“The fundamental law of human beings is interdependence. A person is a person through other persons.”
May is upon us, which means it’s officially Mental Health Awareness Month. So, it seems only fitting to begin this newsletter by asking: how are you? For such a customary greeting, it’s a complicated one. Firstly, it asks us to concisely convey how extraordinarily complex it feels to be a human being—which is never an easy feat, but especially lately. Secondly, it hinges on a word that is subtly misleading in its singularity: you. While you might identify as an individual, you’re actually made up of around 10,000 species of different organisms.
You’re what’s known as a holobiont—the scientific term for an organism that’s really a community consisting of a host and many symbiotes of different species. Aside from humans, a commonly studied example of holobionts are corals, which are actually made up of two species in symbiosis: an invertebrate coral polyp and an algae called zooxanthellae. The coral protects and feeds the algae, while the algae disposes of its waste and creates oxygen and ideal conditions for the coral to grow—a mutually beneficial partnership.
Meanwhile, communities of organisms of the same species that operate as one whole are known as superorganisms. One of the most obvious examples of superorganisms are ant colonies, which are capable of achieving complex, coordinated behaviors by acting in unison. As many as 250 species of ants in the Americas are capable of farming; they build underground, climate-controlled fungi farms to feed the colony. A recent study found that ant superorganisms even have their own “personalities”—unique temperaments that distinguish them from other colonies in how they respond to threats and accomplish tasks.
Sources: Merriam-Webster, The New York Times, Live Science
Both holobionts and superorganisms challenge our notions of what constitutes an individual. Meanwhile, in every aspect of capitalist culture—especially in the United States—we are indoctrinated into the cult of individualism. We are raised on the American dream: the fallacy that if we only work hard enough, we can make all of our personal dreams come true. Worse than that, we are made to believe that we must turn ourselves into a brand in order to do so. We must be easily identifiable, original, and marketable. In other words, we must stand apart. In this sense, capitalism is ingeniously engineered to protect itself by keeping everyone divided.
Even environmentalism has fallen prey to this trap. For so long, the message—created by the fossil fuel industry—has been that we must concentrate on our individual footprints, rather than band together. This same mindset has also infected the mainstream wellness movement. Want to heal? You just have to work on yourself. This puts the onus always back on the individual, rather than addressing the source of the harm. But how much healing can we really find within a system that continuously perpetuates trauma—especially if you’re a person of color, LGBTQIA, neurodivergent, living with a disability, and so on? We heal holistically or not at all.
There is no denying that we are individuals. And as individuals, we’re deserving of autonomy. This week, a leaked draft revealed that the Supreme Court has voted to overturn abortion rights nationwide. Coupled with the current attacks on trans healthcare across the country, this reveals a disturbing and authoritarian trend to stop individuals from making choices about their own bodies that don’t affect anyone else. If you’re feeling disparaged by the news, look to superorganisms and holobionts as a reminder that we are both individuals and collectives—capable of banding together for our individual rights.
Interdependence is the bridge that breaks down the false binary between individualism and collectivism. The more we isolate ourselves and treat our problems as only our own, the more insurmountable they feel. To be human is to depend on each other. We need the support of those around us, to connect with like minds. We must remember our ability to act as superorganisms in service of this great holobiont we call Earth. In the end, what are we if not communities? If there is healing to be found, it will only be found in the awareness that we are never alone.