In the Sky Island Ranges of Southern Arizona, Chiricahua NM, March 2019
I’ve mentioned in past posts I’ve been listening to (and finished) David Quammen’s book, The Tangled Tree, a book about the discovery of Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT). It’s about how bacteria throughout the natural world swap genetic sequences, as well as actual parts, such as tails, as they travel their own road of independent evolution.
Quammen focuses solely on bacteria or bacteria-like single-celled organisms, as well as the personal relationships between the scientists who found out that evolution wasn’t just a branching tree. There was some of that — generational heredity, where traits were passed down from father bacteria to son bacteria, that lent itself well, through various mutational assays, to answering the super-big questions about how long life on Earth has really been hanging around. The generational transfer stuff is what you learn in high school biology regarding genetic inheritance. No big news there.
But there were also groups of scientists, whose names I can’t remember — I’m an Audible fan, and I listen to these books while I exercise, AND I haven’t bought a hard-copy yet — who figured out that there was a lot of other crazy-ass stuff going on with modern day bacteria. Most important was that bacteria, or some combo of prokaryotes and eukaryotes ( words included so those inclined can Google and learn more on their own!) would do things like capture pieces of genetic material, or more defined structures like mitochondria, those energetic generation devices, and incorporate them into bacterial cell structures. News flash — mitochondria did not evolve, Darwinistically, solely from one generation to another. They were captured, or invaded and assimilated inside the cell walls of other unicellular companions. Because of that type of phenomena, we have the complex multicellular organisms of today, as well as a more enlightened, nonlinear perspective on how it occurs.
HGT naturally scaled to the complex interplay humans are now just starting to discover in our own bodily systems, like our gut microbiome. A very popular item to discuss, it turns out that the health of our gut microbiome can be linked to every part of our health — both physical and mental — but at some level also exists separately from us. Lest ye blanch at the idea that it’s bacteria in your gut that’s either helping you be happy or depressed, do remember that the vagus nerve, which is core to your empathetic nervous system, is anchored in your gut. It would not surprise me in the least (note — the following comment is speculation!) to find that the roots of the opioid epidemic is anchored, or at least grossly facilitated by the poor diets of Appalachia. Think of it this way — you wreck your gut microbiome eating trash, you can’t connect to other people, your serotonin (the We chemicals in your system) go to shit, and you’re that much more easily hooked on things like Oxycontin because your life is oppressive anyway. And now you can’t connect, so you’re looking for chemicals to ease your pain. Maybe chicken soup really is for the soul. Maybe.
From a long-term evolutionary perspective, being an assemblage of loosely coupled systems make sense. You get an intestinal bug? You core-dump that system in various unpleasant and no-need-for-detailed-descriptive ways, and reboot. If we were deeply coupled together, you would die. But because we’re this loosely coupled system, we just run to the bathroom for a couple of days, lose a little weight, and you’re back in business. See below for a quick chuckle from The Devil Wears Prada. After my dietary episode, I can SO relate.
As I’ve mentioned before, scientific breakthroughs in the book mirror the relational evolution we see in the main characters that Quammen describes. No surprise there to readers of this blog. When people break with the scientific hierarchy, or form genuine friendships, new, interesting things happen. It’s not that they abandon all elements of the scientific method — far from it. It’s just that when the characters act in ways that aren’t particularly coded with the larger community, interesting breakthroughs happen. Quammen does a little classic scientific writing romanticism attempting to show the multi-dimensional side of some of his key actors. I’ll forgive him for it, and maybe it is even true. But just FYI — most of us are boring.
A fun project I keep attempting to foist off on my graduate student is actually mapping all this out. I’m still waiting for him to bite!
Bacteria are super-duper for understanding information transfer modes, because no one’s going to sit around arguing much about bacterial free will, or whether bacteria have a mind or not. And you’re not going to get much push-back from any of our more ethically evolved friends if you kill a bunch of them. And culture — well those discussions are limited to what kind of agar you have in your petri dish.
So it’s fair to say that bacteria operate in both meta-linear and meta-nonlinear information transfer modes. Meta-linear, where classic Darwinian vertical inheritance is in play, involves small, mutational changes over time, maybe with some classic linear aggregation, of different things adding together. And of course this maps to a tree, and those studying such phenomena are represented by a classic hierarchy of biology professor, with grad students in a lab, diligently blurting out their Ph.D. advisor’s full title with every question.
And meta-nonlinear? Well, that’s the wild stuff that is truly disruptive and unpredictable, and has the poor Ph.D. student wondering if they’re going to ever finish their dissertation. Her observations upset the dominant mode of understanding in the social hierarchy, and cause the professor to criticize her theoretically-slipshod contamination of the culturing material. That is, until the ramifications of that different experiment is truly grasped. And as a result, the field changes direction, starting the process of incremental refinement and meta-linear behavior all over.
