Homo microbis and the Figure of the Literal

From the Series: The Human is More than Human

Photo by Jeremy Brooks, licensed under CC BY NC.

In Dorion Sagan’s body-boggling paper, we learn friendly and fiendish facts about human heritage: we are threaded through, more than we know and have known, with microscopic companion species and stranger strains. Their traces, viral and spiral, are embedded in our genomes, our selves. Their descendants survive and thrive in our blood and guts.

We could call the viral, microbial, fungal, fractal figure of this body multiple (Mol 2002) that Sagan gives us something like “Occupy Homo sapiens.” Sagan exhorts us to reenvision ourselves as the 90 percent—90 percent microbial, that is. The remaining 10 percent of our putatively human cells are, on his view, overesteemed and have dominated our vision of human nature for too long.

It is an arresting figure, this entity that we could alternatively call Homo microbis.

But I want to zoom in on some of the "rhetorical software" (Doyle 1997, 31) wound into this figure (see also Haraway 1997). Next to the figure, then: the literal.

Sagan writes that “we literally come from messmates and morphed diseases.”

But what is it that literally means here?

The Oxford English Dictionary, that swarming tome that seeks to capture the multiply infected, transfected tongue that is English, tells us that literal is originally theological: “Of or relating to the ‘letter’ of a text.”

Taking things literally, then: that which is literal points us to text, to more representation, not, perhaps, to the ultimate materiality of things, as we often use this word to mean.

So what are the “letters” of the organismic text that describes the Homo microbis we learn of in Sagan’s numinous and luminous paper?

Well: the binomial nomenclature of Linnaeus, the letters called into service by the biology upon which Dorian draws, with crazy names like Campylobacter jejuni, Toxoplasma gondi, Candida albicans, and the wonderful Convoluta rascoffensis—organisms that variously swarm in, near, or outside us. Humans are, Sagan says, a “seething zoo of microbes.”

In oblique support of Sagan’s argument, then, we could point out that there is actually nothing literal about names like Toxoplasma gondi, Candida albicans, or Campylobacter jejuni. The meanings in the genus names writhe against their staid Latin boxiness. If to be literal means to be free from metaphor or allegory, then these literalities are not: they swarm with rhetoric, they eat or mess themselves up and sometimes they make us sick.

Toxoplasma gondii: crescent-like mold from gundi rodent

Candida albicans: glistening whiteness

Campylobacter jejuni: fasting bent stick

With these Latinate heterogeneities in view, perhaps we should put pressure not on the Greek anthropos, but on the Latin Homo sapiens. I have suggested Homo microbis as a possible name for the figure offered in Sagan’s paper.

But renaming Homo sapiens has, of course, been a language game of long vintage in political philosophy.

Think of Homo faber, Homo ludens, Homo economicus . . .

These all do different sorts of work. What I have called Homo microbis is a strange folding back, a back-to-the-bio move. Sagan’s paper and my own playful splice here might be seen as part of the same historical moment that has lately given us the Icelandic pop star Björk’s new album, Biophilia, in which she sings:

Like a virus needs a body, as soft tissue feeds on blood, some day I’ll find you
One day I’m there. Like a mushroom on a tree trunk, as the protein transmutates,
I knock on your skin and I am in

What are the politics—and not just the aesthetics—of this moment? The politics of Sagan's paper are clear: a call to reposition, to rethink, to defamiliarize the nature upon which we have believed human biological being to rest. I would like to join Sagan in making explicit the political dimension of this figure of the multiply biological.

My messmate Heather Paxson says that the ascendancy of the microbe—in public health, in food politics, and many other places—is not just a noticing of new nonhuman natures. It is microbiopolitics (Paxson 2008).

I have in turn taken inspiration from Lynn Margulis’s symbiogenesis—the arrival of new biological kinds not (only) through descent with modification, but through incorporation and entanglement, which Dorion explains so well—to speculate on symbiopolitics, the entangled political power relations among entangled living things (Helmreich 2009).

Let me say more about politics, and offer that the politics we may be after do not necessarily follow from redescriptions of the biological alone.

Let us think, for example, about gender. Note the Homo plus formulations I mention above. Why never Femina sapiens?

