We are a Community of Cells

The future of medicine:

“What are we really?. Our bodies aren’t really self-contained machines – they’re more like ecosystems. The recent explosion of research into our body’s microbial universe will change 21c treatment of metabolic, immune and psycho-emotional disorders.  What’s more, it will cast a whole new perspective on our metaphors, cultural assumptions, and the very identity of “self”, as described in this talk by cultural anthropologist Miriam Lueck Avery.”

Bacteria Discover the Advantages of Community

Fun Fact: Some species of bacteria are social creatures. They act as a community in a number of ways and because of this community behavior, their lives and their chance of survivability in adverse conditions is improved. Myxococcus xanthus is one such bacteria. They, like us, require a population that works together to enhance survivability. Like us communities of M. xanthus act as a singular unit, especially when they sense adversity. For instance; they move together to find food. If food is scarce, they reorganize themselves to become a complex organism with specialized, differentiated organ structures that is much more adaptable. Like us, this division of labor and specialization in their collective body structure enhances survivability. Along with increased mobility, some of the bacteria specialize in making spores to ensure survival through extreme conditions. They also specialize their behaviors to survive environmental changes like temperature and radiation. When damage occurs to their outer membrane M. xanthus cells cooperate with each other to make repairs in a process called Outer Membrane Exchange (OME). These bacteria have discovered the power of community – that looking out for each other is a much better strategy than competing with each other. When it comes to survival. This community trait in bacteria is also a clue to understanding the evolutionary transition to multi-cellularity.

For more information read these:

http://journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371/journal.pgen.1003891

http://phys.org/news/2015-05-bacteria-cooperate-siblings.html

http://schaechter.asmblog.org/schaechter/2015/10/kiss-and-make-up-myxococcus-xanthus-demonstrates-bacterial-cooperation.html

Have you thanked a retrovirus today?

Fun Fact: Certain viruses embedded in our genome have been found to have a powerful influence on our development. In fact, if it were not for viruses, we would not be mammals, we would still be monotremes laying eggs. Another retrovirus embedded in our genome activates during the early stages of pregnancy and makes it possible for the early grouping of cells to implant in the uterus. The bottom line is, much of the structure we call human, or any other species for that matter, is based on the accumulation of cooperative nourishing relationships that have offered some adaptive advantage.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2012/02/14/mammals-made-by-viruses/#.VuaTKpyEChc

The Social Side of Science

Michal Schwartz in her office at the Weizmann Institute, in the city of Rehovot. (Photograph by Kobi Wolf )

Some of us have a range of perception that rides imperceptibly on the polite fiction that the scientific community, as a whole, adopts new evidence with open arms. We sometimes ignore the fact that this community, like all communities,  is also a social organ populated with people whose careers and reputations are hinged on the validity of certain ideas. Social acceptance is validity when it comes to social organs, not whether or not an idea is well grounded in evidence. For science, this presents a real problem because the social aspet and the goal of science can be at odds with each other.

The line is sometimes blurred between acceptance and validity and sometimes it is outright deliberately violated for motives other than the advancement of evidence based knowledge. To focus in on motives that beyond ego and social standing there are also some real world implications. Funding channels are greased by the reputations of the respected and this makes respect as much, or more, a currency in the scientific community as evidence. At times this social structural aspect of science is counter to the emergence of evidence as the spear tip of what the scientific community is ostensibly about. Although scientific convention is hard to break, especially in some areas, here is one story of a tenacious person, Michal Schwartz,  who followed the evidence despite the adversity. From my perspective, people like these are worthy of celebration. They probably already have their fill of scorn.

Michal Schwartz, a professor of neuroimmunology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, established the role of the immune system in brain health and repair. She is also author of the book, Neuroimmunity: A New Science That Will Revolutionize How We Keep our Brains Healthy and Young. Among the things this book addresses are potential improvements in the treatment for Alzheimer’s, dementia, spinal cord injuries, depression and glaucoma.

Read more about her in Anne Kingston’s article in Maclean’s

The vital link between your immune system and brain health

Things That Matter #0003-What changes beliefs?

This is Episode 3 of “Things That Matter” which take on topics aimed at understanding ourselves, each other, and our world better.  The topic is: What changes beliefs? What are they? How do they form? What steers the way we accept them? & How and why do some of us undergo dramatic transformations in our core belief structures? Can we change the way we are wired to see and believe the way we do, if so, how does that work?

