The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label holobiont. Show all posts
Showing posts with label holobiont. Show all posts

Monday, February 7, 2022

Thinking like a Tree. Understanding the Role of Forests in the Ecosystem

The "Seneca Effect" blog deals a lot with collapses and you may find it a little catastrophistic. But I am also exploring other fields in a more positive mood. One is the concept of "holobiont," how living creatures organize themselves to form complex adaptive systems. Here is a post on this subject from my blog "The Proud Holobionts". 


The Greatest Holobiont on Earth: Old-Growth Forests



A "holobiont" is a living creature formed of independent, but cooperating, organisms. It is a wide-ranging concept that can explain many things not just about the ecosystem of our planet, but also about human society, and even more than that. Photo courtesy of Chuck Pezeshky. This post was modified and improved thanks to suggestions received from Anastassia Makarieva.



When was the last time that you walked through an old-growth forest? Do you remember the silence, the stillness of the air, the sensation of awe, the feeling that you are walking in a sacred place? The inside of a forest looks like a cathedral or, perhaps, it is the inside of a cathedral that is built in such a way to look like a forest, with columns as trees and vaults as the canopy.  If you don't have a forest or a cathedral nearby, you can get the same feeling by watching the masterful scene of the forest-God appearing in Miyazaki's movie, "Mononoke no Hime" (The Princess of the Ghosts). 

In a way, when you walk among trees, you feel that you are at home, the home that our remote ancestors left to embark on the mad adventure of becoming human. Yet, for some humans, trees have become enemies to be fought. And, as it is traditional in all wars, they are demonized and despised. It was the English landlord Jonah Barrington who commented about the destruction of Ireland's old forests that "trees are stumps provided by Nature for the repayment of debt." And, as it is traditional in all wars of extermination, not a single enemy was left standing. 

The war metaphor is engrained in our minds of primates, the only mammals that wage war against groups of their own species. So much that sometimes we imagine trees fighting back. In the "Trilogy of the Ring" by Tolkien, we see walking trees, the "ents," standing in arms against humanoid enemies and defeating them. Clearly, we feel guilty for what we have been doing to Earth's forests. A sensation of guilt that goes back to the time when the Sumerian King Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu were cursed by the Goddess for having destroyed the sacred trees and killed their guardian, Humbaba. From that remote time, we have continued to destroy Earth's forests, and we are still doing that. 

Yet, if there is a war between trees and humans, it is not obvious that humans will win it. Trees are complex, structured, adaptable, tough, and resourceful creatures. Despite the human attempts to destroy them, they survive and even thrive. The most recent data indicate a greening trend of the whole planet [3], probably the result of humans pumping carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere (this greening is not necessarily a good thing, neither for trees nor for humans [4], [5]). 

But what are trees, exactly? They have no nervous system, no blood, no muscles, just as we have no capability of doing photosynthesis, nor of extracting minerals from the soil. Trees are truly alien creatures, yet they are made of the same building blocks as we are: their cells contain DNA and RNA molecules, their metabolism is based on the reduction of a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) created by mitochondria inside their cells, and much more. And, in a certain sense, trees do have a brain. The root system of a forest is a network similar to that of a human brain. It has been termed the “Wood-Wide Web” by Suzanne Simard and others [1]. What trees “think” is a difficult question for us, monkeys but, paraphrasing Sir. Thomas Browne [2], what trees are thinking, just like what song the Sirens sang to Ulysses, though puzzling questions are not beyond all conjecture. 