Or not. At least if the field can’t assimilate the new change, or denies its existence. And that’s when things get interesting by becoming less interesting. Sooner or later, a field with no nonlinear disruption dies, at least from a research perspective. The ideas all become well-worn, and the only acceptable advances (or journal publications) must kowtow to old masters. Recombination of accepted authority turns into the only acceptable form of discourse. I’m on a couple of philosophy list serves, and I’d characterize most of what goes on there as meta-linear discourse. Which too often ends up in what I’d call a Jungian/Kantian reproductive organ measurement competition.
At some level, the idea of a meta-linear or meta-nonlinear system has analogs to thermodynamic concepts as well — that of a closed or open system. Closed systems inevitably have to yield to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which basically says you lose energy to heat whether you like it or not, and then that fritters away until everything is cold. Open systems have the sun’s (or some other energy source) beaming into it, thus keeping things going longer.
But I prefer the meta-linear and meta-nonlinear paradigms better. Why? Because they directly map to how new ideas are created. Meta-linear systems are inevitably doomed, no matter how expansive they are. Even the largest hierarchies (read empires) fall, and we can certainly see this happening with U.S. politics today. When we only can elect a President out of a certain number of ruling families or billionaires (or both!) we’re screwed. The whole loop of elite universities, feeding the same type of information into the same people and the same structures, don’t bode well for long-term anything. Deep State anyone? Or rather, more accurately, Deep v-Meme State? Anyone that doubts THAT exists can pick up and read the magazine/journal Foreign Affairs.
Which brings us back to bacterial parthenogenesis. In The Tangled Tree, somewhere in there, was some mention of how if you have a bacteria that is solely making more of itself just by staying single, entropy catches up with the genetic code and that bacteria goes extinct. There’s a timeline, and you can calculate it.
As such, bacteria that practice things like microbiological conjugation — the mixing of genetic material of the same species — are much more likely to last longer than bacteria that, well, just go solo. And those that really mix it up, grabbing various appendages and cilia out of thin air, or rather, thin agar, are the ones that, if they make it, go on to bigger and better things. Like trilobites. Or dinosaurs. Or us.
But these are meta-nonlinear processes. And here’s the deep rub, and takeaway from an information perspective. These things come from an individual, usually meeting a functional need. What that means from a knowledge structure perspective is that we’re talking scaffolded heuristic or higher. And heuristics, by their very nature, with their emphasis on individual agency, and personal observation are at odds with our current generators of meaning — academic institutions.
Academic institutions, deeply entrenched in a combo of reliability of information, which inevitably demands squaring with historic facts and traditional algorithms that reproduce the same surface-level answer, are at a distinct disadvantage with ingratiating new concepts into their methodologies. You can’t do that because no one else has done that. And if you want to do it that way, it’s because we’re going to transfer our own egocentric v-Meme motives over to you, because for the most part, we can’t reach higher. Just trying to make a name for yourself, eh? We’ll see about that.
The short-answer outcome, though, is simple. You can’t publish anything that really shifts the paradigm, because you can’t cite enough stuff in the established literature. And because you can’t publish something that’s not supported by the established literature, you can’t, well, establish a literature that you can cite to get more of your stuff out. The result? Academic parthenogenesis. Or that Catch-22. The best there is.
I’m not quite so sure that all of this was as high-stakes as it is now, when the world is so functionally desperate for new paradigms, AND things are changing so rapidly. But the answer is still empathy — in particular, the data-driven variety. We need to consider things on that case-by-case basis, which comes with all the diversity present in the universe. And yeah — it’s helped with scaffolding from all those lower v-Meme knowledge structures, like algorithms, established data, and such. But in the end, we have to look at things from a case-by-case basis, and relate that to the larger reality around us — grounding validity — instead of ‘well does this agree with everything that’s gone on before?’ And that, for those that aren’t readers of this blog, and might miss the point, gets developed through data-driven empathetic interaction with others.
Healthy mechanisms for nonlinear disruption, or meta-nonlinear knowledge generation, are where our society is really missing the boat. Because if you can’t figure out how to get new ideas into your information flow, then sooner or later, you’ll end up with someone with psychopathic tendencies that are more than happy to manipulate your old, no-longer-valid truths against you to gain power and control. Nothing lasts forever. And there is more than one path to generating entropy and disorder in systems. It doesn’t have to be a gradual process. But the result is the same — and a whole lot more risky.