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continuum (2/2): identity (r)evolution

In biology the question of continuum goes deeper than just our connectedness with the ecosystems that support us; it questions the notion of identity and invites us to redefine individuality through relationships with other species.

Modern genetics have shown that the human body contains as much bacterial cells as human ones. Our bodies are dependent on these bacteria for digestion, absorption of vitamins and minerals, protection from pathogens, etc. Even our emotional states are determined by our bacteria. The same is true for most animal species, and new research shows that plants also have similar relationships with unicellular organisms (1). There are many different ways in which ones identity can be blurred. In Botyllus tunicatas (soft bodied sessile marine animals) genetically different individuals fuse and share their blood network forming genetic chimeras. Due to the higher genetic diversity, compared to a monoclonal organism, such chimeras are more adapted to environmental variability and show higher resilience. Social insects, such as ants, bees and termites, have been called superorganisms in which the colony rather than an individual insect is defined as an organism and an entity of an evolutionary selection (2). Some have suggested that human entities such as cities, with its complex functionalities are also superoganisms.

These examples show us that an organism can be an ecosystem (humans and bacteria) a genetic chimera (tunicate) or a colony (social insects).

This does not make the definition of an individual easier, but advances our understanding of one. For example, some researchers have suggested that a definition of an individual is not genetic, or physical but rather a chemical phenomenon. Our immune system is finally the one that selects what is foreign and dangerous versus what is familiar and safe. It reacts to certain bacteria while not to others; it recognizes foreign human cells while being ignorant of the ones in its own body (3).

Others have suggested that individuality is not a binary concept; put rather a functional continuum of a group of units (cells, individuals, organisms) (4 ). As shown in the figure bellow, the two main parameters of a function are the degree of cooperation and the degree of competition between the units. The higher the cooperation and the lower the competition the stronger the integrity of a group. This then leads to stronger degree of individuality. By this definition a social bee colony that has low competition and high cooperation is as much an individual as a human body.

Figure from Strassmann and Queller, The social organism: congresses, parties, and committees, Evolution, 2010 (3)

Such knowledge erases the boundaries between organisms and raises the question of identity. Who am I or you; a hybrid, a heterogeneous mixture, a modular system, an ecosystem? And if the boundaries of our bodies are porous and if relationships with other life forms define us just as much as our genes, who are the new ecological individuals? Which finally leads us to the question of; who are the humans we are designing for? Are their nature alienated individuals or profit driven machines? Or are they a walking biodiversity with consciousness?

When applying this thinking to a design process it transforms our way of thinking!

Imagine if the fashion industry was not only designing cloths that look good, but that also support healthy bacteria on our skin?

Imagine if medical industry was collaborating with our gut bacteria to heal us? Btw, research in this direction is advancing with high speed and we should expect such solutions in near future.

Imagine if our cities embraced the superoganism within it and become living entities that produce energy, food and purify air.

Imagine if diversity, which is the new main ingredient of the individuality, is embraced as a thing that connects us and makes us stronger rather than divides us. What kind of a leadership style would that make?


1. D.B. Müller, C.Vogel,Y. Bai and J.A. Vorholt, The Plant Microbiota: Systems-Level Insights and Perspectives, Annual Review of Genetics, 2016

2. D.S. Wilson and E. Sober, Reviving the superoganism, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1989

3. T. Pradeu, Philosophy of Biology: Immunology and individuality , eLife, 2019

4. Strassmann and Queller, The social organism: congresses, parties, and committees, Evolution, 2010

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