Whether trees think or not, they have the basic characteristics of all complex living systems: they are holobionts. "Holobiont" is a concept popularized by Lynn Margulis as the basic building block of the ecosphere. Holobionts are groups of creatures that collaborate with each other while maintaining their individual characteristics. If you are reading this text, you are probably a human being and, as such, you are also a holobiont. Your body hosts a wide variety of creatures, mostly bacteria, that help you in various tasks, for instance in digesting food. A forest is another kind of holobiont, vaster but also structured in terms of collaborating creatures. Trees could not exist alone, they need the all-important "mycorrhizal symbiosis." It has to do with the presence of fungi in the soil that collaborate with plant roots to create an entity called the “rhizosphere,” the holobiont that makes it possible for a forest to exist. Fungi process the minerals that exist in the soil and turn them into forms that plants can absorb. The plant, in turn, provides the fungi with energy in the form of sugars obtained from photosynthesis. 

So, even though trees are familiar creatures, it is surprising how many things are scarcely known about them and some are not known at all. So, let’s go through a few questions that disclose whole new worlds in front of us. 

First: wood. Everyone knows that trees are made of wood, of course, but why? Of course, its purpose is the mechanical support of the whole plant. But it is not a trivial question. If wood serves for mechanical support, why aren’t our bones made of wood? And why aren’t trees, instead, made of the stuff our bones are made of, mainly solid phosphate?

As usual, if something exists, there is some reason for it to exist. Within some limits, evolution may take different paths simply because it has started moving in a certain direction and it cannot move back. But, as things stand on Earth, wooden trunks are perfectly optimized for their purpose of support of a creature that doesn't move. Tree trunks (not palms, though) grow in concentric layers: it is well known that you can date a tree by counting the growth rings in its trunk. As a new layer grows, the inside layers die. They become just a support for the external layer called the “cambium” which is the living part of the trunk, containing the all-important “xylem”, the ducts that bring water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves. The cambium also contains the "phloem," another set of ducts that move water loaded with sugars in the opposite direction, toward the roots. The inner part of the trunk is dead, so it has no metabolic cost for the tree. Yet, it keeps providing the static support the tree needs. 

The disadvantage is that, because the internal part of the wood is dead, when a branch or a trunk is broken, it cannot be healed by reconnecting the two parts together. In animals, instead, the bones are alive: there is blood flowing through them. So, they can regrow and rebuild the damaged parts. It is probably a necessary feature for animals. They jump, run, fly, fall, roll, and do more acrobatic feats, often resulting in broken bones. Of course, a broken bone is a major danger, especially for a large animal. We don’t know exactly how many animals suffer broken bones and survive, but it seems that it is not uncommon: live bones are a crucial survival feature [6], [7]. But that's not so important for trees: they do not move and the main stress they face is a heavy gust of wind. But trees tend to protect themselves from wind by shouldering against each other – which is, by the way, another typical holobiont characteristic: trees help each other resisting wind, but not because they are ordered to do so by a master tree. It is just the way they are.

That's not just the only feature that makes wood good for trees but not for animals. Another one is that bones, being alive, can grow with the creature they support. They can even be hollow, as in birds, and so be light and resilient at the same time. If our bones were made of wood, we would have to carry around a large weight of deadwood in the inner part of the bone. That's not a problem for trees which, instead, profit from a heavier weight in terms of better stability. And they do not have to run unless they are the fantasy creatures called "ents."  Spectacular, but Tolkien would need to perform some acrobatic feats of biophysics to explain how some trees of Middle Earth can walk around as fast as humans do.

So, there is plenty of logic in the fact that trees use wood as a structural material. They are not the only creatures doing that. Bamboos (bambusoideae), are also wooden, but they are not trees. They are a form of grass that appeared on Earth just about 30 million years ago, when they developed an evolutionary innovation that makes their "trunk” lighter, being hollow. So, they can take much more stress than trees before breaking and that inspired many Oriental philosophers about the advantages of bending without breaking. Among animals, insects and arthropods use a structural material similar to wood, called "chitin." They didn't solve the problem of how to make it grow with the whole organism, so use it as an exoskeleton that they need to replace as they grow.

Now, let's go to another question about trees. How does their metabolism work? You know that trees create their own food, carbohydrates (sugar), by photosynthesis, a process powered by solar light that works by combining water and carbon dioxide molecules. One problem is that sunlight arrives from above, whereas trees extract water from the ground. So, how do they manage to pump water all the way to the leaves? 

