Thursday, October 8, 2015

Adventures in the Science of the Superorganism

It is not only possible, it has in fact happened that a woman who vaginally conceived a child, then vaginally delivered her, had Protective Services threaten to take the child when a maternity test showed she was not, in fact, the mother. Nor was she the mother of her second child, genetically. Or her third, whom she was still carrying throughout the dispute with her estranged boyfriend — the man who, those same tests proved, was definitively the father. Only later did Lydia Fairchild discover that the true mother of all three of her children was her twin — if twin is really the word for one human embryo more or less swallowed by another before birth. The eggs that produced those babies had been with Fairchild her whole life, but genetically they belonged to an unborn sister, unknown to her and even her parents, living on in small parts inside her — a phenomenon that poetic scientists have called “parasitic” or “vanishing” twins. These days, they tend to prefer “chimerism,” after the mythic beast assembled, like Frankenstein’s monster, from multiple animals. But, man, isn’t that even creepier?

Don’t relax — it’s not just twins. In a new paper, “Humans As Superorganisms,” Peter Kramer and Paola Bressan of the University of Padua describe a typical human body as a teeming mass of what they call “selfish entities.” Picture a tree warped by fungus, wrapped with vines, dotted at the base with mushrooms and flowers, and marked, midway up, by what the tree thought the whole time was just a knot but turns out to be a parasitic twin. This is the human superorganism — not the tree, not the tangled mess of things doing battle with it, but the whole chunk of forest — and Kramer and Bressan would like to place it at the very center of the way we think about human behavior. They are psychologists, and their paper is a call to arms to their fellow shrinks, exhorting them to take seriously as a possible cause of an enormous buffet of behavioral phenomena — from quotidian quirks, to maddeningly opaque disorders like autism, to schizophrenia — the sheer volume and weird diversity of completely crazy alien shit going on in just about all of our bodies, just about all the time.

At least one part of this superorganism theory is not all that unfamiliar, especially to anyone who remembers recent articles by Michael Pollan and others about what is often called “the brain in your gut.” That part: that our stomachs are, actually, zoos. In fact, they’re not really our stomachs. Principally, they belong to the hundred trillion bacteria enticed by evolution into your chutes-and-ladders intestinal tract, then enlisted to eat your food for you. The weirder thing is that evolution also put hundreds of millions of neurons there, which means there’s a lot of trouble to be caused by those 160 or more species of bacteria (yes, full species). And the behavioral effects are pretty startling. Take a mouse, evacuate his intestines, and repopulate them with the microbes of another mouse, and he’ll act like the other mouse — adventurous mice become timid. In humans, what is delicately called “gut flora” affects not just obesity but also anxiety, and some think it plays a role in disorders as far-ranging as MS and Parkinson’s. What role exactly? Who knows? Though there have been some attempts to treat autism with yogurt.

Okay, so, the gut is weird. But what if you lived in the gut? What if you were the gut? Kramer and Bressan want us to stop looking at our stomachs like we’re hosts to some messy guests, or homeowners too disgusted by a particular closet to ever go poking around in it, because, they write, the human superorganism isn’t something to observe from the privileged perch of the self. Instead, they suggest, it envelops the self — the environment in which and against which genes give rise to who you are, an internal environment populated nevertheless by an entire orchestra of aliens, some of them fiddling away in the brain, and each with its own evolutionary interests at stake.

by David Wallace-Wells, NY Magazine | Read more:
Image: Bobby Doherty