Shared Purpose

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The strength of a system depends on the extent to which the collective filling of needs covers the entire systems nutrition requirements to produce fruitful outcomes. Whether we focus inward or outward, we see repeated echoes of the same unified purpose – the evidence for which is expressed through the fact that the relationships are collectively aligned to sense the environment for a swath of communal needs, and the alignment of certain behaviors around the meeting of those needs. One of the powerful meanings conveyed through biological systems is that the whole system depends on the whole system for wholeness.

 

Things That Matter – Can we work together toward a better world?

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Episode 0001- What is a realistic approach to move us forward as a global culture?

There are a lot of ideological systems throughout the world. We absorb them, as well as our behavioral values from our family and local culture. Many of these cultural idea-behavior profiles conflict with others. Some cultures appear to get along with others despite differences, others – not so much. Some express behavioral values that conflict their stated beliefs and completely miss the hypocrisy – so what we say and do might not line up – but the bottom line is – some of us behave in direct opposition not only to each other, but against the common good of the world. We will explore “Why is that?” AND – “Is there anything we can do about it?”

We are Social By Nature

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 We are be social creatures. The elements we’re made of hunger for specific kinds of relationships in specific contexts. This relationship economy, built on the need for the satisfaction of specific hungers within specific ranges defines our nature. Every atom with which we are constructed has specific hungers for specific relationship. Our nature is social to the core, our biological structure reveals this at many levels. Every cell and organ depends on the others. It is the community of social relationships that defines us.

 

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When we cultivate the availability of, and tend to servicing a certain nourishing order of things, we can be satisfied; conversely, if we violate this necessary order we suffer from instability – and if a critical nourishing relational pathway on which we depend is throttled or destroyed we can lose the integrity on which we depend to exist as a biological being.

Our brains are built on the same social principle. In terms of perception, contrary to some beliefs, we are not primarily logical creatures that are also social and emotional. Even though we appear to use logic as the currency of social influence, our peculiar use of logic as a method to persuade is a polite fiction at best. The evidence does not suggest logic is an effective tool, except in social circles where logic is valued highly or some corresponding social-emotional connection is associated with the logic – and this is the point: “Social-Emotional Bonds” are the key.

The fact that our emotional and social traits trump logic is born out by the evidence in many ways. One example is the way we sincerely and passionately disagree with out-groups in ways that conveniently agree with and support the validity of our in-group. This difference is despite the similarity of our basic biological sensory and processing equipment. This suggests something other than biological differences as the cause. Of far greater weight than our brain’s capacity for logic is the emotional-social aspect of this fatty organ sloshing around our skull. When our social hungers are either wounded of starved, particularly at critical developmental periods, all kinds of pathologies can result.

Addiction may be one of those pathologies. Here is an interesting TED talk by Johann Hari about the potential causes of addiction.

 

Further related articles:

 

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/morals-not-memories-define-who-we-are/

 

A Voice in the Choir of Life

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The same way we have critical systems and organs in our individual biological membrane, we live in the context of a larger membrane, a larger body of life, which also has critical systems and organs. There are creatures, that if removed or diminished, can severely harm or destroy the body of life on which we depend. Large scale damage caused by relatively small changes in the body of life are called a trophic cascade.

For instance; the presence of wolves obviously changes the behavior of all the animals they prey on which affects all the biological organisms and environments they in turn interact with. If wolves are removed from system, the behaviors of the prey animals changes. Certain plants that were once off limits are now an option, others might now be ignored. The places they walk and how their reproductive drives impact the environment all begin to shift. This change in turn affects a number of other biological and physical systems. The prey animals might overpopulate. They might eradicate certain plant forms and under harvest their former food sources which can threaten or collapse their populations. The plants that depended on them to spread their seed may now be harmed. The point is, biology is an interconnected web, not a collection of isolated genetic islands.

Trophic cascades affect metabolic processes in a biological web, but they also impact social behaviors. If prey animals have less reason to be as cohesive as a herd and have less reason to run and stay fit this can change the way they relate to each other. This might impact their survivability through tough winters which depends on a certain type of sociality. They might get water from different sources changing their impact on the soil and river revetments. This can have an impact on plant life and fish etc. So extensive is the potential effect of a singular change in a biological ecosystem that it can alter the entire biological web all the way down to microorganisms. This type of collective effect in an ecosystem is called a top-down trophic cascade.

Bottom up cascades are also possible. When a primary producer in a food web is eliminated it has enormous ripples of impact up the chain. Removal of a predator, prey, or any creature from an ecosystem can cause a network of cascading consequences to the biological web. Not all of the effects are obvious. One reason these effects can be hard to detect is because many of the consequences are non linear. Some can be buried in a network of interconnections that appear as symptoms far removed from the cause. No matter the origin, this cascading impact on the balance of interdependencies present in biological systems is called a trophic cascade.

