Ed Yong: I contain multitudes
I CONTAIN MULTITUDES
When Orson Welles said, ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone’, he was mistaken. Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis – a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. When then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right – a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world. (Ed Yong: I contain Multitudes, 2016: 1)
Altruism vs. Selfishness
But what if this is mostly a “just so” story — a partially accurate fable that does not really describe the full empirical realities of human nature? What if it could be shown that human cooperation, reciprocity and non-rational behavior are just as significant forces as “competitive rationality” and “utility maximization”? This is the startling conclusion of much contemporary research in the evolutionary sciences, especially brain neurology, genetics, developmental and evolutionary psychology, biology, organizational sociology and comparative anthropology. These sciences are confirming that social reciprocity and trust are deeply engrained principles of our humanity. They may even be biologically encoded. “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” In short, reciprocal social exchange lies at the heart of human identity, community and culture. It is a vital brain function that helps the human species survive and evolve. As author and essayist Rebecca Solnit showed in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, members of communities beset by catastrophes such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1907, the German Blitz of London during World War II and the 9/11 terrorist attacks generally show incredible self-sacrifice, joy, resolve and aching love toward each other. (David Bollier: Think like a Commoner, 2014: 82–83)
TREE OF 40 FRUITS
National Geographic, Syracuse University, USA
2015, 4 min 5 sec
Sam Van Aken, an artist and professor at Syracuse University, uses “chip grafting” to create trees that each bear 40 different varieties of stone fruits, or fruits with pits. Van Aken says it’s both a work of art and a time line of the varieties’ blossoming and fruiting. He’s created more than a dozen of the trees that have been planted at sites such as museums around the U.S., which he sees as a way to spread diversity on a small scale.
DO TREES COMMUNICATE?
PBS Erna Buffie, USA
2013, 1 min 55 sec
When we think about plants, we don’t often associate a term like “behaviour” with them, but experimental plant ecologist JC Cahill wants to change that. The University of Alberta professor maintains that plants do behave and lead anything but solitary and sedentary lives.
PROTECT THE GRASS, SAVE THE PEOPLE
(AND THE MONKEYS)
National Geographic, USA
2017, 2 min 16
On and off for nearly half a millennium, rural enforcers have patrolled the perimeter of a 42-square-mile high savanna called the Menz-Guassa Community Conservation Area, or simply, Guassa. Admassu Getaneh, a hired gun and former soldier, is here to make sure that no one steals or ruins the grass. If you want to protect the world’s only grass-eating monkey, saving the grass is a good start. In Guassa, local villagers run the place. A complex communal system determines where livestock grazes, who cuts grass, and when. As a result this landscape one-sixth the size of Nairobi is among East Africa’s healthiest.
ED YONG, I CONTAIN MULTITUDES
Politics & Prose, Washington, USA
2016, 52 min 13 sec
Once known simply as “germs” and feared as disease-carriers, microorganisms are now known to perform a wide range of beneficial functions in their particular ecosystems; in fact, these life-sustaining organisms far outnumber the pathogens. In his first book, Yong, who covers science for The Atlantic and writes the National Geographic blog, “Not Exactly Rocket Science” gives readers a tour of these microbiomes, one of which is the human body. Inhabited by an astonishing number of microscopic specialists, the human biome could almost be considered a vital organ itself, one which enables our metabolism, regulates our immune system, and even helps determine certain behaviors. As we learn more, research scientists foresee medical treatments based on ecosystem transplants and artisanal bacteria.
SLAVOJ ZIZEK ON FLOWERS
FROM ‘A PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA’
Sophie Fiennes, USA
2006, 2 min (full film)
Slavoj Zizek compares tulips to vagina dentata. From A Pervert’s Guide To Cinema where Zizek examines famous films in a philosophical and a psychoanalytic context.
FURTHER READING & RESEARCH
—Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001)
—Peter Wohleben, The Hidden Life of Trees (2015)
—Peter Tompkins & Christopher Bird, The Secret Life of Plants (1989)