A building at Paris International Airport, Corona architecture. Image by author.
Humans have always contemplated the importance of the invisible in nature. To account for the invisible influences of the Earth and its cosmos, humans have invented ‘forces’ to explain their impacts. Spirit forces, even God(s) might be human inventions to help us understand the good and bad actions of the invisible world playing out in our lives.
Until quite recently, we simply did not know about the material existence of a powerful but invisible micro-world, one that has major implications for the status of human and ecosystem health. The very idea that humans are ‘holobionts’ (Margulis 1991), or communities of organisms, runs counter to deep-seated intuition about what humans are. Our religious and philosophical traditions did not have any knowledge of the microcosmos and, as a consequence, missed one of the most important elements in the tree of life in their appreciation of ontology (the study of existence or being).
It gets even more bewildering when we learn that this invisible world also resides within our bodies. The concept of a collection of microorganisms, known as the ‘microbiome’ as constituting a vital part of what it is to be a human, challenges all past conceptions of human individual identity. We are not who we thought we were.
One Hundred Years of Virology
While humans have been afflicted by pandemics and epidemics caused by microorganisms in the past, the causes have been largely unknown, until the invention of the microscope (1674) by Anton van Leeuwenhoek and his observations of ‘animalcules’ or microorganisms . Before then, people blamed everything from gods to swamp miasmas or bad air (hence, mal-aria) as the causes of invisible but potentially lethal disease. Famous people in medicine in the C19 such as Louis Pasteur and Edward Jenner were associated with the development of vaccines against viruses despite the fact that they were not aware of their physical existence.
Evidence of the physical presence of viruses came in 1892 when the Russian botanist Dmitri Ivanovsky demonstrated that a mysterious ‘infectious agent’ could be transferred from one tobacco plant to another, despite micro filtering-out all bacteria to prevent just such an occurrence. In 1898, the Dutchman Martinus Beijerinck named the infectious, but smaller-than-bacteria substance, a “virus” after the Latin vīrus for poison. It was not until the invention of the electron microscope in the 1930s that viruses could even be been seen and physically described. Humans have had concrete knowledge of viruses for less than 100 years.
We now know from contemporary bioscience that there is a virome, a realm of viral existence that has a huge role to play in the complexity of health and disease, life and death. The coronaviruses, first isolated in the 1960s, are of course pathogens (causing sickness) and part of that virome. Their name is derived from the Greek koronis, the name for a crow, and relates to the curve of a crow’s beak, to the curve of a crown, the surface of the sun, and now, the shape of the attachments on the outside of a virus.
The coronavirus of the day, SARS-CoV-2, is tiny, 100–160 nanometers (nm) in size, a bit of self-replicating genetic material capable of causing huge amounts of morbidity and mortality in humans. The virus and the disease it causes, Covid-19, is also playing a role in opening the eyes of the public to a whole new order of organisms, one that has agency and the power to take life.
The invisible is now visible, and we ‘see’ images of coronaviruses all over the media, and portrayals of them even in the streets, with police in India dressed up as viruses to enforce physical distancing between citizens during the pandemic. The invisible and the frightening now have a name and a shape. It is no longer mysterious, but is perhaps even more frightening than any spirit in past culture. A similar consideration applies to our relationship to other zoonotic (from other animals) diseases that have emerged in the last 50 years such as HIV AIDs, Severe Acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
Despite having a generally ‘poisonous’ reputation, some viruses kill bacteria harmful to human health. Discoveries within virology tell us that a type of virus called bacteriorphages (bacteria eaters) were first understood when, on the shoulders of others, the microbiologist Félix d’Hérelle discovered in 1917 that a virus attacked the dysentery bacteria and killed it. In the last 50 years, bioscience has discovered that viruses that are associated with bacteria are a hugely important part of the healthy human microbiome. The community of microorganisms that constitute our gut microbiome includes the ‘phageome’ or that collection of viruses that are a normal part of a ‘community’ of living beings.
