The title popped out of a book I am reading. Ed Yong’s “I Contain Multitudes”. My plan was to take my mind off politics. Yong’s subject is scientific: the nature, scope and role of microbial organism. The world of microbe creatures seemed light years away from the US election.
As is often the case, I was wrong. Rather than taking my mind off politics, I Contain Multitudes became a new lens at which to look at politics in 2016. (I once wrote an essay about apophenia and some may think this essay is a good example of that mental processing condition.)
Trillions of these tiny suckers called microbes are living, reproducing, and feeding and working for our benefit inside our gut, on our skin, in places hidden from public view. An evolutionary case can be made that we evolved as energy producing flesh and blood plantations to service the thousands of communities of microbes. We can live without them, and they can’t live without us. From the microbe’s point of view, we are quite useful containers with lots of nutrients and a largely friendly habitat. Symbiosis is a description of the balanced state of host and microbial communities.
Like communities of people, communities of microbes aren’t always friendly and accommodating to the interests of each other or their host.
The history of microbes indicates they rarely enter and maintain a perfect symbolic state of equilibrium. One microbial community is always on the cusp of wiping out another one. They are ruthless, relentless, and mindless.
A fragile balance exists—more like a temporary ceasefire—between human beings and our microbial communities. Think of the DMZ between the two Koreas. Not to be ignored is the constant competition among microbial communities. One may be down, another up, and everything changes, usually for the worse for you and me. Our bodies are the battlegrounds where these unstable cycles are played out by microbe forces. When the battle goes the wrong way in microbial warfare, we fall ill.
A lot of what we call disease is a state of microbial imbalance. Relationships between your microbial communities are always precarious and one colony is always pushing to out-compete and take over from another. These microbial wars are a slugfest of epic portions. The sheer scale of microbe soldiers in the billions is daunting. Microbial communities skirmishes are fought on millions of front, millions of times a day. Your body is a war zone.
The lesson from science is disturbingly clear: a friendly microbe community can turn on you in a New York minute. Yong writes about how this happens to coral living in coral reefs. The coral compete for resources with algae, which produce a dissolved organic carbon that causes microbes in the coral to turn rogue. That’s another name for a pathogen. Microbes who defect to the dark side shift their community into a pathogenic state. If you are coral this is one state where all of the electoral votes are cast for a quick death.
This passage about the microbial disease is instructive:
“These illnesses are caused by communities of microbes, which have shifted into configurations that harm their hosts. None is a pathogen in its own right; instead, the entire community has shifted to a pathogenic state. There’s a word for such a state: dysbiosis. It is a term that evokes imbalance and discord in place of harmony and cooperation. It is the dark reflection of symbiosis . . .”
I propose that we’ve entered a dysbiosis political state. The political, social and economic ecosystem has shifted to a pathogenic state. It’s not just one microbe. It is as if an entire community of millions of microbes had turned on the coral. And we are the coral. Rather than an invader, this community of microbes is part of us, we need that community to function, but it has shifted into a collective state that is a pathogenic state. They have crossed a line. They don’t see their actions as an attack on their host, they see it as clearing out other microbes communities who are eating their food supply. They are opportunistic in nature. Give an inch and they take a nautical mile.
Genes are activated and chemicals produced and released and the body suffers inflammation. The flesh is sometimes attacked, he immune system compromised. They infect their host causing him or her harm.
Dysbiosis in a political ecosystem may be similar in nature.
Peter Turchin has observed in an article titled “I Use the Science of Predicting the Rise and Fall of Societies. What I Discovered Will Alarm You” that fits Ed Yong’s analysis:
“(F)rom 1983 to 2010 the number of American households worth at least $10 million grew to 350,000 from 66,000. Rich Americans tend to be more politically active than the rest of the population. … In technical terms, such a situation is known as “elite overproduction.” … Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class.”
Could the cause of the political dysbiosis be due to the rapid proliferation of this colony of microbes that is causing our imbalance? Turchin and Yong should exchange notes and schedule a talk. They are using different language to describe something that looks very much the same.
As Yong explains, it’s no good to blame the individual microbes in this case. The cause for the breakdown is in the lines of communication between the different species of microbes and the host.
If we are going to restore our political immune system, we are going to need to research and analysis the potential causes for this breakdown in communications between communities. To restore balance is to restore the lines of communication.
Is social media, in part, responsible for allowing the creation of lines of communications that evolve into exclusive, sealed zones that exclude communications with other communities? It’s possible. Can we establish new lines of communication or repair the old lines?
The thing is, like microbes, when we stop talking to each other and start talking only to our own community – and Ed Yong’s book offers ample evidence – we should take this as a warning. It’s a warning your gut knows. But do you know as much as your gut? That’s a question I am uncertain whether I can answer.
Christopher G. Moore new book of A Vincent Calvino crime novel is titled Jumpers.