A very interesting story from the BBC about the “microbiome” of the human body. Cutting to the chase on this one, if you take all the cells in the human body and analyze their DNA – only about 43% of them show human DNA, the rest are microbes (viruses, bacteria, fungus etc.). Says the story, “The field is even asking questions of what it means to be ‘human’….” This question is mentioned only in passing, though several times as the piece concentrates on digestion and disease, but isn’t that THE question?
Well, that all depends on how you view humanity. If we really are nothing more than our biology, then yes, it is THE question. But even then this fact is not enough to define humanity. This is a cell count study, but cells are mostly water. In fact if you weigh a human body at the moment of death and then dehydrate it and weight it again you are going to find the body is about 65% water. If you count up all the atoms and percentage them out – the most plentiful is oxygen. Yep, about 24% oxygen. Carbon is only in second place at 12%, despite the oft-spoken “carbon -based life form” sci-fi meme. We could go on like this for a good long time.
Such analytical breakdown does not define a thing and after a while it just gets silly. The history of science has been driven in no small measure by an attempt to find the fundamental thing. The very word “atom” has the ancient definition, “one of the minute indivisible particles of which according to ancient materialism (see materialism 1a) the universe is composed.” But once we discovered them and started to look at them we found they were composed of three smaller “sub-atomic” things, two of which, the proton and neutron, we now know to be composed of even smaller things called “quarks.” The point is we do not know what is the fundamental indivisible thing of which all things are created. We can define a thing only by the interaction of smaller things it contains. It is not about composition, it is about the composite.
Just because, by cell count, our bodies are a majority microbes, does not in any way change what it means to be human. That fact may alter our understanding of human biology, but clearly we are more than biology or we would all be oozing around on the floor and reproduce by mitosis (how bacteria reproduce) or through spore production (how fungus reproduce.) since we are more bacteria and fungus than human. Asking questions about “what it means to be human” in light of the single, isolated fact, that microbial cells outnumber human cells in the human body, is like asking if a three-legged chair is still a chair when compared to one with four legs. Functionally it is a silly question.
To begin to explore the question of what it does mean to be human is beyond the scope of a single blog post. The point I want to make here is that to write a story about the microbial composition of the human body and from that postulate about “what it means to be human,” is to place an agenda on the facts being discussed that is not inherently present in the facts themselves. This story is agenda driven science journalism.
One is tempted to declare the agenda as “anti-God,” which it is effectively, but that is not the actual agenda. In the end, the fact that we are “mostly” bugs is just creepy, unless we inject that fact with something to make it more interesting – like questioning our humanity. The agenda is getting people to pay attention to the fact, which the scientists need to attract funding and the journalists need to earn their paycheck. The agenda of the individuals involved is far more mundane than my temptation would indicate and to declare it otherwise would be to engage in the sort of grandiose overstatement I am accusing this piece of engaging in.
What it is fair to say is that we see one of the big differences between those of faith and those without it in the presentation of this story. A journalist of faith might simply exclude the scientists metaphysical posturing from the story since it is not really related to the facts being discussed – or at least question the scientists heavily about it. But as written this story illustrates a world looking for any flimsy excuse to ignore evidence of the Almighty.