Science

Biological Stories

You are a story. Not you have a story, or tell stories, or even live a story. You are a story. The very body that you live in imanifests a story spelled out by the language of life: our DNA (and in some cases RNA). This story is then told by our cells, both microbial and human, enacted by our biological processes.

This seems very meta; but in actuality when you break humans or any species really down to what it is on the basic level, it is information relayed in a causal narrative structure. This happened and then this happened and then this happened. Who you are physically is the result of your genetic source code telling your cells to behave in a certain way. These instructions are a history of not only your life but of the lives of your human ancestors as well as the myriad of microorganisms that live on and in you.

When we think like a macrospecies, we don’t see stories in our cells. Rather we look outside the biological narrative to the construction—like ignoring the text of a book to focus on its binding or even if we do look at the text, we instead focus on diagraming the plot (Freytag’s Pyramid) rather than examining individual paragraphs.

Microspecies don’t worry about the larger structure of our biological texts. Rather, they are careful readers that pay attention to each individual letter and word, often happily rewriting their own stories which then trickles up to affect our larger human narrative.

I know that most people aren’t trained to examine the mechanics of how a story is made, so before we get into letters and paragraph structure of our stories, let’s zoom out for a second to talk about plot structure in the human story.

One plot that many people are worried about is the problem of obesity. Granted, the actual number of people who are obese seems to have stabilized as 1/3 of our population, but with the resulting health problems from this one part of the human story, even a stable 1/3 is too many. Further, even though we hear just how unhealthy it is to be overweight, many people who appear overweight are actually healthier than many thin people. We aren’t looking at the mechanics of the stories to actually see what’s written. Instead, we are focusing on plot structure (this person is fat) and plot structures can look the same for many different stories (rising action, crisis, falling action, denouement). Thus it becomes important to actually look at the details of the biological story: how do words (genes) work together to form sentences (proteins) that then form paragraphs (cells—again both human and microbial) that are combined to make a coherent tale.

Think about these words as you are reading them. Not the ideas that they are putting in your head, but the actual words. There are letters (26 of them) that are combined in various ways to make words so that read and dear have different meanings even if they have the same letters. However, these words are then placed into sentences and based on their placement, we also decide how to read them—or how they are read. Further, we can exchange words that have similar meanings in sentences that then add nuance to the ideas being conveyed: Johnny runs, Johnny flees, Johnny dashes.

The problem though with our biological story is that even when we do get good at looking at the mechanical elements in the story, we have the added challenge that these elements don’t stay static on the page, especially as we include the very important component of our microbes. Rather, in our biological texts, words shift and change; paragraphs reconfigure; whole sections of texts might disappear one day and another section appear the next. Even the human genome, which is relatively static in an individual, gets modified by both environmental and microbial editors through epigenetics that change our story.

When we insist on thinking like a macrospecies about our biological stories, we ignore just how nuanced and slippery the elements (words/genes; paragraphs/cells) can be. We act like we can remove whole paragraphs or substitute words that create different meanings without drastically changing the story. We are not static. Humans as stories are active and vibrant texts that change and adapt to make our narratives best fit the world we live in.

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