When you were young, everybody told you that you are unique and individual. The idea of individuality has been around for many centuries, but the more we learn about our bodies, the more biologists suspect that the microorganisms within us means that we are rather a collection of trillions of organisms, rather than individual personality.
In February in the journal PLOS published a study according to which the micro-organisms inhabiting your mouth, your stomach and your skin to “call into question the very concept of our “I”.
The concept of the uniqueness of the individual philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz came only in 1695, walking through a garden with a German Princess. “So they started to collect the sheets, and each sheet, of course, was different,” says Tobias Rice, Director of the Institute Berggruen in Los Angeles and co-author of the work published in PLOS. Leibniz suggested that each page should be unique and individual.
Before that “people were part of the natural, God-given space and could not be separated from nature,” says Rice. “Even artificial or maintenance was intended to complete what nature has left unfinished”.
However, with the development of the natural Sciences, we have begun to think as Leibniz thought about the leaves: the brain, the immune system and genome that make us individual.
Physician Franz Gall once said to Immanuel Kant that the form of his brain, and hence the shape of his skull makes him a philosopher, says Rice. Many philosophers consider this the moment of transition: people began to think of the brain as a unique phenomenon. After thousands of brain research that came later, it has become difficult to provide the individual without a brain.
In 1960, the Australian immunologist named Frank MacFarlane Burnet received the Nobel prize for his work, which demonstrated that the immune system is what separates us from the other. The immune system separates us from pathogens, viruses and bacteria, because of which we get sick.
Research in the field of genetics and the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick gave the idea of individuality more confidence.
But the more scientists learn about the community, the more you revise the idea of man as an individual organism. “Currently, there is overwhelming evidence that normal development and maintenance of an organism depends on the organisms that we cover,” say the researchers.
Microbes, which make up about half of the cells of our body, affect the human brain, immune system, gene expression and other processes.
Microbes can produce the neurotransmitters — dopamine, which is associated with feelings of euphoria and aggression, says Thomas Bosch, Professor of Zoology at the University of Kiel and one of the co-authors. Imbalance among intestinal microbes leads to certain diseases, including autism, depression, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, allergies and certain autoimmune diseases, however, studies on this topic are still very few.
This does not mean that people are not unique — we are definitely different from each other — but that our uniqueness is due not only to genetics, or our brains, but also the organisms that live in and on our bodies.
“What traditionally was considered part of the people themselves are mostly of bacterial origin, that is not “our”,” says Bosch. New discoveries in Microbiology are forced to rethink our view of ourselves. Do not forget that the genomes of people intertwined with the microbes, and technologies like gene editing CRISPR-Cas9 have germs.
When we consider the fact that microbes have a so big influence on our brain, immune system and genomes, all of a sudden it becomes difficult to define “individual” in man. Rice says that when he first brought it to sponsors, they were not easy to accept it.
“They always thought of themselves as people, individuals, whole and United, and now what?” says Rice. So they came to the conclusion that the definition of the human individual is much more vague than we used to think. We are a vibrant community, or “regorganizer”.
Not all microbiologists or philosophers would agree with that, of course. Ellen Clark, Professor of philosophy at the University of Leeds in Britain, said that the microbial contribution to human body not really change who we are.
“We have many aspects that are dependent on genes outside of us — I can’t play without a pair, for example,” she says. Why is the impact on microbes in comparison so important? However, the microflora, in her view, provide “a good antidote to individualism”.
Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist at the University of California at Davis, believes that the authors overestimate the influence of microbes on our behavior.
“Certain microflora affect various aspects of behavior in mammals and probably in humans. But so do drugs. And TV. And school. Does this mean that our perception of ourselves should include the drugs that we take?”.
Eisen also points out that these ideas are not new. Previous studies have already considered the idea of an expanded humanity, like the concept of holograma developed in the 1990s, in which the genome is defined as the sum of all the genes of all cells in the body. Eisen said that the flora offers a great opportunity for scientists, philosophers and artists to discuss the intertwining between their working spheres, but Clark remains skeptical minded.
That is why we need more discussion of this topic. The influence of the microflora on human is undeniable.