Saturday, May 21, 2016

WWII's Microbial Intelligence & Civilized Stupidity

The Intellectual History of WWII, according to Luke

We must never forget that the people actually running WWII, men in their fifties and sixties, all still thought of Germany (despite the temporary aberration of Hitler) as the most advanced civilization on Earth, in fact the most civilized nation ever.

And why not ?

That was the overwhelming consensus of the entire world when they were in their formative years, back in the years before WWI.

Germany then was where all the world's ambitious went to successfully conclude their involvement with higher education, the country that was the font of all wisdom, in areas stretching across the whole spectrum of human thought.

The Elevated, base

That is why it was such an intellectual shock when this most civilized of nations (hence most potentially moral of all nations) was revealed, in late 1945, to have actually been the most evil nation in history.

It was a reversal of the sort that the Gospel author, LUKE the DOCTOR , revelled in.

But waaaiiiit ! There's more : lots more !

More than 99% of all species of microbes have nothing what so ever to do with humans and couldn't survive a few minutes inside them.

A very few species do indirectly seek to live (not die) on or inside humans as one of their favourite hosts.

Their gene actions (not their self conscious will because they have none) make their current hosts expel them in sneezes, runny noses and in excrement.

This spreads them about and some land on and in new human hosts.

But, I repeat, they do not actually 'invade' humans intent on 'killing' them, driven by pure innate evil malevolence, as the popular version of Germ Theory has it.

Until very recently, and that still fitfully, all the focus (from scientists & public) has been on the one time in a lifetime - for a period of perhaps a week - when pneumococcus 'invaded' the lungs of some elderly people and brought that life to a relatively peaceful close.

"Captain of the Men of Death" they rather dramatically used called these little bacteria.

Totally ignored was the fact that this patient (and all other human beings) had permanently or transitorily hosted the pneumococcus in their throat and nose all their life, without any apparent harm to us humans.

How does a bug that lives in the lungs of a few people for a week, compares statistically, with the same bug living in the throat of all people all their lives ?

It doesn't and it didn't. 

But that awkward truth was irrelevant, because the supposed innate evilness of microbes at the bottom of the Tree of Life was in reality a scientific 'straw dog' - meant to act as a vivid contrast to the supposed innate goodness of civilized man - like the Germans - at the very top of the same Tree of Life. 

Even weirder, prewar Modernity reserved the fungus as the most evil of the evil microbes, though in fact fungus and molds rarely kill humans.

No matter --- like molds, the inchoate processes of late Victorian modernization dissolved the binary boxes of inequality that late Victoria Modernity so frantically erected to preserve the established social hierarchy of inequality.

So molds and funguses became modernization's metaphoric equivalent (it not be politic to actually forthrightly oppose the progress of modernization, not when one was always trumpeting on about the virtues of Progress in general).

One can easily fill any number of books with quotes from authors of the era of pure-is-simple Modernity, all using fungus as a metaphor for various kinds of ultimate horror and evil.

Starting of course with Adolf Hitler, who stupidly didn't know where a metaphor ends and reality begins : he regards the Jews as literally the semi-human equivalent of evil fungus and used a fumigating agent to kill millions of them.

Given Hitler's intense fear and hatred for moldy fungus, it would have been sweet irony indeed if his life had been saved by penicillium mold pee, after the July 1944 assassination attempt on his life.

It wasn't ----- so why then was/is the myth so popular ?

This was distinctly a popular myth otoo : definitely generated from below, by ordinary folk who sensed that the idea of a mighty saved by the meek was in some profound sense a rebuke to all the mighty and a moral coup for all the meek, not just the penicillium mold.

In an age when chemists were the scientists at the very top of the science status ladder, it cheered up humans at the bottom of the inequality ladder on end, so see these 'smartest guys in the Universe' fail to produce any lifesaving penicillin when the slimy little penicilliums did it with ease.

The Base, elevated

This then was the second intellectual shock of WWII : that the wartime symbol of ultimate goodness, lifesaving penicillin, had come from the prewar symbol of evilness, the fungus molds.

Most of us already think Auschwitz was a prime example of civilization gone stupid and many of us throw in Katyn Forest and Hiroshima as more examples.

But where on earth do I come up with the concept of 'microbial intelligence' ?

Individually, each bacteria is relatively simple, by choice : it keeps its active capabilities and its genome (its brains) deliberately smaller than us humans so it can reproduce much much faster : a new generation in 20 minutes, not in 20 years.

But collectively, the microbes have a vast genome and a vast amount of capabilities - far far greater than us humans.

Every single individual microbe has a tiny piece of that giant supra genome and shares it, when crisis demands it, by HGT (horizontal gift transfers) --- a system of microbes sharing their DNA with each other and even with us.

So for example, the basic genes needed to create the vast penicillin family of antibiotics (the beta lactams) emerged once in one species of bacteria and - vis HGT - spread to the penicillium and other bacteria.

However you describe it, this de-centralized and very robust system of collectively storing massive amounts of precious data globally is a form of superb intelligence, it being exactly how the humans internet works, along with all forms of human de-centralized file sharing.

Human scientists, blinded by their hubris, felt sure the tiny, formless, microbes just had to be extremely simple and hence in some sense, evil -- evil merely to survive against larger, smarter, nicer beings.

They thus signally failed, despite their claim that science was unique in human activities because it was always probing below surface impressions, to see that the microbes' beauty was more than skin deep : that their true sophistication lay inside, in their many powerful enzymes, spread out over a globe-wide genome.

Penicillins, beta lactams, still represent the majority of our life-saving antibiotics and are still all based on wartime style, fungus made, penicillin G.

We 'clever' humans are still too stupid to do it anywhere as well as the 'dumb' microbes...

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