We animals are familiar with the way water (actually, blood) is pumped inside our bodies. It is done by an organ called "heart," basically a "positive displacement pump" powered by muscles. Hearts are wonderful machines, but expensive in terms of the energy they need and, unfortunately, prone to failure as we age. But trees, as we all know, have no muscles and no moving parts. There is no “heart” anywhere inside a tree. It is because only the feverish metabolism of animals can afford to use so much energy as it is used in hearts. Trees are slower and smarter (and they live much longer than primates). They use very little energy to pump water by exploiting capillary forces and small pressure differences in their environment. 

"Capillary forces" means exploiting interface forces that appear when water flows through narrow ducts. You exploit that every time you use a paper towel to soak spilled water. It doesn't happen in human-made ducts, nor in the large blood vessels of an animal body. But it is a fundamental feature in the movement of fluids in heartless (not in the bad sense of the term) plants. But capillary forces are not enough, by far. You need also a pressure difference to pull the water high enough to reach the canopy. That you can attain by evaporating water at the surface of leaves. The water that goes away as water vapor creates a small difference in pressure that can pull more water up from below. This is called a "suction pump." You experience it every time you use a straw to drink from a glass. It is, actually, the atmospheric pressure that pushes the water up the straw. 

Now, there is a big problem with suction pumps. If you studied elementary physics in school, you learned that you cannot use a suction pump to pull water higher than about 10 meters because the weight of the water column cannot exceed the atmospheric push. In other words, you wouldn't be able to drink your coke using a straw longer than 10 meters. You probably never made the experiment, but now you know that it won't work! But trees are far higher than ten meters. You just need to visit your local park to find trees that are far taller than that. 

That trees can grow so tall is a little miracle that even today we are not sure we completely understand. The generally accepted theory for how water can be pumped to such heights is called the “cohesion-tension theory” [8].  In short, water behaves, within some limits, as a solid in the live part of a tree trunk, the “xylem.” The ducts do not contain any air and water is pulled up by a mechanism that involves each molecule pulling all the nearby molecules. The story is complicated and not everything is known about it. The point is that trees do manage to pump water to heights up to about 100 meters and even more. There is a redwood tree (Sequoia sempervirens), in California, that reaches a height of 380 feet, (116 m). It is such an exceptional tree, that it has a specific name “Hyperion.” 

Could trees grow even higher? Apparently not, at least not on this planet. We are not sure of what is the main limiting factor. Possibly, the cohesion-tension pumping mechanism that brings water to the leaves ceases to work over a certain height. Or it could be the opposite problem: the phloem becoming unable to carry sugar all the way down to the roots. Or, perhaps, there are mechanical limits to the trunk size that can support a crown large enough to feed the whole tree. 

Nevertheless, some works of fiction imagined trees so huge that humans could build entire cities inside or around the trunk. The first may have been Edgar Rice Burroughs, known for his "Tarzan" novels. In a series set on the planet Venus, in 1932, he imagined trees so big that an entire civilization had taken refuge in them. Just a couple of years later, Alex Raymond created the character of Prince Barin of Arboria for his "Flash Gordon" series. Arboria, as the name says, is a forested region and, again, trees are so big that people can live in them. More recently, you may remember the gigantic "Hometrees" of the Na'vi people of planet Pandora in the movie "Avatar" (2009).  In the real world, some people do build their homes on trees -- it seems to be popular in California. The living quarters must be cramped, to say nothing about the problems with the static stability of the whole contraption. But, apparently, a section of our fantasy sphere still dreams about the times when our remote ancestors were living on trees. 

