Societies and Biomes

A human microbiome (or “biome” for concision) is “the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space.” That is, it’s the ecosystem of wee-beasties that make up a human being.

Each and every one of us is composed of human cells, but also of virus, bacteria, fungi, parasite, archaea, protozoa, and a whole lot of other stuff you probably don’t want to think about while eating.

Though these microbiota only make up 1-3% of our total body mass, there are ten times as many of them as there are human cells in a human being. Which really makes one wonder about where we should draw the line between “us” and “them,” cell-wise.

Biomes evolve over time. As we’re exposed to new environments, new microbiota, new genetic materials, the complexity of our body’s ecosystem increases.

As anyone who’s taken a biology class can attest, a more complex ecosystem tends to be more rugged and sustainable. If a key predator dies off in a diverse ecosystem, there’s another there to step in and fill the niche. Complexity means the ecosystem as a whole is more likely to survive a disaster, even if some portion of it is killed off.

There are parallels between the micro and macro of many things, if you look closely. Atomic structures and galaxies, cellular walls and architecture; everything great and small is built using similar construction materials and blueprints (fundamental elements and math), so it makes sense that cultures around the world, alongside plants and animals and cells, would use similar patterns and forms.

We can see one such parallel between societies, an individual’s biome, and ecosystems as a whole.

The more diverse a society, the more sturdy and resilient it tends to be. Yes, there may be conflict as the new component is integrated into the system. It can be tricky to determine if a bit of DNA or a given bacterium will fit well with the rest of your inner flora, and you may even get a little sick: your body may be hesitant to accept this strange newbie into the fold.

But once a new component is integrated, one’s body becomes more durable. It achieves immunity to more things and has access to a greater selection of potentially beneficial mutations. If some vital bodily component is attacked by an antagonistic outside force, we’re more likely to keep going; we’ve got backups, we’ve got something else that can fill that niche.

Societally, we often struggle against complexity. We want things to be predictable. Neutral. “Normal.” We want things to stay the same because that’s what we understand and have come to expect. Change is scary.

Homogeny in society is the same as homogeny in any other system, though. It can allow for a certain degree of predictability, but it also makes the entire network fragile.

One disease that impacts the local population. One technological leap forward missed because of long-held belief systems to which everyone adheres. One folkway that becomes gangrenous over time, though no one can see that it’s harmful because everyone accepts it as “the way things are.”

Outside perspectives are disruptive, and that makes us uncomfortable. But it’s these disruptions that make fresh perspectives valuable. They keep us growing, allow us to test our ideas, our beliefs, and our views of the world. They enrich the soil with new organic matter and enrich thought with challenging frames of reference and interpretations.

Not every idea or change will be valuable to every society, but the capability to acknowledge, observe, entertain, and assess ideas while still maintaining a steady, resilient foundation, is a good indication of how long-lasting and durable that society will be.

This means we can look across vast ideological chasms at unfamiliar people with unfamiliar ideas and know that because they are so foreign to us, because they approach life in such a different way, our species is more diverse and resilient. Humanity is stronger because of our differences.

Again, diversity as strength is a concept we see on the cellular level and in planet-straddling civilizations.

Consider what it might mean for you, at a size somewhere between these two extremes.

Consider, too, how you might help your society establish and maintain a good bill of health.

Update: April 21, 2017

Especially right now, as I write this update, the concept of ‘purity’ in genetic, national, and political terms, is a huge buzzword. Extremes are always easier than more accurate gray areas, but wow; we’ve really pushed out to the extreme fringes over the past few years.

And that’s unfortunate, because purity almost always makes whatever it is that’s becoming more pure, weaker. More frail. Vulnerable to attack or infiltration or disease.

Try telling that to purists, though. This is a topic that you almost always have to approach asymmetrically if you want to avoid being ignored from the outset.