The interdependent properties of biological systems that are otherwise invisible are revealed once a trophic cascade lens is applied. If we only apply linear thought to the process of examining biological systems, we might think that whales eating fish diminishes fish stocks. We might also think that eliminating whales from the biological equation would increase fish stocks. This is not how biological systems work. The nature of the whole food web is such that what one creature produces as waste is what another needs as food. As mammals, we need oxygen to power our metabolism. Oxygen is a waste product of photosynthetic organisms. They need the carbon dioxide we produce. Together, we are part of the same body of life.

Trophic cascades are nothing new. Neither is one biological organism acting in such a way that their own survival is jeopardized. The Huronian glaciation was a world wide glaciation event lasting from 2400 million to 2100 million years ago. It was followed by, and probably caused by, the Great Oxygenation Event. This was when atmospheric oxygen began to rise dramatically due to photosynthetic cyanobacteria which appeared on earth about 200 million years prior. At the time there was no complementary life form to cycle the oxygen back into a usable form for the cyanobacteria. As a consequence they were drowning in their own waste. Once Earths oxygen sinks became saturated atmospheric oxygen increased and atmospheric methane decreased which caused a climate shift, triggering a world wide glaciation. Since free oxygen is toxic to obligate anaerobic organisms like cyanobacteria, the concentrations of oxygen are thought to have wiped out most of the Earth’s anaerobic inhabitants at the time.

This means cyanobacteria were responsible for one of the most, if not the most significant extinction events in Earth’s history, including many of them. It was not until aerobic organisms began to evolve which consume oxygen that the Earth began to recover and develop some kind of equilibrium.1 From a very wide lens, we are actually a complex form of dung beetle that consumes and repairs the oxygen by binding it with carbon for use as a metabolite for the very creatures that spawned us so long ago.

Interdependence is the principle of sustained structures in biological systems, and these chains of interdependency have developed complexity over the millennium. The Gaia hypothesis, also known as Gaia theory or Gaia principle, posits that organisms collectively interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating system. Together the biological systems help maintain the metabolism of the planet, such that it supports sustained life on the planet. This speaks to the common role of every biologicla creature, and to what can happen if a particular species falls out of harmony with that role.

The same way our individual bodies have critical organs and critical relationships with other organisms that we depend on. Earth itself has a metabolism that we need to cultivate and tend to in order for us to continue. We are a voice in the choir of life. Any creature that falls out of harmony with serving a nourishing role in the body of life has faded from the biological landscape. Sometimes this exit is dramatic and sometimes a lot of splash damage is caused by the chaos of the exit.

Recognizing that not only we, but the other creatures we share this Earth with are part of our collective body of life is part of the cultural paradigm shift that must take place in order for us to sustainably move forward into the future. If we recognize the value of nourishing each other, and the body of life, we also maximize our chances for a fulfilling future. We know that desert environments are full of spines and reflect the harsh realities of their environment. The same way we know the lush fruits of the tropics provide plentiful nourishment sources. The difference is the environment and we have the capacity to cultivate the environment. The real question is will we squander or leverage this capacity to serve the body of life, and by extension ourselves?

Further reading:

http://www.livescience.com/52587-missing-giant-poop-is-hurting-earth.html

https://thewisdomoflife.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/ectosymbiotic-theory/

http://www.britannica.com/science/trophic-cascade

1Prokaryotes such as cyanobacteria which are thought to have produced atmospheric oxygen.

Earth is Our Tribe

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We are social creatures far more than we are rational ones. The same way raindrops form on the backbone of a particle of dust, our abstract identities are an interpretive dance of interconnected values based on the particulate backbone of imperfect perception faculties coupled with what is communicated through our environment and the established cultural ideas we nurse from in youth. As social creatures, we’re wired to sacrifice accuracy on the altar of belonging. This isn’t because we’re more inclined to intentionally lie in order to belong to a group. Lies are a semi-irrelevant extension of our social nature. Our perception is geared to see what we need to see to cement the social bonds we depend on to live.

We ride aloft on the thermals of our innate social hungers, interpreting imperfect sensory data through a distorted cultural lens that was forged by environmental factors largely beyond the reach of our time, place and capability to influence. Once established, this lens becomes much more an inward projection of installed prejudices than an accurate interpreter of outward events. This is why what looks like common sense to one group looks completely insane to another. Our connection to ideas is an emotional one founded on the intimacy driven by the dependency of social hunger, it is not a rational one based on objective evidence.

