In-Groups and Out-Groups: A Biological Perspective

There is a certain fungus that is able to control certain ants to serve as a vehicle to further its own reproductive ends. The ant, in this case, dies in service of reproducing the fungus. There is also the case of the bacterial parasite T. Gondii which edits rodent brains to be attracted to felines so they get eaten, which helps the bacteria to enter its spawning grounds, which is in a feline gut. (it also edits other mammal brains in different ways) There are numerous cases of parasites and viruses that have the capacity to influence other organisms in service of their specific ends. It could be said that this is the norm in nature – competing influences that ultimately result in emergent behaviors that we typically identify as belonging to “an organism” but are in fact based on the collective property of many organisms.

When we consider that we are also a collection of various organisms that are influenced by each other, each with various agendas and various means of carrying that agenda out, we can begin to see that what we call our choices, and what we think of as our identity, may in fact be a byproduct of the parliamentary constellation of influences that rises from the pool of biological organisms that define us. We may be a reflection of the relationship field from which we are composed which extends beyond human genetics.

A recognition of this, at least from the parasitic sense, there is a now “theory” on the block called ; “The parasite-stress theory” which sees our personal and cultural identities through the lens of the parasitic creatures that influence us to service their various needs. In some real respects, it posits that our cultures in large part are an emergent property of the parasitic microbes that influence our behaviors.

The evidence for this idea is the strong correlation between the strength of parasites in the relationship field of the people in a given culture and their relative state of peace or conflict in addition to whether or not the culture is conformist or individualistic etc. In other words, what we see as culture may be a mirror effect of the relationship field between organisms.

According to this video; the parasite-stress theory may be a general theory of culture and sociality. In a nutshell it acknowledges the fact that the various strategies organisms have to influence other organisms to serve its purposes do have a role in defining this thing we call us. My thought is that it would be a more accurate lens if it looked at the full spectrum of organisms, some of which are on the mutually beneficial range of influence – commensal organisms having a stake in the success of the community it depends on – and doing what they can to offer benefits such as stability, defense, long life and so on. In other words, I think this theory is on to something, but is not yet complete. If we factored in the full spectrum of influences, (rather than just the parasitic segment) we would be able to understand that our opportunity for cultivating an intentional experience of life, rather than riding ignorantly on the winds of biological chance, is rooted in whether or not we intentionally tend the biological relationship field of which we are, on which we depend and that defines this thing we call “us” to be inclined toward the commensal, mutually beneficial segment of the spectrum of relationships.


The Biological Community Defines Our Experience of Life

If we unpack the implications of the fact that a single celled parasite like Toxoplasma gondii can develop a strategy to modify mammalian neurophysiology and behaviors to suit its own biological ends, we can begin to appreciate the fact that the community of friends and foes in our local biological relationship field set the tone for what we experience as life.

There is a full spectrum of relationships that is possible in any given biological community that can span the spectrum from obligate (necessary) mutualism to parasitic and predatory relationship dynamics where seizing the fruit produced by other organisms is the core behavioral property of the organism.

Depending on the biological community’s bias toward cooperation involving mutual nourishment and common defense, or toward parasitic and predatory relational dynamics, the organism based community will tend toward homeostasis (balance), or instability. This makes whether or not we learn about, and act to appropriately tend the many organisms from which our local biology is composed is a key factor in whether balance or imbalance (health or disease) will happen. It also plays a key role in defining our identity and shaping experience of life. This makes understanding and cultivating the biological relational system we are part of a critical factor in effectively steering our experience of life.

Here is an article outlining how a number of parasitic and predatory organisms press their agenda within the larger biological community. It is important to remember that there is a full spectrum of relationship possibilities, some of which bring nourishment, strength and health or defense of the integrity of the system against disruptive agents.

Bees Talk Using Dance and Vibration as a Symbolic Language

Semiotics is the study of meaning-making, the study of using sign processes such as words, behaviors, shapes and the like (semiosis) as a means of transmitting meaningful information. This communication process is done by using symbols for coding and the capacity for decoding on the part of the receiver.
Semiotic language was once thought to be the sole domain of humans. As it turns out, we simply did not see the magnificent array of languages embedded in the structures and behaviors of organisms throughout the biological community. We missed it because we did not have the capacity to recognize (decode) it, so we attributed it to random behavior, or noise. The tide is beginning to turn on this previous paradigm as we are now exploring the many levels at which nature vibrantly communicates by semiotic means from cell signaling to the waggle dance of bees.
The “waggle dance” is a form of symbolic language spoken by honey bees to communicate the distance, direction and strength of a food source to the other bees.
From the article: “During the waggle phase the dancer produces trains of vibration pulses, which are detected by the follower bees via Johnston’s organ located on the antennae… The waggle dance represents a form of symbolic communication used by honeybees to convey the location of food sources via species-specific sound. The brain mechanisms used to decipher this symbolic information are unknown.”

Remembering the Sacrifice

Every exploration of the unknown poses both the promise of reward and the threat of failure and or destruction. This need to explore is sometimes driven by a circumstance where sitting still comes at the cost of being a continuing victim of an unyielding and harsh reality that continues to punish us, unless we explore its depths, to discover its secrets and to harness what was once our master.

