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a good friend is my nearest relation

May 28, 2011

I just finished reading a book on bacteria, Allies and Enemies: how the world depends on bacteria, by Anne Maczulak, a microbiologist. I learned that bacteria permeate every ecosystem on Earth, and of course human bodies have thriving colonies of various sorts on our skin and everywhere along our digestive system. Bacteria are apparently running the world.

I actually find that kind of reassuring. After all, bacteria have been around for 3.5 billion years. They created our oxygen-rich atmosphere. In many ways, bacteria are what make life as we experience it possible.

Lately I’ve been wondering if maybe ants are running the world, since every time I step outside, I see ant hills every few feet. I like ants in small doses, just like I like most critters in small doses, but I feel ants would be uncomfortable overlords.

I don’t feel that way about bacteria. Humans already live symbiotically with bacteria, and our own bacteria defend our bodies against invaders (pathogens). Together we are an ecosystem.

Humans have no such relationship with ants, or most other organisms. But perhaps we could, someday.

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Maczulak writes, “In any ecosystem, organisms depend on feedback to help them regulate their activities.” (p. 140) So feedback from one’s environment and one’s behavior modulation in response are sort of a conversation or continual negotiation between you and your setting. I also read recently in the book, Science is Culture, that in some sense there are no discrete entities, only relationships.

Many relationships between entities that are not human (or bacterial) seem to be very individualistic: how can I get the most for me? Or me and my family or tribe? Without considering how those needs in aggregate will affect the system as a whole. Humans do seem to consider the effects of their actions, although not necessarily before doing them anyway. Maybe to make better decisions we need feedback from more partners in our ecosystem. But which partners? And how do we communicate with them? And why would they want to help us? After all, we have a history of harnessing other organisms to do what we want them to, but we don’t ask permission, nor do we solicit collaboration. If we did, maybe they have better ideas, or maybe brainstorming together we could realize emergent solutions to problems we all face.

Yes, I realize we don’t currently have any way of talking to bacteria, and having them respond in a way we understand. We can’t talk to lab rats, or dolphins, or trees, or rocks. Or Earth herself. But if we could, what would we say? What do we have to offer that is more than our own selfish interests?

Some of us do love members of other species, and not always mammals. I feel a special kinship with plants, and also to fungi, and slime molds. What kind of relationship is possible that is not slavery? If we are our relationships, I think we need more variety in the kinds of relationships we forge with other organisms. How many more ways can we become symbionts? What would the world look like?

If we humans weren’t preoccupied with meeting our short-term needs, if we imagined progressing up Maslow’s hierarchy, how could we “self”-actualize in concert with other organisms, or with Earth? What could we create that the universe has never seen before?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2011 21:39

    Wandered over here from Slacktiverse, when I saw you had written about the Mississippi. I didn’t realize that you lived in the D.C. area (figured it out from your links) or that you were an environmental scientist. It’s awesome to find another environmental writer on Slacktiverse!

    In terms of relating to nature, I remember reading in graduate school about the possibility of applying Martin Buber’s idea of I and Thou to nature. Although he’s a Christian theologian, I think the idea could apply to a lot of non-Christian philosophies. The I-Thou relationship is one of subject-to-subject, whereas the I-It relationship is one of subject-to-object. Although Buber himself seems to see all of nature as I-It, there’s no reason we couldn’t have a more I-Thou relationship. Even if the ant cannot love you back, by sharing the planet and being part of the ecosystem, there is a kinship there beyond that of a mere object, in my opinion.

    • May 28, 2011 21:57

      Always glad to see fellow Slacktivites! I’m a former environmental scientist
      (currently unemployed), but have recently decided to write more about
      environmental issues since they remain an ongoing passion.

      I’m familiar with Buber, and aim for treating all humans as I-Thou (don’t always
      manage it), but hadn’t thought of applying his ideas to Nature. I like it!

      I am a Pagan, and have developed a habit of calling all organisms I connect with
      “cousin”, reminding me that we are indeed all related, if we take the family
      tree back far enough.

  2. scyllacat permalink
    May 29, 2011 09:44

    Aha, here we are. I’m still a little nervous learning about all the tiny life forms that are running me without my knowing (some of them are apparently in your brain, but I’d have to ask Sweetie about a friend “over the pond” with an advanced degree–I’m completely ignorant). Your take on this is exciting my curiosity and desire to be open–Maybe I’ll call them “cousin,” too!

    • May 29, 2011 11:51

      Hi scyllacat, once I started calling everyone “cousin”, I started thinking of them differently. I mean, I already felt an intellectual connection, but now I feel an emotional connection. No entity is an “it” to me, even stuff like rocks (which I think are alive, but at a geological time scale). The world seems like a much more intriguing place when you’re in a relationship with everybody in it! Including Earth herself.

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