As someone with an interest in humans and ecosystems, I was fascinated to read today’s New York Times Magazine article “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs,” in which author Michael Pollan describes how humans are ecosystems. When we account for the approximately 100 trillion diverse microbes (about one to two pounds worth!) that flourish in and on our bodies, he suggests that people might be better described as superorganisms, and our innards as “microbiomes.”
It’s a little strange to imagine that up to two pounds of my body weight is not “me” at all, but a collection of separate life forms. According to research cited by Pollan, most of these microbes are harmless, some are beneficial in a variety of ways, and very few are potentially harmful. He relates the presence or absence of specific microorganisms to a range of health issues, from allergies and obesity to inflammation and malnutrition. Most relevant to anthropology, Pollan compares Western behavior (our ongoing “war on bacteria”) and diet (heavily processed foods) to alternatives in other cultures:
“…scientists can’t even yet say with confidence exactly what a ‘healthy’ microbiome should look like. But some broad, intriguing patterns are emerging. More diversity is probably better than less, because a diverse ecosystem is generally more resilient — and diversity in the Western gut is significantly lower than in other, less-industrialized populations”
Again, we have much to learn from cross-cultural comparison, even at the microscopic level of our internal ecosystems.