatever cost. Say hello to a gentler and more nuanced gardening metaphor. Yes, we still have to pull out the weeds, but we also seed and feed the species that bind the soil, freshen the air, and please the eye.

I contain multitudes identifies the deficiencies of binary and martial metaphors of hygiene and immunity based on the defense of a bounded and stable self. Some germs are still to be feared, but we learn more about microbial tolerance and how the body nurturing and seeks out microbial encounters. Exclusion and eradication are out; living well involves learning to respect our microbes. Immunity is presented as a communitarian achievement. The book might be read as an elegant allegory for how we might live with difference.

Third, we learn how the new science of symbiogenesis in the expanding field of ecological-evolutionary-development biology poses important challenges to the ‘modern synthesis’ of 20th century biology. Symbiogenesis traces the microbial origins of animal life highlighting the bacterial traces folded into eukaryotic cells. It suggests that bacteria’s ability to exchange materials laterally across species, and to adapt to their environment, undermines strict models of natural selection by vertical descent. While Yong sees nothing in this paradigm that challenges the original Darwin, it is clear that theories of symbiogenesis undermine contemporary models of social Darwinism that have drawn legitimation from the modern synthesis. Rhizomatic microbes enfolded in animal genomes challenge a sociobiology of bounded and rugged individuals in fierce competition. Instead, we are offered social and communitarian models of evolution involving cooperation, friendship and the mixing of different forms into one another. No one can be selfish here.

Fourth, this book provides a none-too-subtle defense of science and the scientist for a post-Truth age. Here and on his popular blog, Yong is a stalwart defender of the scientific method and of the political place of science in society. The scientists in this story are both heroic and humble. We hear of past genius vindicated beyond their lifetimes. We learn of brilliant men and women commanding extensive laboratories, high technology and big data. Their science is rational, disinterested and for the greater good.

These scientists are also celebrated for their integrity and fundamental curiosity. Yong channels this sensibility in the most compelling literary sections of his book to open up a novel microbial sublime. This is marked not by the terror of infectious disease, which is the common affect of popular science on microbes. Instead Yong offers a sympathetic wonder for the alterity, diversity and sheer magnitude of microbial life. From the title onward, he channels both Whitman and Darwin: offering us a ‘grander view of life’ and a holistic epistemology of consummate and worldly knowledge. In burnishing the reputations of his microbiologists, Yong offers a paean for a passionate science.

Finally, this is a story about microbial modernisation. Yong offers a techno-optimistic account of a near future of rational microbial management. We learn of personalised microbial therapeutics, of buildings designed to optimise their microbial composition, and smart infrastructure that will deal with the waste of urban life. There is a lot of hype around the microbiome, and Yong knows it. But he can’t resist a strongly optimistic narrative arc in which his heroic scientists are on the cusp of domesticating and modernising the microbiome. The future is bright and buggy. This makes for a compelling story, but it leaves some important gaps.

Most significantly, Yong does not spend much time exploring the ways in which microbiome science is fundamentally entangled within the political economies of North American biotechnology and biomedicine. To do so would open up some more troubling dimensions to the liberal microbiome. For example, much of the work on the microbiome of the built environment that Yong excitedly reports at the end of the book was funded out of a US interest in detecting acts of bioterrorism. That it has produced a wealth of basic science and possible design applications is nice, but this was not the primary motivation. Or we might explore how the mining and translation of the microbiome for therapeutics is driven by both venture capital and the pharmaceutical industry, both of which are keen to see certain microbes and even vernacular therapeutic practices (like fecal transplant) patented and made private. Many of the heroic scientists in this book lead, advise or hold stock in these companies. While this is not surprising or even perhaps undesirable, it is not mentioned in Yong’s account.

Finally, of course the beneficiaries of this modernized microbial future are unevenly distributed in space and across social groups. Modern hygiene and sanitation remain patchy. Many people are missing beneficial ‘old friend’ microbes but live in hot spots of infection intensity with high exposure to the crowd diseases of urban life in the Global South. And the likely beneficiaries of any recalibration of microbial management will live in select areas in the Global North. These ‘post-Pasteurians’ will likely make up a key readership of this book. The unmet challenge – as with other liberal dreams of techno-scientific salvation – is to situate the implications of microbiome science within their wider political, economic and ecological contexts.

Jamie Lorimer is an Associate Professor in Human Geography at Oxford.