We build our identity from the ideological breast milk of the culture we’re baptized in from youth. This ideological perspective is largely constructed at critical periods in development – prior to developing the potential to critically question the premises on which these perspectives stand, much less the discipline to do so. Along with an installed perspective forged on social dependency and how ideas serve as social glue, we also develop an ideological immune system to protect that same identity because, in so doing, we protect what it is we conceive of as our self. In aligning this ideological profile with how it serves to bind us to a group, we become an integrated part of a larger tribal body and thus historically more resilient, adaptable, and by extension, able to survive. An examination of accuracy is not as important as an evolutionary axiom of utility. It is what is useful and arguably essential to belong that trumps accuracy.

Allegiance to local sports teams is one of the recent manifestations of tribal instinct, as is allegiance to organizations, scientific and religious ideologies as well as abstract notions like property and nationalism. So powerful is this social currency that an abstract idea can form the basis of membrane to distinguish an in-group and out-group so powerful that people will fight and die over it. This tribal social attribute has served us well in a world where we needed to navigate some almost impossible adversity over the years. At times, without these kinds of uncompromising bonds to our local tribe we would have literally died off. Social currency is the coin of the realm that outwardly symbolizes the innate values that have been structured into our human cognitive frame over the years by nature to increase our potential to endure.

Along with every advantage conferred by some innovative structure born out of nature comes a potential downside. Our emotional-social attachments to abstractions along with our social hungers can become manipulated such that they are cemented to destructive things by the same engine that once drove our survival. Our innate traits can and have been exploited in some cases to drive emotional attachments to such things as corporate brands and causes which are in opposition to our best interests. People now routinely back causes that are destructive to our individual and collective well being because of ignorance, accidental appropriation and the deliberate and artful massaging of these natural social traits to serve narrow agendas.

The wealth of any local tribe has always come from it’s capacity to cultivate its people such that they lived within their means and continually cemented the bonds of unity and awareness of that which sustained their future. Each member carried the torch for and passed it to the next generation. Finding a harmonious equilibrium with the environment while cultivating and maximizing the fruits that nourish the community is the foundation of wealth. While desperate times have called for desperate measures, from the larger perspective, tribal wealth is a byproduct of how much the members of the community give to the community, not from how much power and resource they extract from it. A vested interest in the entire social and environmental ecosystem, including each other, is the life blood of the tribe.

Over time the sharing of resources and ideas is what led to our current capacity to no longer be bound as tightly to the whims of nature’s irregular bounty. We have the capacity to steer with far more intention and have far more impact through technology, but that does not mean that we have always chosen to steer wisely. Technology has provided the capacity to greatly enrich our lives, but only if it is appropriately applied. Our technological sword comes with two edges. We now have the capacity to greatly improve our lives, but we also have the capacity to destroy our future on the altar of now. Because of overpowering tools, we are faced with the new proposition of needing to apply our capacities judiciously and from a global community perspective to ensure our survival. We cannot afford to leverage our capacities capriciously without risking the destruction of the very channels that we depend on to nourish us.

Our local success now depends on the success of the many interconnected entities that collectively form our global body. We are no longer capable of operating as separate entities – different bodies. Each of us is a vital organ in the collective body. Together we are a singular whole. To strangle one part of the body for the sake of another is not only not effective, but can only be justified on a foundation of ignorant or wanton destructiveness. It is now a matter of self interest and sustainability to have, and actively cultivate, a stake in each others success and to cultivate the environmental channels that nourish us. Each of us is individually limited to the confines of that which we collectively decide we are. A world where we nourish each others potential, instead of exploit each others weaknesses, is a world that maximizes its capacity to unlock the fruit it has to offer itself. To strengthen our voice to its full potential we must strengthen each other. To effectively raise the experience of life we have as individuals, we need to recognize how contingent each of our success is on the success of the entire tribe.

A strategy that serves well in one context can be disastrous in another. We once lived in a world where local tribal unity was essential for survival -a world where we could leverage every tool at our disposal without concern for the backlash. The environment was the primary influence that shaped our ideologies and culture. If we didn’t listen to and change with the message delivered to us through the environment, we dissolved back to the soil from which we came and no longer have a voice. We now live in a world where technology has erased the need to bend to as many aspects of the environment. Along with this capacity we have effectively eliminated the protective membrane of local geography. We now all swim in the same pond and it’s a whole lot smaller than it used to be. What we do affects us all, and to survive and thrive, we need to shift our tribal perspective from the narrow set of ideological anomalies that are metaphoric echoes of a local people’s relationship to local environments over time to see the entire earth as our tribe.