|Of the Earth, Not on the Earth: The Human Superorganism|
|Friday, 30 July 2010 00:00 | Written by Steven Kotler | Commentary|
Lift up your arm. Hold it in front of you. Look at the distance from the elbow to the finger tip. Feel that weight and heft. Now, imagine that this mass of your body actually belonged to someone else.
Literally. You owned all the other real estate, but that stretch of arm was actually not you. Because that’s exactly the truth.
Genetic analysis of our gastrointestinal tracts find it home to more than a hundred thousand billion (that’s a ten with fourteen zeroes) individual microorganisms from more than 36 species.
And this is just the beginning. We now know that more than 90% of the cells in our bodies are nonhuman. Added together, in mass, these cells would stretch from elbow to fingertip. But their real power extends even further.
There is a balance in your stomach between yeast and bacteria. Take antibiotics for too long or too frequently and all of that bacteria disappears. Without bacteria to keep yeast in check, they run rampant. They over-produce. Eventually they begin to starve.
Yeast feeds on sugar, so when the yeast in your stomach is starving it begins to demand more food. This happens in two ways. The first is that you develop a sweet tooth. The second is more conniving.
Sugar is a fast fuel. It’s quickly converted to energy. That’s the so-called “sugar rush.” So when does the body need fast fuel the most? In times of danger. When you might have to fight or flight.
So the yeast also effects the limbic system, the brain’s emotional center. It makes you feel anxious and afraid and paranoid—which, because the body is now on edge and believing itself in trouble, makes you crave sugar that much more to ready yourself for the coming battle.
And this is but one example, there are others. Maybe millions. In truth, we have no idea how much or how little of what you feel is actually generated by nonhuman cells, but judging by what we already know, the answer is uncomfortably high.
Taken together, this means is that a good portion of your physical body, your thoughts and your feelings—essentially everything you would define as you—is, in fact, not.
This raises a number of questions about what we mean by human. Biologists no longer define humans as a unique species, instead preferring to call us superorganisms.
Which brings me to the East African savannah. Not too long ago, a paper appeared in Science talking about the downstream effects of the disappearance of large grazing mammals—elephants and giraffes primarily—from the savannah.
They warned that the ripple effect stretches all the way down to the ant colonies and acacia trees in ways no one could suspect.
University of Florida zoologist Todd Palmer fenced off an area of acacia trees from giraffes and elephants. Since both species feed on the trees, the obvious conclusion would be that the trees would flourish in the absence of these ravenous herbivores.
They did not.
Palmer discovered that with less predation the trees produced less nectar, which meant less ants fed on them, which meant less ants fended off other species like scale insects and wood-boring beetles, which stunted tree growth by 65%.
The point of both of these examples is that the links between the species living in a human body and the links between the species living on a grassy plain are exponentially more complex than we could ever suspect.
And how these species interweave and share influence and dance the fandango is truly beyond our ken.
Everywhere we look in nature, we find only more and more versions of interconnected complexity, more signs of the butterfly flapping its wings in Iowa causing a hurricane off the coast of Japan.
So why would anyone think that the desalination of sea water and the underground carbon sequestration are good, eco-friendly ideas?
Seriously, we know almost nothing about the ocean. Most scientists think we understand less than 2% of how this ecosystem really works. Yet we’re running out of water and everybody’s best idea to fix this problem is large-scale desalination plants.
Uh-huh. Sure it is.
And what we know about the oceans is exponentially greater than we know about the core of the earth. So while we think we might be able to begin to model the effects of large-scale desalination, we couldn’t even get to the drawing board for carbon sequestration.
There’s a word for this: hubris. There’s another: stupidity.
We keep going at ecology like it was a jigsaw puzzle, rather than a game of pick-up-stix. Yet at every scale of science, from the cosmic down to the quantum, the only constant truism is that every bit of life affects every other bit of life.
Which is why eco-psychologists, the branch of psychology that deals with the impact of ecosystems on the human mind, say that to fix both ourselves and our planet, we must recognize that we are “of the Earth” not “on the Earth.”
But this is being metaphorically polite. To return to the previous comparison: you remove one piece of a jigsaw puzzle and it stays together, but remove a piece from the pick-up-stix and maybe it holds up, or maybe the whole thing collapses.
That’s the biology here. That’s why we can’t keep solving this problem piecemeal. That’s why every species is important.
Complexity isn’t just a new, upstart scientific field. It’s the ballgame. And so, it’s stupid to approach environmentalism any other way.
Steven Kotler is the author of The Angle Quickest for Flight,West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Beliefand the forthcoming A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue, Animal Altruism and the Meaning of Life (Bloomsbury). He is a frequent contributor to anyone who will have him, his non-fiction appearing in more than 50 publications, including the New York Times Magazine, LA Times, Wired, Popular Science, GQ, Outside and National Geographic. He also writes The Playing Field, a blog about the science of sport for PsychologyToday.com and lives with his wife and too many dogs in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.
Updated 7/30/10; originally posted 5/18/09.