But why do trees go to such an effort to become tall? If the idea is to collect solar light, which is the business all plants are engaged in, there is just as much of it at the ground level as there is at 100 meters of height. Richard Dawkins was perplexed about this point in his book “The Greatest Show on Earth” (2009), where he said:
“Look at a single tall tree standing proud in the middle of an open area. Why is it so tall? Not to be closer to the sun! That long trunk could be shortened until the crown of the tree was splayed out over the ground, with no loss in photons and huge savings in cost. So why go to all that expense of pushing the crown of the tree up towards the sky? The answer eludes us until we realize that the natural habitat of such a tree is a forest. Trees are tall to overtop rival trees - of the same and other species. … A familiar example is a suggested agreement to sit, rather than stand, when watching a spectacle such as a horse race. If everybody sat, tall people would still get a better view than short people, just as they would if everybody stood, but with the advantage that sitting is more comfortable for everybody. The problems start when one short person sitting behind a tall person stands, to get a better view. Immediately, the person sitting behind him stands, in order to see anything at all. A wave of standing sweeps around the field, until everybody is standing. In the end, everybody is worse off than they would be if they had all stayed sitting.”
Dawkins is a sharp thinker but sometimes he takes the wrong road. Here, he reasons like a primate, actually a male primate (not surprising, because it is what he is). The idea that trees “compete with rival trees – of the same and other species” just doesn’t work. Trees can be male and female, although in ways that primates would find weird, for instance with both male and female organs on the same plant. But male trees do not fight for female trees the way male primates for female primates. A tree would have no advantage in killing its neighbors by shadowing them -- that wouldn't provide "him" or "her" with more food or more sexual partners. Killing the neighbors would perhaps allow a tree to grow a little larger, but, in exchange, it would be more exposed to the gust of wind that could topple it. In the real world, trees protect each other by staying together and avoiding the full impact of gusts of wind. 

It doesn’t always work and if the wind manages to topple a few trees, then a domino effect may ensue and a whole forest may be brought down. In 2018, some 14 million trees were destroyed in Northern Italy by strong gales. The disaster was probably the result of more than a single cause: global warming has created winds of a strength unknown in earlier times. But it is also true that most of the woods that were destroyed were monocultures of spruce, plantations designed for wood production. In the natural world, forests are not made of identical trees, spaced from each other like soldiers in a parade. They are a mix of different species, some taller, some less tall. The interaction among different tree species depends on a number of different factors and there is evidence of complementarity among different species of trees in a mixed forest [9], [10]. The availability of direct sunlight is not the only parameter that affects tree growth and mixed canopies seem to adapt better to variable conditions. 

As a further advantage of being tall, a thick canopy that stands high up protects the ground from sunlight and avoids the evaporation of moisture from the soil, conserving water for the trees. When the sun makes the canopy hotter than the soil, the result is that the air becomes hotter higher up, technically it is called "negative lapse rate" [11].  Since the cold air is below the hot air, convection is much reduced, the air stays still, and water remains in the soil. If that's not completely clear to you, try this experiment: on a hot day, scorching if possible, stand in the sun while wearing a thick wool winter hat for several minutes. Then wear a sombrero. Compare the effects. 

So, you see that having a canopy well separated from the ground is another collective effect generated by trees forming a forest. It doesn't help single trees so much, but it does help the forest in conserving water by generating something that we could call a "holobiont of shadows." Each tree helps the others by shadowing a fraction of the ground, below. And that creates, incidentally, the "cathedral effect" that we experience when we walk through a forest. Again, we see that this point was missed by Dawkins when he said that "That long trunk could be shortened until the crown of the tree was splayed out over the ground, with no loss in photons and huge savings in cost." Another confirmation of how difficult it is for primates to think like trees. 

That doesn’t mean that trees do not compete with other trees or other kinds of plants. They do, by all means. It is typical for a forest especially after an area has been damaged, for instance by fire. In that area, you see growing first the plants that grow faster, typically herbs. Then, they are replaced by shrubs, and finally by trees. The mechanism is generated by the shadowing of the shorter species created by the taller ones. It is a process called "recolonization" that may take decades, or even centuries before the burned patch becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the forest.

