Symbiotes Unite! From Star Wars to Endosymbiosis to the Microbiome
“May the Force be with you.” Yoda
In her accompanying blog post, Charissa describes our goals for Gut Instincts, the online exhibition about the human gut microbiome that she and I are developing. As she notes, we wish to explore through various artistic interpretations how our microbiota – the bacteria living in us and on us – shape who we are. Increasingly, researchers are observing that these microscopic partners are, in fact, partners, contributing to who we are in many ways. The interactions between our microbiota and us are so essential that, as Charissa notes, it might be more appropriate to think of ourselves as symbiotes, not individuals.
With the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens only days away, we should note that this idea that we are symbiotes, working in concert with microscopic partners, was articulated a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. In the latest film, once again, the Jedi and the Sith will engage in an epic struggle between good and evil. Once again, we will witness the amazing power of the Force and hope that this power is used for the betterment of all members of the galaxy.
The Force, as all Star Wars aficionados probably know, derives from midichlorians, microscopic organisms that reside within the cells of all living things. Higher levels of midichlorians in the cells of an individual correspond with a stronger Force. Anakin Skywalker, for example, had over 20,000 midichlorians per cell, the highest level ever recorded.1 According to the Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, “Without the midichlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force.”1
For humans, and plants and fish and insects and almost every other organism within the domain Eukarya, life could not exist without a similarly named intracellular entity - mitochondria. Often referred to as the power plants of the cell, mitochondria generate ATP, which our cells then use as an energy source to drive all sorts of biochemical processes. Extensive evidence suggests that mitochondria, and chloroplasts in photosynthetic organisms, evolved from a free-living bacterium that entered a developing eukaryal cell roughly 2 billion years ago, eventually becoming an essential organelle. Although several biologists throughout the 20th century espoused some form of this idea, the biologist Lynn Margulis most clearly defined this endosymbiotic theory in her landmark 1967 paper entitled, “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells.”2 This theory that at least some of the essential organelles in our cells originated as endosymbiotic partners has transformed our understanding of cell biology. And it clearly piqued the imagination of filmmaker George Lucas as he developed the fantastical world of Star Wars.
As we learn more and more about the human microbiome, it is becoming more and more clear that the microbes living in us help determine who we are in myriad ways. The microbes within our gut are integral parts of who we are. Charissa and I hope that Gut Instincts will encourage the audience to consider more deeply this partnership. Our gut microbes, however, are not our only partners. Essential components of our cells, like the mitochondria that generate the ATP we rely on continuously, began as microbial partners. And in a galaxy far, far away, microscopic intracellular partners may help determine the outcome of the epic struggle between good and evil.
We truly are symbiotes.
1Source: http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Midi-chlorian 2 Sagan, Lynn (1967). "On the origin of mitosing cells." Journal of Theoretical Biology 14: 225–274.
Symbiotes Unite! How We Exist in Collective Union with our Microbiome
As Dave and I home in on the organization of our on-line exhibition about the microbiome, Gut Instinct, I would like to develop further our goal. We seek to explore, through scientific and artistic modes of visualization, how the bacteria in the human gut shapes subjective mood, and thus contributes to how we think. I am exhilarated foremost by the philosophical repercussions of this basic and necessary biofunctionalism, namely as it sets in relief how cognition works in symbiosis with the microbiota in the gut and as it is cause for a redefinition of the “individual” as a “symbiote.”
First, as I have articulated in an earlier blog, I am fascinated by how the workings of the brain and gut reveal the distribution of mind: the idea that full brain function – putative mind, consciousness, and ratiocination – unfolds across the body. In my forthcoming book, Art as Organism: Biology and the Digital Image, I trace a similar idea at work in the pedagogy and aesthetic philosophies of Hungarian light artist and Bauhausler László Moholy-Nagy. His thinking was built not only on German biocentrism, but also, and by connection, an idea of the mind working across space, through a field of interconnection with organic and inorganic matter. Our curatorial collaboration in Gut Instinct is an exercise in Moholy-Nagy’s ideas in that it brings together art and science in the interrogation of precisely this kind of brain-body-environment functionalism, or what my colleagues and I are calling “Bauhaus biofunctionalism.”
Second, the brain-gut axis also catalyzes a rethinking of the individual as an embodied collective instead of a standalone entity. We are “super-individuals” instead of “individuals.” My thinking here is informed by one of our invited scientist-artists, François-Joseph Lapointe, who will show artwork in Gut Instinct based on his analysis of the microbiome in three different contexts, after a series of handshakes, eating a variety of food, and having sex with his wife. In the article “Being Human is a Gut Feeling” [Microbiome, 3:9 (2015)] co-written by Lapointe, T. Hutter, C. Gimbert, and F. Bouchard, the microbiome is the basis for rethinking human individuality. The authors write, “Our claim is that, with respect to most biological research projects, human beings are so well integrated with their microbiomes that the individuality of human beings is better conceived as a symbiotic entity. Insofar as biological research is concerned, to be human is to be multispecies.”
Their thinking contributes to the twofold fact that 1.) existence is fundamentally coexistence and 2.) thinking is always multifarious and heterochronic. As such, it builds on the philosophical writings of Gilbert Simondon, who famously argued that individuation is an effect rather than cause of individual formation. This means, the wellspring of individualism is a collective force field of otherness: being an individual is preceded by a groundwork of individuals. With respect to temporality, it builds on Benjamin Lebet’s .5 second theory, or the neuroscience of free will. The choices that are considered the manifestation of free will do not well up wholly formed in single instances as rationally considered thoughts, but rather form over time across the space-time of the unconscious.
I place the functioning of the brain-gut axis – the “we” that “I” am with my microbiota – alongside Simondon’s philosophical ideas about the collective origins of individuation and Libet’s neuroscience debunking free will. And so it follows that Descartes’ famous dictum Cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am,” gives way to Relationes usurpandi sui, “Relations overtake the self.”