Friday, February 23, 2018

Our microbiome challenges our concept of self.

Rees et al. offer an interesting perspective on the significance of our microbiome. Their abstract:
Today, the three classical biological explanations of the individual self––the immune system, the brain, the genome––are being challenged by the new field of microbiome research. Evidence shows that our resident microbes orchestrate the adaptive immune system, influence the brain, and contribute more gene functions than our own genome. The realization that humans are not individual, discrete entities but rather the outcome of ever-changing interactions with microorganisms has consequences beyond the biological disciplines. In particular, it calls into question the assumption that distinctive human traits set us apart from all other animals––and therefore also the traditional disciplinary divisions between the arts and the sciences.
Here from the discussion is their development (a bit shaky, I think) of the last point in the abstract:
Historically, the division of labor between faculties of arts and faculties of science emerged in the 18th century, alongside the idea that humans are more than mere nature––that there are human-exclusive capacities that set us apart from “mere” animals and plants. More specifically, the argument was that reason, language, and art had liberated the human from the contingencies of nature and had gradually given rise to a uniquely human world, a world of “culture” that is irreducible to the laws of nature and that therefore requires its own set of sciences (the term “culture” was first used to mark a distinctive human world in the late 1770s). Arguably, the findings of microbiome research profoundly trouble the comprehension of the human that has sustained the traditional distinction between the natural sciences (concerned with the nonhuman) and the arts (concerned with the human as more than mere nature). Provocatively put, if humans depend on microorganisms, then what is at stake in the study of microbes qua microbes is not only an understanding of microorganisms but also the human. This doesn’t mean that the field of the arts can now be conveniently ploughed in terms of the natural sciences. On the contrary, it means that the stakes of the natural sciences exceed the expertise of the natural sciences and reach over into the arts. This makes a close collaboration of the life sciences with the human sciences imperative.
As we see it, it is important but not enough to argue that we have never been individuals –– or to suggest that human and microbial worlds are inseparably entangled. What is needed, in addition, is a whole new configuration of research, one where arts and science are combined. The challenge is 2-fold. Researchers in the life sciences have to learn that the stakes of their research are bigger than their expertise, and researchers in the arts have to learn to think the human––philosophy, politics, and poetry––beyond the now untenable idea that humans are more than mere nature. The challenge is big, the opportunity even bigger: it is time, and perhaps past time, to rethink collaboratively––beyond arts and science divisions––what it means to be a living human being at home in a microbial world, one on which we depend and with which we are inseparably interwoven. Microbiome science has the exciting––the important––potential to catalyze the breakdown of the anachronistic barriers between the natural and the human sciences and enable a truly integrated understanding of what it means to be human, after the illusion of the bounded, individual self. The human is more than the human.

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