Of Bugs, Bacteria and Human Behaviour

(First published in Le News 28 May 2014)

Funny things, bugs. I was pondering this the other day, as I sat watching my children performing in a school play. They were on opposite sides of the stage and I spent an hour trying to make eye contact with them both at the same time, so no one could accuse me of loving the other one more.

Anyway, in the wave of dizziness that followed this eye-swivelling, I had something of a profound scientific thought, and it was this: my children owe their personalities mostly to bacteria.

The school play was, fittingly, about mini-beasts. On the left of the stage was the seven-year-old, dressed as a butterfly, and taking her role very seriously: she stood up straight, focused herself, remembered all her lines and didn’t miss a beat in the Butterfly Dance.

And over on the left … the nearly-five-year-old, playing a spider and not taking it seriously at all. As I watched her gurning at me and trying to fit her head into a tambourine, I muttered through gritted teeth, ‘Please behave. Please keep your clothes on. Please don’t turn around and moon the audience (as she once did to her surprised grandparents, on Skype).’

The children are absolutely nothing like each other. Nor are they anything like their parents.

My husband, for example, has two moods – Absolutely Fine and A Bit Grumpy – but he has somehow sired a small diva.

‘Where does she come from?’ we’ve asked one another more than once, while our elder offspring lay on the floor, clutching her brow and sobbing because we’d denied her a sweet / a later bedtime / her own pony / a new house with stabling in her bedroom for her own pony.

Nor does all this drama come from me. I may not be as even-keeled as my husband, but I’ve certainly never run down the road screaming to be adopted because I wasn’t allowed two helpings of dessert.

And the younger child. There’s no explaining her. No one, in her immediate or extended family, has ever stripped off and raced naked through the local garden centre, cackling madly. None of us would mortify our mothers like that.

So if it’s not genetics and it’s not socialiation (and please trust me, it’s not socialisation), what is it? The answer came to me as I watched my mini-beasts on stage … it’s bugs.

Not long ago I read that up to 90% of the cells that make up our bodies are actually bacterial. On a cellular level, we’re more bacteria than human.

Well, that’s good to know. It takes some of the pressure off having to wear make up all the time, for a start (why bother? I’m bacteria). But it helps me understand my children. Obviously the elder child is made up of a few well-behaved probiotics, and a large amount of Escherichia coli, which is nothing if not dramatic. 

And the little one … well, my bet is with Borrelia burgdorferi. According to my research, it’s small and fast-moving, and it can cause terrible damage to your nerves. After my garden centre experience, I’d say that’s about right.