Human as Interspecies Community

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Dorion Sagan:

"Life deals in ... mixed cultures. It has been working with crowds for billions of years. Most of the DNA of the estimated 100 quadrillion cells in our bodies is not “ours,” but belongs to cohabiting bacteria.

Ten percent of our dry weight is bacteria, but there are ten of “their” cells in our body for every one of “ours,” and we cannot make vitamin K or B12 without them. Vernadsky thought of life as an impure, colloidal form of water. What we call “human” also impure, laced with germs. We have met the frenemy, and it is us.

But before leaving this point of the pointillist composition that is our Being made of beings, please notice that even those cells that do not swarm in our guts, on our skin, coming and going, invading pathogenically or aiding probiotically—please notice that even these very central animal cells, the differentiated masses of lung, skin, brain, pancreas, placental and other would be strictly human tissues that belong to our body proper—even they are infiltrated, adulterated, and packed with Lilliputian others. The mitochondria, for example, that reproduce in your muscles when you work out, come from bacteria.

We come messily from a motley. Indeed we literally come from messmates and morphed diseases, organisms that ate and did not digest one another, and organisms that infected one another and killed each other and formed biochemical truces and merged.

Hypersex[1] is a provisional name for the commingling of organisms that meet, eat, engulf, invade, trade genes, acquire genomes, and sometimes permanently merge. Life displays mad hospitality. Korean biologist Kwang Jeon of the University of Tennessee received in the 1970s a batch of amoebae infected with a deadly bacterial strain. Most died. In a set of careful experiments after culturing the survivor amoebae for several generations, he found that the survivors, with fewer bacteria per cell, could no longer live without their infection. Deprived of their new friends and former enemies, the nuclei would not function without micro-injections of bacteria into the cytoplasm. The sickness had become the cure; the pathogens had become organelles; the last had become the first.

Had Jeon, who was a Christian, witnessed speciation in the laboratory? It seems so. But it was not gradual, as neoDarwinism predicts. It was near-instantaneous, the result not of mutations accumulating in a lineage, but of transformative parasitism.

Peculiar behavior, you say? Not really. Considering that life has been growing on Earth for some 3.8 billion years, it is not surprising that life has grown into itself, eaten itself, and merged with itself. Crowd control has long been an issue. Radical solutions have long been the norm. In 2006 researchers at Texas A&M University and the University of Glasgow Veterinary School in Scotland reported to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that endogenous retroviruses called enJSRVs are essential for attachment of the placenta and therefore pregnancy in sheep.

Like bacteria, viruses “R” us: They have moved in to our genomes. Viral structural proteins have been “hijacked” and integrated into mammal reproductive tissues, immune systems, and brains. Some retroviruses disable receptors that lead to infection by other retroviruses. There is no racial, let alone genetic purity in life. At bottom we are part virus, the offspring not just of our parents but of promiscuous pieces of DNA and RNA. The road to humanity is paved with genetic indiscretions and transgressions, no less than sheep would not be sheep without their acquired enJSRV.

Biologist Margaret McFall-Ngai (2011), asked a roomful of doctors what it meant for our marine ancestors to be surrounded by all those germs—about a hundred million cells per liter. They had no answer, but she told them: She has proposed that the immune system evolved not to eliminate pathogens but to select for symbionts in the microbe-packed waters of our metazoan ancestors. The immune system in its origin may thus be more like an employment agency, recruiting desired species, than like a national security state, recognizing and refusing entry to guard the fake purity of the Self.

Today it is widely recognized that the cells of animals were once a wild party of two if not three ancient bacteria: the oxygen-poisoned archaebacteria host, the oxygen-using bacteria that became mitochondria, and perhaps wildly squirming spirochetes, which abound in anaerobic environments. These wrigglers often penetrate their fellows, which have no immune systems. They feed at the edges, becoming snaky motors propelling their brethren, or take up residence inside them, wiggling happily ever after.

According to my mother, who’s been right before (Teresi 2011), ancient bacterial symbioses gave our ancestors the intracellular motility abilities we see in mitosis, and in the growth of undulating appendages.