Complexity and Melting Pots
We now know that the millions of virus species in the environment are vital agents in the micro-world, where life-supporting symbiosis (living together) is opposed by life-destroying dysbiosis (a way of life leading to death) at all scales from the microbiome to macrobiomes. We have yet to figure out how it all works, but it has become clear that, when humans create the conditions for the exchange of viral load in species that do not normally associate, novel viruses that jump species into humans can cause a major health crisis.
Complexity theory with virology combine to form a new understanding of how the world works, at levels that are no longer invisible to us. Locations such as so-called wet meat/protein markets in, for example, Wuhan, China, are ‘basins of attraction’ or melting pots for emergent viral disease, because humans place many unrelated species, both domesticated and wild caught, in close proximity to each other and to humans. Such a complex system is always at the edge of chaos and ready to flip into a new state, one that has new characteristics, including emergent disease. Wet markets are attractors and transmitters for disease.
Micro-complexity is also dramatically affected by the large scale change that humans are enacting on ecosystems and biomes. Anthropogenic forces such as industrial development (land clearing) and climate change don’t simply represent ecocide, they are forcing species that normally do not associate to come into contact with each other. In addition, reduced biodiversity increases the possibility of disease transmission and the emergence of epidemics and pandemics. The microbiological melting pot is now as big as the planet and this has important consequences for human health.
The discovery, and now, visibility, of the microcosmos, are causes for re-thinking many of our philosophical foundations. For a start, traditional images of life and diversity on Earth tend to focus on the huge and visible. The megafauna of the world are easy objects for our biophilia or love of life, and places like zoos and botanical gardens have catered for the human need to see and interact with charismatic fauna and plants. So novel is the knowledge of the microcosmos that we are even discovering new places where life exists. It has been revealed recently that there is a deep Earth microbiome, a place where abundant symbiotically connected life forms exist, many of them new to science.
On the basis of the cumulative knowledge gained about the microcosmos over the last 100 years, we are in a position to philosophically bond with the invisible, despite that fact that, even for our ‘microfriends’ in a healthy microbiome, forming a kinship bond based on perceptual and tactile biophilia is impossible. Learning to appreciate (love) material existence (ontology) which is not accessible to us requires a new metaphysics, our appreciation of that which is beyond our normal experience of nature.
Humans are also now in a position to appreciate that visible life on the surface of the Earth is not even the largest and most diverse group of living things. Bacteria form the largest family unit in the diversity of life on the planet. Viruses and fungi are not far behind them. In my book, Earth Emotions I have argued:
If bacteria and mycorrhizae had been visible to us, Descartes (1596 –1650) and other founding ‘fathers’ of reductionism would have seen the need immediately for holistic life sciences. We are only just beginning to appreciate that our life in the symbioment (environment) is a shared arrangement, a mutually beneficial relationship between holobionts, radically different life forms that share life and death in common. All creatures great and small will work together to keep their share of life for as long as is possible. (Albrecht 2019:143)
The idea of life as a shared or common property of living collectives is of such philosophical importance, I suggest we should give it its own name. I call the shared property of life within and between holobionts the “biocomunen“. The biocomunen is a gift held in common by trillions of organisms within healthy holobionts. We are not alone in this life.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced humans to think about their relationship to the micro forces that help create and nurture life, and those that consume and destroy it. The balance between these two forces is always delicately poised. Too much fecundity or too much predation and the system collapses and only extinction wins. If virulence ratchets up too far … the predator rapidly kills the host and ends any chance of its further reproduction.
Ancient alliances between organisms that support life, such as those between the viral phages that destroy dysbiotic bacteria and the symbiotic bacteria needed for a healthy human microbiome, are vital to our ongoing health. By contrast, novel viruses that have no evolutionary history with our microbiome can be potentially lethal, because we have no ‘friends’ inside us to fight them off. Where possible, in these situations, we can vaccinate ourselves against those microorganisms that would rather kill their host than join the mutual aid party that is life. However, as is obvious with Covid-19, emergent disease for which we have no vaccine or therapy is a disaster for human health.
