February 24, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich
Microbiomics: Heading the bandwagon off at the pass
Epigenetics once was a new and emerging field. Although there is no scientific consensus about the correct meaning of ‘epigenetics’ and scientists are increasingly sceptical of some claims being made, one can say, following Kat Arney, that epigenetics tries to “explain how the things that happen to us during a lifetime somehow imprint on our genes, affecting our bodies, brains and behavior”.
In recent years, some scientists and a “new breed of biosocial scientist” (ibid.) have described it as the study of how the social gets into the biological or how the environment gets under your skin. It has therefore also inspired some policy makers and educators trying to find biological, even molecular, ways of alleviating social ills, such as violence, mental health, poverty, deprivation and so on. While this is going on, the term ‘epigenetics’ is being increasingly debased by being used by alternative medicine and ‘wellness’ providers (for examples, see here). It is also more and more questioned by scientists themselves.
Now I see the same thing happening around the new and emerging field of microbiomics, and I am asking myself whether, this time round, we can head off the bio-social and commercial hype bandwagon at the pass?
But what is microbiomics and why am I worried? One should think that microbiomics deals with the microbiome, as indeed it does. However, there is some confusion over the term ‘microbiome’. Microbiome is sometimes used to refer to what actually should be called microbiota, that is the totality of microbes in (particular) environments, for example in the gut or the mouth, in soil or water and so on. However, one should generally make a distinction between, for example, the human microbiotia, as “the aggregate of microorganisms that resides on or within any of a number of human tissues and biofluids” and the human microbiome, which “refers specifically to the collective genomes of resident microorganisms” (wikipedia).
In another post I have tried to chart how the ‘microbiome’ went viral and how microbiomics is beginning to eclipse epigenetics in the popular science fashion stakes. As with epigenetics, there is of course a great deal of exciting research being done; there is no doubt about that. However, some parts of the media, industry and social science seem to be racing ahead of the evidence, yet again.
As Matthew Niederhuber points out on a blog hosted by Harvard University: “There is promising evidence that the microbiome is intimately involved in human health, including brain function and behavior. But there is equally clear evidence that media coverage walks far ahead of the scientific work it intends to report, too often condensing preliminary, correlative and complex data into pat headlines. As a result, the public impression of microbiotic research differs from the present-day reality, creating the serious risk that pre/probiotics will be marketed as miracle cures for a laundry list of physical and psychological ailments under a pseudo-academic purview. The likely end result is the degradation of public trust in the integrity and validity of scientific research.”
So, as with epigenetics, some caution is called for before jumping on the microbiomics or probiotics bandwagon, or, to mix metaphors, wagon trail, where the wagons are circled by cowboys and snake oil sellers.
Microbiomics, self and society
Some social scientists/STS researchers seem to have thrown caution to the wind and have taken microbiomics as another springboard, after neuroscience and epigenetics, to call for the dismantling of barriers, dichotomies and dualisms, especially between the arts/social sciences and the natural sciences, dualisms that are more postulates (or in less polite terms ‘strawmen’) than realities.
I was intrigued by a thought-provoking article entitled “How the microbiome challenges our concept of the self”, as I have myself mused about these issues for a while. When reading the article, I became troubled by assertions such as: “The discrete self was a philosophical certainty in both the natural and the human sciences” without providing a reference for that assertion; or: “A powerful dualism holds that humans are more than mere nature. A major consequence of this dualism is the emergence of the two different kinds of sciences: the arts, concerned with manifestations of human freedom, and the sciences, studying nature as a realm of mechanical laws. Microbiome research troubles the idea that the human is more than mere nature…”.
I am not saying humanities and social science scholars should not study ‘microbiomics and society’ issues. On the contrary, I have done so myself some years ago (together with my colleague Iina Hellsten). But I hope that we can learn from past experience, including the way we jumped onto the epigenetics bandwagon, and try to make our research evidence-based rather than postulate based.
If we are saying that people’s conceptions of the self have changed now that we know more about the microbes we live with and the microbes we live by, let’s look at these conceptions. Let’s ask whether such conceptions of the self were as isolationist in the past as we assume they were. Let’s look at what these conceptions of the self are now and whether and how they might be changing over time or how they differ between social groups and cultures. Let’s ask people!
In both cases, epigenetics and microbiomics, social science and humanities scholars take the deepening understanding of genetics and genomics as occasions to call for closer collaborations between the arts/social sciences and natural sciences. This is good. But will these calls be heard, given that some are written in a language that’s not easily accessible to all those that should be involved, and given that some are built on shaky epistemological foundations? Will such calls for collaboration be heard in a context where natural scientists carry on puzzling over the many intriguing complexities of their continued discoveries, while popular culture, some social scientists and even policy experts jump to rather premature conclusions?
Image: Entrance to the Wild Rose Pass