Writing the Microbiome

Imagine that you really like ice cream. You like it so much that you spend years learning about it—you become an expert on ice cream ingredients and how they chemically combine, you do fieldwork in ice creameries, living with, working with, and intensively studying ice cream makers, you taste and love every kind of ice cream there is. Over the course of a decade you make your own ice cream. Then one day, another ice cream expert comes along. He’s been investigating ice cream from a different angle, but also has been developing an extensive expertise over years. Let’s say this person makes a special batch of carefully crafted ice cream, and presents it to the world as a collection of all the current knowledge on ice cream combined into a perfect product. You taste that special ice cream and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It makes you uneasy; it unsettles your stomach. For me, I Contain Multitudes, is that ice cream.

I’m a sociocultural anthropologist who has been working collaboratively with human microbial ecologists since 2009. While the scientists study how microbes in the gut are connected to malnutrition, I investigate social determinants that affect microbiota, providing the lab with qualitative ethnographic data about social networks, daily practices, and infrastructural conditions. Microbiome researchers are attempting to develop interventions to treat metabolic dysfunction and nutritional deficiencies—to solve the problems of malnutrition with microbial treatments. I think that by accounting for microbes, and through interdisciplinary collaborations in the study of microbes, natural and social scientists can work toward co-accountable, ethical, and effective scientific practices.

Yong has told us, through recent years of science reporting for National Geographic and The Atlantic, that the microbiota on and in human bodies are ubiquitous and crucial to human health. This new book provides vast coverage of many current research topics including: human-microbe evolutionary relationships, genetic inheritance and horizontal gene transfer, the environmental microbiome, synthetic biology and microbes, personalized precision microbial treatments, and many, many, many stories of animals, fish and insects, and their good/bad, immensely diverse and specialized microbial communities. Microbiome research has undergone explosive and exponential growth alongside the development of metagenomic technologies since the early 2000s, and I appreciate the need to convey the enormity of the field. But even though it’s only 264 pages, I Contain Multitudes feels like a very long book. Maybe it drags on due to the recurring narrative structure of surprise and awe (aren’t microbes so crazy cool!), research reporting (here’s what little scientists actually know), Yong’s own assessment (tempered optimism), then rinse and repeat. So much information makes you lose track of the specific labs, creatures, and geography. For an anthropologist who has dedicated seven years to one lab, meticulously investigating what is at stake for social and biological sciences in these newly understood human-microbe relationships, Yong’s brief encounters with over twenty scientists chafes my ethnographic sensibility.

And look, I get it. I am hardly the intended audience for this book. But the intellectual irritation I feel has made me think hard about what kind of relationship scholars of science and technology studies should have with science journalism. Academics and social scientists who dedicate decades of professional careers studying science and scientists walk lines of deep critical reflection, navigate ethical quagmires, grapple with collaborative challenges, and speculatively imagine outcomes. On the other hand, science writers are charged with transforming scientific information into publicly digestible bits, trying to make people care about and understand science. The very weird part is that while we spend lifetimes thinking about how science affects society, they are in a parallel universe communicating science to society. And science writers never talk to anthropologists of science. Why?

Yong came to science writing with an MPhil in biochemistry, and is often commended for the careful and complete (almost scientific) research he does. His writing has received many awards from both journalistic and scientific organizations. He has been the subject of academic papers about the emergent new roles of science journalists online, and journal articles describe him as a boundary crossing entity who facilitates new relationships between publics, scientific knowledge, and media. One PLOS blogger described Ed Yong as “the future of science news.” And perhaps he is. He is committed to simply explaining complex scientific concepts, and sometimes he thinks critically about science in its cultural context.

But it makes me wonder—especially in a digital media universe, wouldn’t it produce a much fuller picture of the science to also include those who have been observing and thinking deeply about the scientific work, working with those scientists for ages? Why are the social sciences left out of this communication conduit, when they could serve so obviously as a bridge? Have academic anthropologists, sociologists of science, and science studies scholars jargoned and siloed themselves right out of usefulness when it comes to interacting with public readers? Yong spent six months researching I Contain Multitudes before he started writing for six months. While apparently in science writing this is an impressively long time, in anthropology one does several years of preparatory graduate coursework on a topic before even attempting several years of intensive fieldwork, followed by several more years of writing. Does that make anthropologists better? No, but it makes for a different kind of expertise with different approaches to how to think about science.

So where do these differences lie? It is likely that social scientists have different ethical commitments than science journalists, and certainly different goals. In my work I am attempting to develop an “anthropology of microbes” to explore how bioscience and anthropology might jointly engage pressing global health problems. I’m thinking about human microbiota as a vector of care and scientific knowledge—specifically global health policy and translational research. At the same time, I’m trying to figure out how microbial perspectives are playing out in how human health is defined and studied, what types of global health interventions are possible and promoted, and on what types of bodies. In collaboration with scientists, I’m trying to hold microbiome science accountable to the sociomaterial (and political and economic) conditions of life, while working out tactics for integrating ethnographic information into the design and implementation of human/microbiota studies. Like Yong, I believe in the importance of microbes, to our bodily survival, and to how we think of humans, live in our environments, and interact with other organisms. Unlike Yong, I am trying to unthink human exceptionalism when it comes to studies of microbiota; not why microbes should matter to us, but how they are enacted and what those enactments do in the world.

On further reflection, Yong’s ice cream isn’t bad, it’s just missing some ingredients. Tasting it reminds me that disciplinary investments in critiques of science or rejections of biological materiality can be a bitter taste for the social sciences to keep in our mouths. I’m glad Yong is making ice cream; microbiome research has the potential to be a potent transdisciplinary field, and he is qualified and well-positioned to report on it and interpret it through popular writing. But since he has taken on this mantle, I would hope that he considers other trajectories of thought that ask different questions of microbes and the ways in which human lives depend on them. The Huffington Post employs Paul Stoller to write, The Guardian online has an anthropology section, and The Atlantic recently posted an ad for anthropologist writers. This trend of bloggifying anthropological thought should extend to science journalism, as a reminder that there are scholars of science and society with insights to contribute to popular understandings of science.

Amber Benezra is an Assistant Professor of Science & Technology Studies at New York University.