The Ecology of the Human Body

The Body as Ecosystem...

Every once in a while, discussions about development, progress, and the future dig really deep and argue that our human bodies are limited. Lacking, faulty, declining, imperfect, and so on.

So, following the traditional ‘Western’ idea of a separation between mind and body, they suggest that we transcend our bodies, gain freedom from those “meat sacks”.

With environmental problems threatening survival, chemicals affecting us negatively, let’s just be even quicker in modifying these bodies of ours to suit the changing world we are creating, or let’s go further yet, beyond the bounds of ecological limits, by leaping off into a transhuman future, they suggest to accolades of the techno-optimists and futurists…

However, as much as the (im)possibilities and potentials for better or worse are being discussed, a very basic issue often goes missing: the ecological view that sees the forest and the trees, and that doesn’t overlook the connections. In this case: the view that understands the reality of the connections that don’t just influence us as bodies, but make us the beings we are.

The Body as Ecosystem...

First of all, a fundamental materialism is a necessary consideration.

We like to think of ourselves as something different from our bodies (and interestingly, in meditative practices, we can even seem to become an observer separate from our thought processes, and experiences of flow can have us feel the most in tune with ourselves as we lose a feeling of our being anything other than the activity we are performing).

Yet, who we are depends very much on our bodies.

Many parts can be modified, many can even be replaced – but it has an effect on our self-image.

Brain injuries can radically alter a personality – and life experiences (can and will) also change our brains and personalities.

Our minds can re-interpret signals from the body. A certain fear of heights is only natural, a limbic reaction to danger – but when that “danger” occurs in the context of a rollercoaster ride, it can be felt not as fear but as exhilarating thrill.

Our thoughts are, in highly relevant ways, not limited to our brains, either.

Cognition is embodied so that we think in ways that are shaped by the ways we move and orient ourselves: forward is good and progress (and the direction we usually move in), back is regress and danger (and the direction in which we don’t usually move, but from where unseen danger may come). Left is sinister whereas right is, well, right. Up is good, standing more upright gives power and makes for optimistic thoughts; someone else who’s further up or taller, however, is someone envied or dangerous, making us feel small (as a cowering pose also would).

It’s not just motion and positions, either. The ways and things we eat can have a major effect not just on our body composition, but on the ways we feel and think. Just try doing difficult calculations (or boring work) right after a big meal… but it’s also been shown that e.g. vitamin-richer nutrition may lower the propensity to violence, for example.

Eating is a great point, anyways.

Even more than breathing and drinking, it is the third most fundamental connection between our environments and us. We eat, we ingest parts of our environment, let them pass through us and – hopefully – take out of them what we need, relieving ourselves of the parts that we can’t use. Our environment becomes us.

There are two ‘ecologies’ at work here, though:

For one, while we tend to get hung up searching for the one perfect or problematic element of diet – the macronutrient category (fat or sugar?) responsible for obesity and ‘diseases of civilization’, the one and only diet for weight control, health and longevity, the single superfood that will give us all we want – it is actually a whole network of relationships that is at work.

Individual genetic background will play a role. – The whole debate over whether milk is good or bad is moot if you are lactose-intolerant (in which case it will certainly not be good for you).
Food habits will have their part. – Whether you sit down to eat at a table with family or colleagues or whether you snack all the time, whether you reach for the processed sweets or the fruit and nuts, whether you drink water or soda pop, whether you cook and pay attention to ingredients and eating or not… It will all influence what and how you eat and what effect that has.

Lifestyles matter. – If you are only sitting all day, the healthiest diet will not be enough for you to be in your best shape, but neither will you be if you are a fitness nut who eats whatever he/she wants because you think you’ll burn those calories anyways.

How the food was produced will be of effect, maybe not so much or so directly on you as its eater, but on the environment, the world, the workers and the economy – and ultimately, that will affect you, too. Strawberries in winter may be tempting, but aren’t going to have the aroma and the nutritional impact they’d have when they are in season, while contributing to energy use and pollution – and they’ll probably be laden with pesticides you’d better not ingest yourself.

Secondly, there is a whole ecosystem that you are: in the interplay of organs, including the mind and the thoughts, but also of bacteria on us and in us. Our guts are not our own, with enough bacteria in our digestive tracts for them to be summarily addressed as intestinal flora.

These help you make use of the nutrients in the food you eat – positively or negatively: obese people have been shown to have more Bacteroidetes bacteria in their gut whereas those with normal weight have more Firmicutes bacteria. (Or not.)

The bacteria even seem capable of making us want to eat more of certain foods/nutrients – we feel better, unfortunately whether it’s better for us overall or worse, when we eat in the way our intestinal flora “likes” it.  The species composition also changes with the foods we predominantly eat, however, so that shifts towards better eating and better intestinal flora compositions are possible, and will (after some time of adaptation) help us crave those different, better, foods.

Some diseases can be caused by pathogens in the gut, and we tend to think that we are in a war against those evil bugs, wherever on and in us they may be. We overlook the many “great things microbes do for us.” By trying to eradicate them, however, we can end up exacerbating problems. We fight the “bugs,” but “researchers have linked changes in our microbial inhabitants with rising rates of obesity, allergies, autoimmune diseases and other chronic illnesses.”

Yes, there are pathogens, but it has been shown that even some of the health problems caused by strains of bacteria that have become antibiotic resistant can be cured by what has been termed “transpoosions” – the transplant of intestinal bacterial flora (on the medium of fecal matter – poo…) from a healthy person to a sick one.

It is not just in our guts and regarding eating that we are not quite ourselves, but walking ecosystems of species.

Ten times as many cells in a human body are not actually that body’s cells but rather bacteria. (Bacterial cells are much smaller than the cells that make up our own structures, though, so by weight, it’s only – only? – some 1.5 kg.)
Of course, we wouldn’t want those to be pathogens or parasites, but we cannot get rid of all of them and remain healthy.

Our bodies are made to live in this world, as it is – and as there are bacteria, fungal spores, etc. just about anywhere, health is usually not the absence of pathogens, but their being kept in check thanks to a functioning beneficial (or at least, non-hurting) community of species that does not leave room for pathogenic ones.
Disrupt them by too many antibiotics, for example, and you may make room for invasive, harmful kinds, breed antibiotic resistance into them, and also get your immune system to go looking for enemies where there are none (overdoing it with hygiene is one of the likely causes of the rise in allergies – but it should go without saying that poor hygiene is not recommendable, either!). Such processes may even be involved in the development of personality disorders and autism.

So, simply living in this world, but also for living better, for good health and fitness, for enjoying foods and being able to digest them well, for having a well-functioning immune system – and even in our deepest thinking and feeling – we exist in and as ecosystems even when it comes to our physical selves, our minds and bodies.

Better living, then, is not about getting rid of the limits and all the “bad things,” which there is no getting rid of because they simply are a part of the world and thus of us, but nudging everything into a dynamic balance that is better for us.

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