The creation of new symbioses by mergers on a crowded planet is called symbiogenesis. Although this type of evolution sounds bizarre—a monstrous breach of Platonic etiquette in favor of polymorphous perversity—it is now confirmed by genetic evidence, taught in textbooks. It is a fact, or what Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, not putting too fine a point on it, would call a factish. Nonetheless, although symbiogenesis—the evolution of new species by symbiosis—is now recognized, it is still treated often treated as marginal, applicable to our remote ancestors but not relevant to present-day core evolutionary processes.

This is debatable. We are crisscrossed and cohabited by stranger beings, intimate visitors who affect our behavior, appreciate our warmth, and are in no rush to leave. Like all visible life forms, we are composites. Near unconditional hospitality is necessary when we consider the sick factish that most of the human genome may be viral DNA (Carter 2010). Some partnerships are fantastic. Luminous bacteria cram together to provide various marine animals with organs to light their way; deep-sea angler females even use their shiny bacteria lights as lures to catch other fish. Luminescent bacteria, of the species Vibrio fischeri, provide the bobtailed squid, Euprymna scolopes, a nocturnal animal which feeds in the moonlight, so-called “counter-illumination”: it projects light downward from its light organ, so it doesn’t show up as a tasty morsel outlined in silhouette for hungry predatory fish below.

Nestled within the chromosomes of some parasitic wasps lie bacteria. Multiple insect species transform gender due to Wolbachia bacteria. The genus is nearly ubiquitous in insect tissues. By disabling the gender-changing bacteria, antibiotics can make separate species of jewel wasps interbreed again. More bizarre than the space aliens we imagine abducting and toying with us on their saucers, these gender-changing bacteria bring in suites of genes for metabolic and reproductive features as they establish symbioses, often permanent, in arthropods." (

Commentary by Augustin Fuentes

“Sagan tells us “Anthropology—the study of (hu) man—obeys this same logic of the return of the ghost of what was excluded, in this case all the systems, living and nonliving, which make our kind possible.”

Yes, this quote is at the heart of the matter….the idea that such an approach is inclusive of multiple systems in which we are enmeshed, encircled and entangled. For my response here I will take pieces from Sagan’s excellent discourse and weave them into a narrative that touches on two additional areas of great importance in anthropology today: the role of science (both reductive and expansive)and the need for a sincere entanglement of evolutionary, socio-cultural, and other theoretical beasties in our chimeric toolkit.

The reality that Dorian Sagan focuses on is a reality that calls for a true multispecies approach… but at the same time, if we are to engage in this endeavor we must be scientists of a sort…that is, we must be open to the work of a diverse range of scientific disciplines as part of our endeavor. Anthropology IS multi and trans-disciplinary and in assessing, prodding, disassembling and reassembling the human we need to recognize that reductionist scientific approaches alongside of expansionist ones have important seats at the table.

But that is not my main point. Rather I’d like to convince you that, as anthropologists, we should think about niche construction, the building, destroying and altering of niches in external and internal senses, in our bodies and ecologies, and how this perspective, combined with a true multispecies-ness impacts our senses of selves . As we barrel down the highway of our intellectual landscape we are moving past the Kantian and Cartesian human/other and mind-body dualism to seeing commingling multi bodies as the human self. I echo Sagan’s call and ask again, if this is the case can we include our inherent others as part of the niche of the human that anthropologists seek to explore?

It is important to note at this point that there is a role for structure and constraint here as well. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of looking at everything as ‘counting’ in the multispecies community. For me that is too broad…I think we need to stick, as anthropologists, to our significant others (our social, symbolic, and biological nonhuman kin, if you will). Not everything goes. One can get overly, and poetically, carried away with the notions of multispecies minglings. However, sincere and focused playing with these concepts can inform our notions and experiences of personhood and our evolutionary histories and futures. To illustrate this, give me leeway here to take two bits mentioned by Sagan and run with them.

Allow me to retitle Sagan’s section on “Hypersex and Frenemies”: ME AND MY MICROBIOME.