If humans conserve and protect proven symbiotic relationships that have stood the test of evolution at all scales, life will be less risky than ‘experiments’ such as wet markets and feed lots where no such long-term collaborative associations have been formed. If all people in all places create symbiotically inspired relationships, then the totality of life on Earth will be very good. Gaia, the so called ‘living planet’, will be the net result of all of these actions, not the prime mover of such living vitality. Gaia has no agency, but humans do on the planet of life.
We all had no idea that SARS-CoV-2 would lead to human health dysbiosis, and a crisis in all forms of globalised industrial state and corporate capitalism in the early twenty-first century. Yet it has. There is a corresponding crisis going on in our heads and hearts as the emotions of Covid-19 run through raw human grief for the deceased, to solastalgia for places that are being negatively transformed by the shut-down of human communities and their infrastructure. A virus can cause us to be homesick within our own homes, apartments and whole cities.
Liberation from pathogenic emergent disease such as Covid-19 will not come from a ‘bounce back’ to the perverse resilience of the past, as it too fuels the destructive attractor of climate warming. Anthropogenic climate chaos invites an acceleration of the ‘age of solastalgia’ as home environments continue to be desolated. It will get worse than that as human mal-development continues to colonise new places on Earth, those still naive to introduced pathogens and containing pathogens possibly lethal to the colonising invader.
Instead of, for example, only one virus being unable to live symbiotically with one other species in the matrix of life, as is the case now with SARS-CoV-2 in humans, under climate chaos, many forms of life will become mis-matched within the remaining microbiomes, mesobiomes and macrobiomes of the Earth. Due to ongoing human mal-development and the loss of interrelated biodiversity, further breaks in the biocomunen will affect all life, and hasten the cascading extinction of species, including Homo sapiens.
We have many such examples of ‘global’ pathogens taking over formerly healthy ecosystems. In the ecosystems of southern Australia there is an introduced invisible water mould, Phytophthora cinnamomi, that causes catastrophic disease then death in the native plants. The term ‘phytophthora’ literally means ‘plant destroyer’ and the mould is similar to Covid-19 for human ecology in that it indiscriminately weakens and kills in naive endemic ecosystems.
The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 heralds the end of the Anthropocene, or period of human dominance on the planet. If a gigantic global economy can be humbled by an invisible virus, it is clear that the human hubris of the Anthropocene has met its microcosmic match.
State or corporate capitalism can be conceived of as a ‘pathogen’, capable of bringing the interrelated complexity of the planet almost to its knees. A single economic model, capitalism, acts like coronavirus or phytophthera on the rest of the natural world in that it is capable of killing almost all complex life (ecocide).
Contemporary capitalism is, from the perspective of the rest of the living planet, Capit-20, a disease that has no possible vaccine and no prospect of re-integration into evolution. Capit-20 is spread world-wide by ‘terraphthorans’ or Earth destroyers and it is delivering dysbiosis to all it infects.
With complete clarity we can now see that we must move from the capitalist form of society, the equivalent of a deadly parasite or cancerous disease on the rest of life, to a form of human existence compatible with symbiosis at all scales.
After the Anthropocene and Capit-20 can come the Symbiocene, the next era in human history where we symbiotically reconnect to the rest of life. That strategy will bring the design and function of human culture, technology, food production and habitats into line with the long-term direction taken by the rest of interrelated life. That will be exciting, stimulating and conducive of an epidemic of care, a panmemic of good Earth emotions and a new politics of cooperation and mutual aid.
Albrecht, Glenn. 2019. Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.
Margulis, Lynn. 1991. Symbiosis as a Source of Evolutionary Innovation: Speciation and Morphogenesis. Edited by Lynn Margulis and René Fester. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.