Some small thoughts on the smallest society

Even if you’re not a bacteriologist — and there must be at least a few of us who aren’t — there’s much we can learn from the behaviour of what has to be the smallest multicultural society we can observe.

That society is composed of all of the different species of bacteria that live with, and upon, all the rest of us, the multi-cellular conglomerations we fondly call “higher animals.”

It seems that there’s a lot more social organization going on inside us than we’ve thought — or that some of us may want to contemplate.

Don’t worry — although the next few paragraphs will talk about them, this posting isn’t really about bacteria. It’s really about some of the ideas that popped into my head while I was reading about social bacteria.

The September 2011 issue of Natural History magazine featured the article “Tiny Conspiracies: The Secret, Social Lives of Bacteria,” by Bonnie Bassler.

Bassler’s article describes the prevalence and importance of chemical signals and environmental awareness in multi-species bacterial communities in such hospitable environments as the human gut.

It seems that many species of bacteria produce chemical signals, called “autoinducers,” with which they communicate not only with bacteria of their own species, but with other kinds of bacteria. And these bacteria are able to perceive the level of concentration of other bacteria, in a process known as “quorum sensing.”

Through a combination of these “social skills,” bacteria regulate and alter their behaviour to fit the needs of the environment in which they live. One common example of the effectiveness of this process is that, in a typical environment, different bacteria species will perform different “jobs” that benefit the group as a whole. Under the right conditions, some bacteria become carpenters, others food gatherers, others plumbers, and so forth, to the benefit of all.

These skills exist in both beneficial and harmful bacteria, and in bacteria that inhabit many animal species, including us.

As fascinating as this is, and it is fascinating, what interests me more about the social lives of bacteria are some of the philosophical (for want of a better word) issues with which this information may interact.

For one thing, all of this activity goes on without our direction or even conscious participation. We are seething with alien life, whole civilizations of other species, and unless we read articles like this one, we don’t even know what all those invaders are up to. It does something to the conception of ourselves as individuals to reflect on just how much of a collective we really are. All those little guys in spandex running around in Woody Allen’s brain in Everything You Wanted To Know about Sex … were closer to the truth than many of us realize.

The whole notion of a “self” also comes to mind here. The more one knows about the complexities of the body and the interactions and structures of which it is composed, the more one is led to believe that our sense of personal identity is, indeed, a mere construct. Not a malignant lie, not a devilish illusion, but a perception or representation of the myriad ways that our interacting physical systems organize themselves, from moment to moment, into an unending series of variable units. So much for the dignity of the individual, which in many quite real ways we’re not.

The writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation had the idea, when, in one episode, a species of intelligent silicon crystals famously described humans as “ugly bags of mostly water.” So much for human dignity, indeed.

Another thought. It seems, from research like this, and study after study, that there is a basic tendency for individuals to organize themselves into groups. As the Natural History article points out, the current bacteria research may provide a clue to how multi-cellular organisms developed out of single-cell animals. So it seems that it’s not just at higher levels of complexity that “societies” develop.

Though a bacteria society lacks self-awareness, as far as we can determine, the idea comes to mind that self-awareness is not a necessary condition for either individual success or group prosperity. If this is true, even in a simplistic way, it raises the question of how much rational self-interest or family bonding or any other  “external” motivation lies at the core of our social activity.

Cooperating societies may be the natural order of things, at all levels of consciousness or biological complexity. And if social cooperation is the key to survival for bacteria, is there perhaps a lesson there about the hail-to-the-victors politics of the free market and libertarianism? OK, that’s a pretty big stretch, but it’s still an intriguing idea.

The last thought that kept running through my head while I was reading about my gut’s bacteria metropolis was a strong sense that the wonders of evolution are just that — wonders. The ways that life finds to survive and flourish are so varied, so complex, so ingenious, and so successful that I really can’t adequately express how much I enjoy reading about them.

Bacteria carpenters of one species building a protective shell against foreign antibodies around themselves, around the quite different bacteria species that breaks down food for both of them, and around a third species that lives on the waste material produced by the other two — one big happy family of little mindless citizens.

To borrow a phrase, it’s way cool.

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One thought on “Some small thoughts on the smallest society

  1. Evo Devo is the catchy name for the field of biology that is casting light on the relationships between species which is turning out to be closer than anyone suspected.

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