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Do NonHumans Make Us Human?

Estimates are that only ten percent of living cells in a human body are human. 90 percent of the living cells in a human body are described as non-human microbes, many of which can live nowhere but inside a human body. These microbes often help us, complementing our nutritional intake and warding off pathogenic intruders.

What makes these microbes nonhuman, if they make up most of our bodies and are involved in our physiological functioning? Our mitochondria have separate DNA lineages from what’s in our cell nucleus, but we still refer to the mitochondria as human. Why don’t we do the same with the other microbes in our bodies? Because they’re not lodged in cells?

Is there a reason not to think of human beings as communities of organisms with multiple genetic lineages?

6 thoughts on “Do NonHumans Make Us Human?”

  1. Mark says:

    While only 10% of the cells in our bodies are genetically Homo sapiens, this is an estimate based on number. Because bacterial cells are so much smaller than human cells the percent biomass of human cells within our bodies is much, much greater (I’d venture to say it’s at least 99%).

    No organism can survive outside of ecological relationships with other organisms. The human part of us consists of the genetic material that can be passed on to future generations from our parents through the production of sperm and ova. Sperm contain nucleic genes and ova contain both mitochondrial and nucleic genes. So, these are the human component of all of the genetic material inside our bodies. The assortment of viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and fungi that reside with us are all acquired from external sources and mostly after birth.

  2. Jim says:

    You know, it seems to me that this question is the spatial inverse of the speculation of the 1990s that with the advent of the internet we were creating a global consciousness.

    I’m thinking of a chair. A chair is a chair because of its structure and function, not because of its composition. A chair could be composed of wood or plastic or metal or sponges or many other materials and still be a chair if it consisted of a seat, legs and a back that held up people. It’s not unreasonable to think of people the same way.

    1. qs says:

      Sounds like Tibetan Buddhism to me.

      They do that deconstruction of language stuff.

    2. JD says:

      Jim, I know what you’re saying but I use discrimination with my chairs. Some I only sit on in my living room. Others I leave outside in the rain and cold. Yet others I use as step-stools. I treat the humans in my life much better and with respectful equality. I notice many who write on this site appear to pretend that they aren’t responding to a human.

      1. Jim says:

        “Appear” is such a useful word, because it makes whatever you say true. Go ahead and sit on me any time, you, you human.

  3. JD says:

    Jim, I used the word “appear” instead of “in my opinion we should treat each other with more respect than what I see in some of this text” (not a direct replacement but it’s the intent of what I wrote). It’s not a matter of truth or falsehood but only my opinion.

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