Monday, December 28, 2020

Microbe Enemies, Microbe Friends, and the Meaning of Life

 Annamaria on Monday

Introduction: We've had far, far too much evidence this year of the way a virus can wreck havoc and suffering. But then, this past week, I saw a magazine story which reminded me that like humankind itself, there are good guys as well as absolute villains amongst the microbes.  The article about beneficial microbes talked about the "psychobiome" - microbes living in our bodies without which we could not live, and especially about the ones in our guts that, scientists are discovering, have a profound effect on any particular person's psychological state.  The latest news on that topic, I thought, would be my hopeful blog as we celebrate the end of beastly 2020.

Since I had blogged about this subject before, I looked up my post from almost exactly two years ago, to make sure I would not repeat myself.  Then I read Zoe's blog from yesterday and  her reference to "The Machine Stops," which I had also referred to.  The coincidence convinced that I could not do better than repeat myself.  So here is  my piece about microbe friends, originally entitled "EM Forster, HG Wells, Tom Stoppard, and the Meaning of Life."

Where to begin?

Chronologically perhaps. But my chronology—not theirs.

Somewhere around fifty years ago, while living in Brooklyn Heights and working on Wall Street, I was on a packed subway—going to work, standing up.  The train stopped somewhere under the East River.  It was summer, and the NYC subways were not air-conditioned in those days.  Sweltering! This incident was a common occurrence, and that day it lasted much longer than usual.  It would not have been at all memorable, but it sticks in my mind because of the book in my hand and the story I was reading—“The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster.  That fiction, published in 1909, seemed, at that moment, to have everything to do with what I was experiencing.


If you don’t know the story, you can find it here:

It tells of a futuristic society in which the bulk of the human population live in tiny cells under the surface of the earth, where a machine takes care of all their needs.  It provides music and entertainment.  And the means to communicate with people half a world away through what reads (in this hundred+year-old story!) a whole lot like our FaceTime.  Food also comes through the machine (FreshDirect, perhaps?).    The main characters are a rebellious young man and his mother.  He wants to fight the machine.  She believes—as most people in the story do—in the omnipotence of the Machine.  Then the machine stops.  (Like the subway train I was on!)  And to survive, the people in Forster’s story have to fight their way to surface to survive.  You can see why I never forgot any of this.

The story is a masterpiece of what was science fiction a hundred years ago.  Scholars believe that Forster wrote the story as a response H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, in which there is a clash is between good and evil.  Forster, instead, foresaw a future where the central conflict would be between mankind and machines.

Where Wells comes into my thinking today is not with The Time Machine, but with his War of the Worlds.  That brilliant novel imagines machines long left buried underground by aliens.  The creatures from outer space return to dig up their technology and wreck havoc on humanity.  The Martians lose that war, defeated—not by human beings, however brave. It is the earth’s microbes that infect the invaders and kill them. The humans, therefore, survive.

Microbes cast as the saviors of humanity!

Of late, my beloved science section of The New York Times has published a few articles about research into the actions of microbes on humans.  We have known for some time about how they can cause disease.  But nowadays, it’s looking as if the flora in our guts might have as much to do with our behavior as does our upbringing or the rules of our religions.  Data has begun to show that the microscopic critters in our intestines might be the source of happiness, optimism, crankiness—all manner of motivational emotions. Certainly, they play a huge role in digestion, taking the food we eat and turning into new substances that profoundly affect our wellbeing—for good or for ill.  Which microbes we have in our guts determines what chemicals go into our bloodstreams and therefore into our brains.  This little creature takes in carrots and gives you Zoloft.  That one turns carrots into Valium.  Or something like that. 


Which brings me to this past week, when I had the pleasure and the privilege of seeing Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Hard Problem at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.  The main conflict in his story is between scientific researchers who hold two opposing prejudices.  Some believe that the brain is all we humans have, and in a more or less mechanical way, it determines behavior.  Others of Stoppard’s characters hold that there are greater forces, outside our human “mechanical” brains and the lust for self-interest.  They believe in God, for instance.  Or altruism.  Or coincidence as an active determinant of human connection.  Forces not explained by the mere clicking of synaptic endings.

In the midst of the play’s action, one of the characters describes the role of microbes that live in cows. As is always the case, when my brain comes up against Tom Stoppard’s, I have a really hard time keeping up.  I wish I had the script to go by in describing what the woman in the play said.  Stoppard may have gotten this part of the story from an actual occurrence from nature, or maybe he made up something that only sounds real.    Anyway, what the actress said went something like this:  a microbe that lives in a cow needs to stay in the cow to reproduce.  But it comes out in the cow’s poop.  To get back inside the cow, the microbe infects an ant and lays its eggs inside the ant. The “diseased” ant then finds itself compelled to relentlessly climb up and down blades of grass and in the process leave some of the eggs at the top of the grass, which the cow then eats.

I think I have this part of the play right.  It all went by very fast in the theater.  But—the point certainly was that the microbe is doing some pretty fancy maneuvering to get what it wants: back inside the cow.  Real or fictional (or botched up by me), the process sounds quite plausible, given the strange ways in which all kinds of critters on this planet control one another.

And it is especially fascinating since scientists are toying with the possibility that microbes, might—in some extremely complicated ways—be in charge of us.

Where do you think we humans all fall in this story?  Are we the cow?  The ant? Or the microbe?

Are we controlling the machines?  Or are they controlling us?  

Most important: Will the microbes be able to save our planet? 

As we say goodbye to 2020, my wish for all of us is that the plague that has been torturing us gets quickly under control. That the people now endangered will be safe. That the medical workers will get some rest. That we will soon get back to meeting, traveling, having dinner together, and that I will get what I have missed the most in the past ten months: hugs from friends!


  1. Love the blog, Annamaria. How weird and wonderful that we should both think of The Machine Stops at the same time!

    And yes, hugs from friends is one of the things I've missed most about 2020, also.

    1. Thank you, Zoe. It's my friends who have gotten me through the gloom so far. How lovely it is to have you among them.

  2. The mass of microbes we live with as humans is staggering. Just think, they live on our skin, mouths, noses, gut--they are everywhere. As you say, some of those microbes, especially in the gut, are allies. Others are enemies with which we have a constant Cold War or an all-out battle. We usually win, but some microbes are truly vicious and beat us into submission, as 2020 has taught us.

    1. You are the scientist in this discussion, Kwei, and I so appreciate your adding weight to the argument. It seems to me that the villain viruses have always hurt people, but now that humanity is such a fluid, moving mass, we are going to have to learn to behave differently if we are not going to lose so many members of our cohort in times like these.

      I am fortunate to live in a place where taking care has led, if not to disappearance, at least to keeping down the numbers. On my island home, the positive test rate is still under 3%. If only people all over would behave as if they cared. If only!

  3. Yep, we're individual organisms, we're one species of organisms (in that we all have very similar DNA and can interbreed), but we're also just one more spice in the soup of the world's biome. An article from 2016 talks about: "Nearly 10 percent of the human genome is made of bits of virus DNA. For the most part, this viral DNA is not harmful. In some cases, scientists are finding, it actually has a beneficial impact." See it here:

    We are all 'one' :-).

    Best wishes for your new year, AmA!

    1. What a fascinating article, EvKa. Imagine all the information there is still to develop about what viruses contributed, not only to who we are now, but how we got to be who we are. I love this kind of thing! THANK YOU!

  4. I am at a loss to understand America's response to all of this. Perhaps because I was a Biology major in College. OR perhaps because I was also a Political Science major. It makes no sense from the perspective of either discipline. Perhaps because our reaction is simply without discipline. Happy New Year, Sis. HUGS.