Communities within us

I caught a bit of a conversation on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour the other day, which amazed me. Humans produce unusually sugary breast milk compared to other mammals, but many of the sugars in it cannot be digested by babies. Instead, these sugars are thought to feed the gut microbiome.

That’s pretty mind-blowing: evolution has tuned the composition of breast milk so that mothers feed not only their baby but the community of bacteria within him or her.

So much of the trouble that humans create between each other stems from making tiny distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. And yet we are incredibly similar to other apes, other primates and even other mammals. And each of us has at least as many bacterial cells within us as we have human cells (not to mention the viruses, fungi and so on). There are layers and layers of communities, and we should worry much less about which of those communities is ‘us’.

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