These are dynamic processes: fires are part and parcel of the ecosystem, not disasters. Some trees, such as the Australian eucalypti and the African palms seem to have evolved with the specific purpose of burning as fast as possible and spreading flames and sparks around. Have you noticed how palms are “hairy”? They are engineered in such a way to catch fire easily. So much, that it may be dangerous to prune a palm by using a chainsaw while climbing it. A spark from the engine may set on fire the dry wood filaments and that may be very bad for the person strapped to the trunk. It is not that palms could have evolved this feature to defend themselves from chainsaw-yielding monkeys, but they are fast-growing plants that may benefit from how a fire cleans a swat of ground, letting them re-colonize it faster than other species. Note how palms act like kamikaze: single plants sacrifice themselves for the survival of their seed. It is another feature of holobionts. Some primates do the same, but it is rare. 

Other kinds of trees adopt the opposite approach. They optimize their chances for survival when exposed to fire by means of thick bark. The ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) is an example of a plant adopting this strategy. Then there are more tricks: have you ever wondered why some pinecones are so sticky and resinous? The idea is that the resin glues the cone to a branch or to the bark of the tree and keeps the seeds inside. If a fire burns the tree, the resin melts, and the seeds inside are left free to germinate. More evidence that fires are not a bug but a feature of the system. 

In the end, a forest, as we saw, is a typical holobiont. Holobionts do not evolve by the fight for survival that some interpretations of Darwin’s theory had imagined being the rule in the ecosystem. Holobionts can be ruthless when it is necessary to eliminate the unfit, but they aim at an amicable convivence of the creatures that are fit enough. 

The “holobiontic” characteristic of forests is best evidenced by the concept of “biotic pump,” an example of how organisms benefit the holobiont they are part of without the need for hierarchies and planning.



The concept of biotic pump [11] was proposed by Viktor Gorshkov, Anastassia Makarieva, and others, as part of the wider concept of biotic regulation [12]. It is a profound synthesis of how the ecosphere works: it emphasizes its regulating power that keeps the ecosystem from straying away from the conditions that make it possible for biological life to exist. From this work comes the idea that the ecosystemic imbalance we call "climate change" is caused only in part by CO2 emissions. Another important factor is the ongoing deforestation. 

This is, of course, a controversial position. The general opinion among climatologists in the West is that growing a forest has a cooling effect because it removes some CO2 from the atmosphere. But, once a forest has reached its stable state, it has a warming effect on Earth’s climate because its albedo (the light reflected back into space) is lower than that of the bare ground. But studies exist [13] that show how forests cool the Earth not only by sequestering carbon in the form of biomass but because of a biophysical effect related to evapotranspiration. That is, the water evaporates at low altitudes from the leaves, causing cooling. It returns the heat when it condenses in the form of clouds, but the heat emissions at high altitudes are more easily dispersed towards space because the main greenhouse gas, the water, exists in very small concentrations. It may be a minor effect compared to that of the albedo, but it is a point not very well quantified. 

The concept of biotic pump states that forests act as "planetary pumping systems," carrying water from the atmosphere above the oceans up to thousands of kilometers inland. It is the mechanism that generates the “atmospheric rivers” that supply water to lands that are far away from the seas [14]. The biotic pump mechanism depends on quantitative factors that are still little known. But it seems that the water transpired by trees condenses above the forest canopy and the phase transition from gas to liquid generates a pressure drop. This drop pulls air from the surroundings, all the way from the moist air over the sea. This mechanism is what allows the inner areas of the continents to receive sufficient rain to be forested. It doesn’t work everywhere, in Northern Africa, for instance, there are no forests that bring the water inland, and the result is the desert region we call the Sahara. But the biotic pump operates in Northern Eurasia, central Africa, India, Indonesia, Southern, and Northern America.

