In “It’s Chomping All the Way Down: Guts, Dirt and Fundamental(ish) Metaphysical Concepts,” Lisa Heldke, Professor of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College, explores the four different ways to understand what it means to be a “person” in the age of the microbiome.
At every moment, we are awash in news accounts of research into the microorganisms that live on our skin, in our guts and in the soil on which we depend. We’re told, for instance, that humans play host to more individual non-human organisms than we have cells of “our own,” and that those organisms play vital roles in essential processes such as digestion.
Another crucial part, however, is this: our bodies host a set of parasitic guests who deplete our hospitality and harm us. Furthermore, the distinction between parasite and host is neither sharp nor static; today’s host is tomorrow’s parasite. A conception of personhood must not simply acknowledge but also absorb this feature of existence. Taking parasitism to be metaphysically relevant challenges the dualisms that dominate western metaphysics, in particular the self-other dualism.
The parasite, taken both literally and figuratively, calls us to refabricate models of personhood that have rested on this tidy division. The result is a relational ontology with teeth.