Superorganism: Microbes or Humans

“Whose house is this? /Whose night keeps out the light in here?/ Say, who owns this house?/ It’s not mine./ I dreamed another, sweeter, brighter/ with a view of lakes crossed in painted boats;/ of fields wide as arms open for me. /This house is strange. Its shadows lie. Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key? – Toni Morrison, Home. 

The human microbiome contains vast number of micro organisms residing in our bodies in complex relationships. According to Sherwood & Woolverton (2013), the human microbiome refers specifically to the collective genomes of resident microorganisms. These relationships can take the form of symbiosis including commensalism, mutualism or even parasitism. Commensals are organisms which reside in a host body not causing harm but not adding benefit either. Rather, these organisms do all the benefiting. Mutualists organisms give us benefits while also receiving benefits. The parasitic ones are the most dangerous capable of threatening our very lives much like a brain eating Amoeba. Yikes! However, if like Michael Pollan, New York times asserts that we are made up of 10 percent human,  then the 90% of the organisms within us are the majority. We never gave our consent to these millions of microorganisms living with us yet we need some of them. The questions in the opening passage of “Home” resounds clearly in my mind, “whose house is this? Whose night keeps out the light in here?/say who owns this house”.  Even as Philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle have likened our bodies to be temporary houses that we shed as we pass away from this life, our bodies are important to us! These numbers of organisms that cohabit in our house, some paying rent like e coli that helps to break down and digest the food we eat. Some that live in the attic quiet like the commensal flora and fauna that feed on dead skin cells. While others weaken our body in a bid to become master of the house like protozoans.  Say who owns this house?

Disease is generally understood as a debilitating  condition that causes a malfunction and slowing down of our system. However, in Octavia Butler’s “Clay’s Ark”, it takes on a new meaning; Disease gives superpowers and takes away more than it gives. Most times diseases are caused by parasitic microorganisms that become more than residents. While we consider ourselves to be super organisms while viruses, bacteria and other little microbes are considered micro organisms. The prefix super would denote a power of some sorts but it isn’t so in some cases, after all there is power in numbers. This microorganisms in our microbiome could have more power than we can imagine and Octavia Butler’s “Clay’s Ark”  exemplifies our fears. We really are the minority even in our own bodies.

In “Clay’s Ark”, Blake Maslin and his two twin daughters, Keira and Rane are kidnapped by a band of infected people on their way to Flagstaff, Arizona.  Their head is Eli, a survivor of a failed expedition to another planet called Proxima Centauri Two. The ship which is called Clay’s ark had crashed in a bid to kill a deadly organism before it came to earth. Eli lost his medical doctor wife, Disa in the process. The whole crew had died except him, the organism having killed them all. At first, Blake, a medical doctor likens the organism to rabies but later finds out that it is a more complete, independent and stronger microbe. Meda, Eli’s Partner explains to him that it’s like a virus and attaches itself to human cells the way a virus does. It combines with and changes the cells slightly by enabling certain functions like hypersensory powers, disease resistance and speed powers. While Eli considers it a symbiont, I believe it functions more like a parasite in its need for dominance.  Its constant need for reinfection, killing off those it doesn’t deem fit and allowing the survivors become strong enough to reinfect and reproduce with increased sexual desire.  The side effects include weight loss, increased sexual need, heightened awareness, a craving for raw food and sensory contact.  These organisms are capable of tampering with the genetic blueprint making its hosts no longer human. Unlike rabies, this disease is incurable and hardly preventable. On an old ranch, they are forced to live in isolation while infecting a few at a time in a bit to defeat the disease by limiting its reproduction rate. They continually play a tug of war with their will powers at one end and the disease driving the engines of their bodies at the other end. An organism powerful enough to cause their offspring to have mutated genes and become quadrupeds. An organism even more powerful that it overwhelms and takes control of the human population at the end. Indeed, at the end the Clay’s Ark disease proved itself to truly be a super-organism.

When we become sick with the flu, our body struggles to fight these invaders while we suffer in the invisible struggle. However, with our human resilience, unbreakable souls and strong spirits, we are capable of overcoming these incurable diseases much faster than with drugs alone.  Eli tries to hold on to his humanity by trying to stop the total infection of the world while giving into the organism but not totally. Fighting with his soul to the very end. Even as Nelson (2003) recounts in “Not my bones”, “for you are not your body/you are not your body”. Indeed, the organisms had his house but his soul was his home. Indeed, without their consent, Fortune was a slave in life and cadaver after death and Eli’s body, a reservoir for tiny microbes. In the same way, we were not asked if we wanted these microorganisms. They were given any way, and in some ways they are a part and parcel of ours and also a separate entity. Say who owns this house? If I am not the owner of my body, then I am the owner of my own home. After all, home is where the heart is. Even as Kenny Drew (1978) correctly asserts , home is where the soul is. These organisms may have my house but I own my own home, which is the humanity in my spirit and soul.

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