The concept of the biotic pump is an especially clear example of how holobionts operate. Single trees don’t evaporate water in the air because they somehow “know” that this evaporation will benefit other trees. They do that because they need to generate the pressure difference they need to pull water and nutrients from their roots. In a certain sense, evapotranspiration is an inefficient process because, from the viewpoint of an individual tree, a lot of water (maybe more than 95%) is "wasted" in the form of water vapor and not used for photosynthesis. But, from the viewpoint of a forest, the inefficiency of single trees is what generates the pull of humidity from the sea that makes it possible for the forest to survive. Without the biotic pump, the forest would quickly run out of water and die. It often happens with the rush to "plant trees to stop global warming" that well-intentioned humans are engaged in, nowadays. It may do more harm than good: to stabilize the climate, we do not need just trees, we need forests. 

Note another holobiontic characteristic of trees in forests: they store very little water, individually. They rely almost totally on the collective effect of biotic pumping for the water they need: that's because they are good holobionts! Not all trees are structured in this way. An example is the African baobab, which has a typical barrel-like trunk, where it stores water more or less in the same way as succulent plants (cacti) do. But baobabs are solitary trees, 

Incidentally, evapotranspiration is one of the few points that trees have in common with the primates called "homo sapiens." The sapiens, too, "evapotranspirate" a lot of water out of their skins -- it is called "sweating." But the metabolism of primates is completely different: trees are heterothermic, that is their temperature follows that of their environment. Primates, instead, are homeotherms and control their temperature by various mechanisms, including sweating. But that doesn't create a biotic pump! 

The concept of "biotic pump" generated by the forest holobiont is crucial the correlated one of "biotic regulation," [12] the idea that the whole ecosystem is tightly regulated by the organisms living in it. Natural selection worked at the holobiont level to favor those forests that operated most efficiently as biotic pumps. Plants other than trees and also animals do benefit from the water rivers generated by the forest even though they may not evotranspirate anything. They are other elements of the forest holobiont, an incredibly complex entity where not necessarily everything is optimized, but where, on the whole things move in concert. 

It is a story that we, monkeys, have difficulties in understanding: with the best of goodwill, it is hard for us to think like trees. Likely, the reverse is also true and the behavior of monkeys must be hard to understand for the brain-like network of the tree root system of the forest. It does not matter, we are all holobionts and part of the same holobiont. Eventually, the great land holobiont that we call “forests” merges into the greater planetary ecosystem that includes all the biomes, from the sea to land. It is the grand holobionts that we call “Gaia.” 



References

[1] S. W. Simard, D. A. Perry, M. D. Jones, D. D. Myrold, D. M. Durall, and R. Molina, “Net transfer of carbon between ectomycorrhizal tree species in the field,” Nature, vol. 388, no. 6642, pp. 579–582, Aug. 1997, doi: 10.1038/41557.

[2] T. Browne, “Hydriotaphia,” in Sir Thomas Browne’s works, volume 3 (1835), S. Wilkin, Ed. W. Pickering, 1835.

[3] Shilong Piao et al., “Characteristics, drivers and feedbacks of global greening,” | Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, vol. 1, pp. 14–27.

[4] D. Reay, Nitrogen and Climate Change: An Explosive Story. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137286963.

[5] A. Sneed, “Ask the Experts: Does Rising CO2 Benefit Plants?,” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ask-the-experts-does-rising-co2-benefit-plants1/ (accessed Jun. 23, 2021).

[6] S. Hoffman, “Ape Fracture Patterns Show Higher Incidence in More Arboreal Species,” Discussions, vol. 8, no. 2, 2012, Accessed: Jun. 26, 2021. [Online]. Available: http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/799/ape-fracture-patterns-show-higher-incidence-in-more-arboreal-species

[7] C. Bulstrode, J. King, and B. Roper, “What happens to wild animals with broken bones?,” Lancet, vol. 1, no. 8471, pp. 29–31, Jan. 1986, doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(86)91905-7.

