The web of life

Many of us I guess are used to the idea that we are interconnected with all life here on the planet, and that what affects one ecosystem, even seemingly far away, affects us all. It may, however, seem a little abstract, even pious for some.

In fact, this interpenetration is way more basic than we realize. This was brought home to me by listening to Dr Mark Davis on Chris Ryan’s podcast recently talking about the gut microbiome. We do not only consume other organisms, rely on them for regulating atmospheric CO2 levels or depend on  them in some other metaphysical way. They are inside us – in excess of 90% of the DNA in our bodies is non-human (mostly bacterial) DNA. A whole new order of life was recently found living in our guts. Bacterial cells (because they are much smaller and simpler) outnumber human cells in our bodies by orders of magnitude. Bacteria and other microbes perform essential functions in human physiology: we have “outsourced” many jobs to them. The mitochondria in our own human cells, and many other cellular bodies, were once bacteria or viruses.

So the web of life penetrates our own bodies very deeply. But more than this: it actually IS our bodies. It would be perfectly artificial and not make much sense to define a human body as consisting only of human cells containing human DNA. Those cells are only part of a  much greater whole. The consciousness we possess does not reign over an exclusively human organism, but a massive ecosystem predominantly composed of organisms which are genetically unrelated to the human brain cells which supposedly run the show. And just as endogenous neurotransmitters began evolutionary life as exohormes, communicating between rather than within organisms, so mechanisms we have developed – thought, speech, behavior and probably other communicative functions – link the entity we call ourselves into the wider whole. I am not, of course, saying that the skin is not a relevant boundary, but it is not an absolute one.

So it is not really that we are connected to the web of life or dependent on it. In fact we are the web of life, one manifestation of it; and when we disturb it, as becomes increasingly clear, we do not have to wait generations to see the consequences because they are indirect. They are right there inside us.


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