Diversity, Complexity, and Development of the Microbiome

The microbiome—the collection of microbes in a habitat or body—is currently an object of interdisciplinary excitement. In this view of microbes as the essential building blocks of life, ideas about disease are refigured. Dysbiosis names this new notion of disease as the dysregulation of microbial ecologies. The concept is Greek for difficult living, but taken in terms of microbial ecologies, dysbiosis refers to an overall dysregulated composition. The connection to the Anthropocene is explicit: loss of microbial diversity is about an epoch of planetary loss. Starting with the paleo Anthropocene, then the industrial revolution and ultimately the mid 20th century Great Acceleration, each of these periods demarcate disruptions that not only alter the external environment but also the (internal) human environment. Shaped by delivery methods, feeding practices, and antibiotic doses—development of the human gut microbiome is linked to its assembly at birth. After birth, environmental and social conditions continue to press upon its composition.


The microbiome is presented as a “post-racial” view of life that emphasizes plasticity over fixity and ecology over genes. This is considered post racial because it is not about differences between humans as species types. Rather microbiome research centers the nonhuman and difference as internal variability, which is presented as a disruption of anthropocentrism. Secondly, difference is not about inferiority but about improvement. Microbes aren’t just disease vectors or lower orders, they are the conditions of possibility for creating all forms of complexity. Difference and diversity is linked to increased fitness.

In turn, microbiome research presents itself as long removed from both the heydays of the racial pseudoscience of natural types—and the 20th century science of genetic reductionism. But, I argue the history of scientific racism is not reducible to ideas about the fixity of natural types, differences as inferiority, and anthropocentrism. Before the gene—the germ was posed as the material embodiment and reproductive force of life as models of evolution became accepted in mainstream Western science across the 19th century. It was with ideas about the germ–posed as the seed that developed into the whole organism, the tiny animal itself, and the tissues or cells that made up the body–that life not only became a distinct object of knowledge, but one which required intervention in order to improve inevitable trajectories away from degeneration. With ideas about reproduction at the scale of the generation, the germ linked aging and disease, as decline over the individual lifespan or developmental time, to civilizational decline or collapse, as evolutionary time.

Ideas about nature’s plasticity were linked to ideas about the relation between hybrid fertility and shared ‘missing’ origins, whereby the womb, or the reproductive capacities, of enslaved African American women, became the raw material for a cross-species understanding of the pliability of body-environment relations. By extending literature on the convergence of medical and agricultural notions of the germ in 19th century Europe—epitomized by Darwin—to the threat emancipation posed to the planter-physician dyad in America, I argue that ideas about nature’s plasticity were yoked to the racist anxiety and fetish over mulatto fertility. In the US, hybrid fertility was explicitly entangled with the reproduction of captive labor, which simultaneously were the means for improvement as capital accumulation for the national economy (and Southern politics) and the means for threatening the boundary of whiteness.

I argue it is precisely where many find excitement and hope – i.e. ideas about nature’s plasticity—that contemporary microbiome science continues to traffic in this eugenic relation between ideas of improvement and degeneration. Dysbiosis presents all difference as situated along a continuous spectrum of westernization. Here certain contemporary lifestyles are not just associated with increased microbial diversity but as such are posed as ancestral, a prelapsarian ideal stuck in time, a lost missing link. Recent scholarship has demonstrated this way race re-emerges in the idea of the “noble savage”. Deemed more “natural” and thus “vanishing,” scholars have critiqued how particular microbiomes figured as universal collective heritage become subject to bioprospecting projects.

Figure 1 Source: Gupta, Vinod et al. 2017. Geography, Ethnicity or Subsistence-Specific Variations in Human Microbiome Composition and Diversity. Frontiers in Microbiology.

I extend these critiques of microbiome science by also unpacking the racialized distinction that emerges between anxiety around the “degenerating” gut and the desiring subject of “regeneration” or the “rewilded” gut. This illustrates how race is also posed as an internal threat, as microbiome science focuses on the perils of “bad,” low socioeconomic status neighborhoods. The argument is that “the very same factors related to the total lived experience of socioeconomic disadvantage” are the “risk factors for dysbiosis” (Prescott & Logan). In this view, environmental crisis becomes an urban-industrial threat, as racialized neighborhoods disrupt microbial ecologies and threaten human extinction.

I link both biocentric fetishization of indigeneity as wilderness and the biocentric anxiety around the city and urban degeneration to the project of making whiteness universal. Dysbiosis, and the ideal of eubiosis, figures whiteness as the universal condition of the post-human, which is constituted by the awareness of being microbial ecologies all the way down. Here racial anxiety about the perils of westernization and the desire to become the non-Western Other are given scientific legitimacy in the form of microbial plasticity. This recapitulates the universal subject of whiteness, not through externalization of the racially marked other but through regulating internalization as either degenerative or as improving. I argue this scientific legitimacy is a form of biocentrism, which grounds notions of civilizational advancement in nature itself.

Figure 2 Source: Dominguez-Bello, Maria, Knight, Rob, Gilbert, Jack and Martin Blaser. 2018. Preserving microbial diversity. Science.


Ariel Rawson, PhD Candidate

Department of Geography

The Ohio State University