Sagan points out, correctly, that we are not alone in the universe, actually that we are not alone within our skin… our “frenemies” the human microbiome is relevant to anthropology in myriad ways but it also opens the door to the larger evolutionary discourses. The mutual mutability of form and function in becoming human with other humans and nonhuman others is a central tenet in human evolution and should be recognized as a locus for the anthropological gaze …one where we can influence scientific practice in fields outside our own.

For example, the NIH micro biome project website describes the four goals for the project:

  • Determining whether individuals share a core human microbiome
  • Understanding whether changes in the human microbiome can be correlated with changes in human health
  • Developing the new technological and bioinformatic tools needed to support these goals
  • Addressing the ethical, legal and social implications raised by human microbiome research

This is fascinating and important, but as anthropologists we see many other ways wherein this is important to people. We can stress, as does Dorian Sagan, the lived multispecies and symbiotic realities that characterize the microbiome-human symbiont. If we envision our inclusive selves in this sense then both evolutionary approaches and ethnographic approaches can claim major roles alongside these more limited biomedical and simple sociological ones… and we can use our insights to inform and engage with other practitioners also interested in these worlds (be they doctors, NIH researchers, theologians, philosophers or epidemiologists). Today, well into the Anthropocene, Anthropology can, and should, be a central player in the exploration of the human as a conglomerate multispecies self.

Sagan writes of the “commingling of organisms that meet, eat, engulf, invade, trade genes, acquire genomes, and sometimes permanently merge.”

Sagan notes that embracing this notion of hypersex could also lead to “a cross fertilization of interdisciplinary thought and fields.” Many biologists, geneticists and others have already taken this stance and noted that beyond even symbiogenesis, nearly all major events in the history of life can be seen not as primarily a conflictual Hobbesian moment, “nature red tooth and claw,” but rather an epic of enormous cooperation and symbiosis in the evolution of life again, and again and again. It is interesting that the sheer overwhelming power of accumulated data, largely via reductionist scientific means, has resulted in opening grand new meta-venues for seeing the world and for thinking about being humans both in and with this broadly cooperative and mutually mutable world.

Sagan notes “Such are the new facts—factishes—of life. As genes are not selves, the notion of selfish gene remains a trope. Selves are materially recursive beings with sentience, and the minimum self seems to be a cell.” I agree, but I take this in the other direction, the multi-cellular and multi-organismal one, and argue that this same logic forces us to see that the minimum self for humans is multispecies AND multihuman. That is, we can only become human in the company of other humans (in community) just as we can only become alive in the company of(in community with) other life forms. Sagan’s notion of otherhood melds with the notion of the extended mind; the idea that the human niche is expansive, cognitive, material, and experienced in community with ourselves and others. Our material and symbolic contexts AND the people we exist with day in and day out are part of our shared cognitive resources. The human theory of mind, a personhood that is both self and empathically other, enables us to create and modify social and ecological niches unlike any other organisms on the planet…this pattern is Anthropos.

Our minds are not trapped in our skulls any more than our bodies could exist in the absence of multispecies communities…To ignore this in any approaches to becoming and being human is, simply put, ignorant.

Sagan concludes “I believe anthropology’s new engagement with the nonhuman may be another example of “the return of the scientific repressed,” but I believe it also represents increasing pressure on us to become more integrated into more biodiverse, energetically stable ecosystems.”

We are in the Anthropocene, and continue to construct, destroy, and alter ecologies across the globe. We often envision ourselves as the creators; however we are more like Mary Shelly’s creature than we are Doctor Frankenstein himself: A composite organism of great intellect wanting acceptance in the world and yet wreaking havoc when things don’t go exactly our way. Simultaneously creators and created, humans are part of life and it is part of us. But we are also in a relatively unique place; we exist in the world in ways that are different from other life forms…we are all agents in multispecies entanglements and mutual ecologies, but as humans we can also conceive of the “why,” the “how,” and the “so what”…it is in these imaginings that anthropology has so much to contribute. It is towards these areas that Dorian Sagan’s insights steer us.” (


  • Article: Dorion Sagan. The Human is More than Human: Interspecies Communities and the New Facts of Life.

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