Some of the new “facts of life” to which Sagan alerts us tangle with sex/gender and the transgression and unwinding of that binary. Take, for example, Sagan’s suggestion that “multiple insect species transform gender due to Wolbachia bacteria.” I am not so certain that gender is the right optic/haptic to describe the dynamic in question. Rather, as I understand the process, and I take these words from a description that I cowrote with Eben Kirksey:

Wolbachia bacteria are too big to fit into the sperm of insecty invertebrates and are usually only transmitted from females to offspring. As entomologist Richard Stouthamer puts it, “Because males are not transmitters of such symbionts, they are ‘waste’ from the perspective of the symbiont. (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010, 559)

To spread in subsequent generations, Wolbachia transform the bodies and the procreative dynamics of their hosts. When female wasps of certain species are infected with the bacterium, for example, they become parthenogenic—meaning that they no longer need to have sex with males to produce viable offspring.

Rather than saying that this transforms gender, I would rather say that this is a sex-bending trick. Wolbachia are what Eva Hayward and Lindsay Kelley call tranimals—enmeshments of trans and animals. Regarding Wolbachia as a tranimal-forming agent is not a naturalizing move but an attempt to trace sexualized alterities and alternative imaginaries, uncanny microbial becomings at work all around Homo sapiens.

Why, again, do I say sex instead of gender? Because I want not to make gender always and everywhere connect to sex and be about reproduction. There are also gender tranimals, like these.

This predilection also leads me to what I hope is a productive query of a fascinating claim in Myra Hird’s (2009, 100–101) The Origins of Sociable Life. In that text, Hird advances the idea that gender might be used to refer to “features that bring organisms together to share DNA and/or reproduce,” a rendering that can produce such intriguing claims as Hird’s argument that “the mushroom Schizophyllum commune has 27,000 genders, encoded by ‘incompatibility genes’ that come in many versions (alleles) on different chromosomes." I want to caution here that such a framing makes gender into a proxy for sex—not heterosex, to be sure, but still sex as reproduction.

Calling on the work of Kath Weston (2002) as transduced by Eva Hayward, we could say that “binary ontologies of sex–gender are not necessarily destabilized by the addition of a third—or even a fourth or fifth” (Hayward 2010, 595). As Weston (1996) shows in her earlier work on lesbian identity and community, gender—butch, femme, stud—can attach to race, class, nation, and many other things beyond reproduction.

Sympathetically symbiopolitical, then, I would offer that trans* can do lots of biological and social work. And I love the close kin term that Sagan mentions, the planimal.

Just to confuse things productively, let me offer a confounding sex/gender swirly: fetal microchimerism, a topic on which the sociologist Aryn Martin (2010) has published. As Laura Fugazzola, Valentina Cirello, and Paolo Beck-Peccoz (2011, 89) describe the phenomenon in a recent article: “Fetal cell microchimerism is defined as the persistence of fetal cells in the mother after birth without any apparent rejection. Fetal microchimeric cells engraft into the maternal bone marrow for decades after delivery and are able to migrate to blood and tissues "This means that women who have been pregnant have been biologically remodulated by their fetuses. Pretty interesting—but does it mean anything in itself? Should it remind us of the Wari of Peru, noted for a kinship system in which incorporation of kinspeople—though the food they give and, in some cases, through anthropophagy—makes relation? Or, as one colleague worried to me, might it just be used to naturalize Carol Gilligan’s claim that women are more relational than men?

The biology, as astonishing as it is, does not tell us what it will mean.

But Sagan’s question: why so much multispecies, interspecies, transspecies now? This question—and his suggestion that the nonhuman is coming into view because of increasing stress of planetary human species-being—remains very intriguing. But I would end with a remix of his title “the human is more than human” to suggest that even more is going on: namely, that the biological is more than biological.


Doyle, Richard. 1997. On Beyond Living: Rhetorical Transformations of the Life Sciences. Stanford, Calif. Stanford University Press.

Fugazzola, Laura, Valentina Cirello, and Paolo Beck-Peccoz. 2011. "Fetal Microchimerism as an Explanation of Disease." Nature Reviews Endocrinology 7: 89–97.

Haraway, Donna J. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge.

Hayward, Eva. 2010. "Fingeryeyes: Impressions of Cup Corals." Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4: 577–99.

Helmreich, Stefan. 2009. Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hird, Myra. 2009. The Origins of Sociable Life: Evolution after Science Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kirksey, S. Eben, and Stefan Helmreich. 2010. "The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography." Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4: 545–75.

Martin, Aryn. 2010. "Microchimerism in the Mother(land): Blurring the Borders of Body and Nation." Body and Society 16, no. 3: 23–50.

Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Paxson, Heather. 2008. "Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States." Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 1: 15–47.

Weston, Kath. 1996. Render Me, Gender Me: Lesbians Talk Sex, Class, Color, Nation, Studmuffins. New York: Columbia University Press.

_____. 2002. Gender in Real Time: Power and Transience in a Visual Age. New York: Routledge.