In this exploration it is the brave pioneers who sometimes pay the ultimate price for the benefits that those of future generations can take for granted. Medical advance is one of these exploration fronts that demands this sacrifice, and many pioneering heroes lives have been lost in the pursuit of the value that comes understanding and bringing to order what was once chaos. To honor those that were willing as well as those that were simply caught in the crossfire of this ambivalent pursuit, this choice between the bloody and the bloodier, we should perhaps pause from time to time to remember their sacrifice fondly.

Here is one small example of that sacrifice that is the unfortunate cost of realizing the promises that, once discovered and harnessed, pay us all dividends from that point forward.

Nature Echoes Nourish and Defend Behaviors on Many Scales

When our immune system sees a pathogen, something it perceives as harmful, it establishes ways to effectively neutralize or destroy that destructive agent. In doing this, it uses weapons (destructive agents), and vectors (vehicles) to carry the weapons it uses in defend to their appropriate location.

On a broader scale, this same defense of integrity through an “immune response strategy” may be what is going on at a larger scale in biological ecosystems. Since nature establishes defenses (things which destroy perceived pathogens) by establishing defensive weapons and looking for vectors to carry these destructive agents to their appropriate location in order to effect the “immune response”, why would we not expect to see this happening on different scales, from cell to body, to larger bodies of life?

The only difference in this relational dynamic that happens in a cell or single multicellular organisms that also may be happening in ecosystems may be the scale. This “immune response” may be also happening between larger bodies of life – bodies of life which transcend single organisms, and are constructed of networked metabolic structures that are stitched together through a vast array of species and subsystems within species – bodies of life that, although composed of many kinds of organisms, have a need to nourish itself, as well as protective skins and other defenses to protect itself, in addition to porous biological boundaries, the same way an individual cell or a larger organism does.

These larger bodies of life, which sometimes clash as a result of the existential debt nature demands for any coherent biological body – to nourish and protect itself, and to mount defenses against antagonists to that coherency. This may be the legend of the map that defines relationship landscape we see in biological ecosystems. It may also explain why, when there is less need for these defensive weapons to be carried to and fro to perceived pathogens in these larger bodies of life, that we also see these vectors less populated with these transgenic weapons, as we see in the case of mosquitoes in the rain forest, which tend to be less populated with the weapons of defense. Just a thought…

Disease-carrying mosquitoes rare in undisturbed tropical forests

From the article: “We found that fewer mosquito species known to carry disease-causing pathogens live in forested areas compared to disturbed ones… Mosquito species from altered forest sites are more likely to transmit disease than mosquitoes native to an area of mature tropical forest.”

Read more at:

An Atom’s Way of Looking at Itself

I think we sometimes miss the profound and fascinating possibilities implied by this Niels Bohr quote:

“A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself.”

Biology Reveals Insights into Human Culture

This is an excellent documentary that illustrates how biological ecosystems find an equilibrium that is a suitable adaptive response to the environment. This means all the organisms that express nourishing and defense behaviors in a given ecosystem become specifically suited to the environment and each other. Islands are one of the places this biological balance is illustrated clearly; where the particulars of the environment along with the baseline biological ecosystem that inherited the island come to express a behavioral economy that is adaptive in that specific context. Islands with no large land predators may bring about flightless birds for instance because of the lack of need to fly away.

Christmas Island is an excellent illustration of how that biological equilibrium can be dramatically disrupted by a newcomer to the biological social economy. This disruption can expose weaknesses that are present because there was no need to build defenses against the strategies of the imported invader prior to its arrival. This is what drives biology’s own evolutionary expression of a “Game of Thrones” and may also be a good insight into the way the various human cultures evolved throughout the world – a reflection of populations finding equilibrium with the environment, reflecting its nature, coupled with the periodic need to adapt to “invaders” as we began to cross pollinate as a result of things like trade, climate shifts and so on, leading to the human version of “Game of Thrones”.

Powerful Influence from Small Changes

While this article is on *Brain Inflammation and Obesity* specifically, there seems to be a number of deeper implications if we apply a wide angle lens to the fact that certain infections, or microbiome populations, or traumas, etc. in the context of our complex biological system can shift behavioral expressions on more than physical scales. This influence on our relational landscape has a powerful influence on our experience of life. Extrapolated further we might begin to get a glimpse of how our evolution, history, culture and sense of identity might all be far more nebulous and arbitrary than we are used to believing.

Childhood Experience Can Echo for a Lifetime

Our developmental environment can be the foundation of behavioral echoes that last a lifetime. While it is possible for these behavioral echoes to serve to instill useful social behaviors, providing a framework to cultivate a satisfying experience of life, they can also have the opposite effect depending on their nature. Some can be persistently destructive. Here is one example of how childhood trauma can become a potential eroding struggle throughout adult life.

The Language of Biology

Biology is a complex relational economy that produces coherent “meaning” in the form of structures and ongoing relationships that are aimed at specific goal oriented ends. Like verbal language and its capacity to produce the more complicated structures that are possible within its range of expression, like comedy or drama for instance, to accomplish the communication effectively requires certain contexts in order for them to work as intended. We see this same communication requirement in biology. Here’s an example of how that opportunity for a complex communication to convey something constructive or restorative can be destroyed by context: