Parts and Wholes: The Human Microbiome, Ecological Ontology, and the Challenges of Community

The early results of the Human Microbiome Project, released in June 2012, add to the overwhelming data that show that there are literally trillions of microbes that live in and on each human individual. This research raises profound questions about what it means to be an individual organism, human or otherwise. In this paper, we ask two broad questions: (1) how might we conceive of an individual organism, given these results? and (2) in light of this emerging conception of the individual organism, what are the implications for how humans conceive of their own self-sufficiency and interact with other members of the living world? We highlight the ontological and political presuppositions animating this research and return to Aristotle for insights into how to conceive of and how to behave towards and within a diverse community of interdependent living parts that function together as one.