The Whole is More than the Sum of the Parts: Extended Minds and Extended Selves

From the Series: The Human is More than Human

Photo by Jeremy Brooks, licensed under CC BY NC.

Dorion Sagan writes:

I want to turn to life, and within that part a fascinating subsystem, the one in which, of course, we are most interested. That is, humanity, ourselves. And yet there is a paradox that precisely the non‐anthropic, the non‐human, the post‐human, the transhuman, the more‐than‐human, the animal has recently captivated the interest of anthropologists, whose ostensible focus is precisely anthropos, the human.

Anthropologists are indeed a "motley crew" and in our somewhat neurotic and/or chaotic quest to clarify and engage the human we have, of late, indeed become more cognizant of the non-human as a major player in and with humanity. But here it is worthwhile asking “What does this perspective do to thinking about the human condition?”

Well, Sagan tells us: “Anthropology—the study of (hu) man—obeys this same logic of the return of the ghost of what was excluded, in this case all the systems, living and nonliving, which make our kind possible."

Yes, this quote is at the heart of the matter....the idea that such an approach is inclusive of multiple systems in which we are enmeshed, encircled and entangled. For my response here I will take pieces from Sagan’s excellent discourse and weave them into a narrative that touches on two additional areas of great importance in anthropology today: the role of science (both reductive and expansive)and the need for a sincere entanglement of evolutionary, socio-cultural, and other theoretical beasties in our chimeric toolkit.

The reality that Dorian Sagan focuses on is a reality that calls for a true multispecies approach… but at the same time, if we are to engage in this endeavor we must be scientists of a sort...that is, we must be open to the work of a diverse range of scientific disciplines as part of our endeavor. Anthropology IS multi and trans-disciplinary and in assessing, prodding, disassembling and reassembling the human we need to recognize that reductionist scientific approaches alongside of expansionist ones have important seats at the table.

But that is not my main point. Rather I’d like to convince you that, as anthropologists, we should think about niche construction, the building, destroying and altering of niches in external and internal senses, in our bodies and ecologies, and how this perspective, combined with a true multispecies-ness impacts our senses of selves . As we barrel down the highway of our intellectual landscape we are moving past the Kantian and Cartesian human/other and mind-body dualism to seeing commingling multi bodies as the human self. I echo Sagan’s call and ask again, if this is the case can we include our inherent others as part of the niche of the human that anthropologists seek to explore?

It is important to note at this point that there is a role for structure and constraint here as well. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of looking at everything as ‘counting’ in the multispecies community. For me that is too broad…I think we need to stick, as anthropologists, to our significant others (our social, symbolic, and biological nonhuman kin, if you will). Not everything goes. One can get overly, and poetically, carried away with the notions of multispecies minglings. However, sincere and focused playing with these concepts can inform our notions and experiences of personhood and our evolutionary histories and futures. To illustrate this, give me leeway here to take two bits mentioned by Sagan and run with them.

Allow me to retitle Sagan’s section on "Hypersex and Frenemies": ME AND MY MICROBIOME.

Sagan points out, correctly, that we are not alone in the universe, actually that we are not alone within our skin… our “frenemies” the human microbiome is relevant to anthropology in myriad ways but it also opens the door to the larger evolutionary discourses. The mutual mutability of form and function in becoming human with other humans and nonhuman others is a central tenet in human evolution and should be recognized as a locus for the anthropological gaze …one where we can influence scientific practice in fields outside our own.

For example, the NIH micro biome project website ( describes the four goals for the project:

• Determining whether individuals share a core human microbiome

• Understanding whether changes in the human microbiome can be correlated with changes in human health

• Developing the new technological and bioinformatic tools needed to support these goals

• Addressing the ethical, legal and social implications raised by human microbiome research

This is fascinating and important, but as anthropologists we see many other ways wherein this is important to people. We can stress, as does Dorian Sagan, the lived multispecies and symbiotic realities that characterize the microbiome-human symbiont. If we envision our inclusive selves in this sense then both evolutionary approaches and ethnographic approaches can claim major roles alongside these more limited biomedical and simple sociological ones… and we can use our insights to inform and engage with other practitioners also interested in these worlds (be they doctors, NIH researchers, theologians, philosophers or epidemiologists). Today, well into the Anthropocene, Anthropology can, and should, be a central player in the exploration of the human as a conglomerate multispecies self.

Cooperation As Core In All of Evolution: Not the Usual Story

Sagan writes of the “commingling of organisms that meet, eat, engulf, invade, trade genes, acquire genomes, and sometimes permanently merge."

Sagan notes that embracing this notion of hypersex could also lead to “a cross fertilization of interdisciplinary thought and fields." Many biologists, geneticists and others have already taken this stance and noted that beyond even symbiogenesis, nearly all major events in the history of life can be seen not as primarily a conflictual Hobbesian moment, “nature red tooth and claw,” but rather an epic of enormous cooperation and symbiosis in the evolution of life again, and again and again. It is interesting that the sheer overwhelming power of accumulated data, largely via reductionist scientific means, has resulted in opening grand new meta-venues for seeing the world and for thinking about being humans both in and with this broadly cooperative and mutually mutable world.

Sagan notes "Such are the new facts—factishes—of life. As genes are not selves, the notion of selfish gene remains a trope. Selves are materially recursive beings with sentience, and the minimum self seems to be a cell." I agree, but I take this in the other direction, the multi-cellular and multi-organismal one, and argue that this same logic forces us to see that the minimum self for humans is multispecies AND multihuman. That is, we can only become human in the company of other humans (in community) just as we can only become alive in the company of(in community with) other life forms. Sagan’s notion of otherhood melds with the notion of the extended mind; the idea that the human niche is expansive, cognitive, material, and experienced in community with ourselves and others. Our material and symbolic contexts AND the people we exist with day in and day out are part of our shared cognitive resources. The human theory of mind, a personhood that is both self and empathically other, enables us to create and modify social and ecological niches unlike any other organisms on the planet…this pattern is Anthropos.

Our minds are not trapped in our skulls any more than our bodies could exist in the absence of multispecies communities…To ignore this in any approaches to becoming and being human is, simply put, ignorant.

Sagan concludes "I believe anthropology's new engagement with the nonhuman may be another example of “the return of the scientific repressed,” but I believe it also represents increasing pressure on us to become more integrated into more biodiverse, energetically stable ecosystems.”

We are in the Anthropocene, and continue to construct, destroy, and alter ecologies across the globe. We often envision ourselves as the creators; however we are more like Mary Shelly’s creature than we are Doctor Frankenstein himself: A composite organism of great intellect wanting acceptance in the world and yet wreaking havoc when things don’t go exactly our way. Simultaneously creators and created, humans are part of life and it is part of us. But we are also in a relatively unique place; we exist in the world in ways that are different from other life forms…we are all agents in multispecies entanglements and mutual ecologies, but as humans we can also conceive of the “why,” the “how,” and the “so what”…it is in these imaginings that anthropology has so much to contribute. It is towards these areas that Dorian Sagan’s insights steer us.