[8] Pi. Cruiziat, “Plant Physiology and Development, Sixth Edition,” in Plant Physiology and Development, Oxfprd University Press, 2006. Accessed: Jun. 24, 2021. [Online]. Available: http://6e.plantphys.net/essay04.03.html

[9] L. J. Williams, A. Paquette, J. Cavender-Bares, C. Messier, and P. B. Reich, “Spatial complementarity in tree crowns explains overyielding in species mixtures,” Nat Ecol Evol, vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 1–7, Mar. 2017, doi: 10.1038/s41559-016-0063.

[10] S. Kothari, R. A. Montgomery, and J. Cavender-Bares, “Physiological responses to light explain competition and facilitation in a tree diversity experiment,” Journal of Ecology, vol. 109, no. 5, pp. 2000–2018, 2021, doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.13637.

[11] Gorshkov, V.G and Makarieva, A.M., “Biotic pump of atmospheric moisture as driver of the hydrological cycle on land,” Hydrology and Earth System Sciences Discussions, vol. 3, pp. 2621–2673, 2006.

[12] V. G. Gorshkov, A. Mikhaĭlovna. Makarʹeva, and V. V. Gorshkov, Biotic regulation of the environment : key issue of global change. Springer-Verlag, 2000. Accessed: Sep. 24, 2017. [Online]. Available: http://www.springer.com/it/book/9781852331818

[13] R. Alkama and A. Cescatti, “Biophysical climate impacts of recent changes in global forest cover,” Science, vol. 351, no. 6273, pp. 600–604, Feb. 2016, doi: 10.1126/science.aac8083.

[14] F. Pearce, “A controversial Russian theory claims forests don’t just make rain—they make wind,” Science | AAAS, Jun. 18, 2020. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/controversial-russian-theory-claims-forests-don-t-just-make-rain-they-make-wind (accessed Jun. 25, 2021).




Monday, November 22, 2021

The Mousetrap Experiment: Modeling the Memesphere

 Reposted with some modifications from "The Proud Holobionts"

 Ilaria Perissi with our mousetrap-based mechanical model of a fully connected network. You can find a detailed description of our experiment on ArXiv


You may have seen the "mousetrap experiment" performed as a way to demonstrate the mechanism of the chain reaction that takes place in nuclear explosions. One of its earliest versions appeared in Walt Disney movie "Our Friend, the Atom" of 1956. 


We (myself and Ilaria Perissi) recently redid the experiment with 50 mousetraps and 100 wooden balls. And here it is. It was fun, except when (and not so rarely) one of the traps snapped on our fingers while we were loading it.

But why bother redoing this old experiment (proposed for the first time in1947)? One reason was that nobody had ever tried a quantitative measurement. That is, measuring the number of triggered traps and flying balls as a function of time. So, we did exactly that. We used cell-phone slow motion cameras to measure the parameters of the experiment and we  a system dynamics model to fit the data. It worked beautifully. You can find a pre-print of the article that we are going to publish on ArXiv. As you can see in the figure, below, the experimental data and the model go reasonably well together. It is not a sophisticated experiment, but it is the first time that it was attempted.



But the main reason why we engaged in this experiment is that it is not just about nuclear reactions. It is much more general and it describes a kind of network that's called "fully connected," that is where all nodes are connected to all other nodes. In the set-up, the traps are nodes of the network, the balls are elements that trigger the connection between nodes. It is a kind of communication based on "enhanced" or "positive" feedback.

This experiment can describe a variety of systems. Imagine that the traps oil wells. Then, the balls are the energy created by extracting the oil. And you can use that energy to dig and exploit more wells. The result is the "bell shaped" Hubbert curve, nothing less!  You can see it in the figure above: it is the number of flying balls "produced" by the traps.

We found this kind of curve for a variety of socioeconomic system, from mineral extraction to fisheries (for the latter, you can see our (mine and Ilaria's) book "The Empty Sea." So, the mousetraps can describe also the behavior of fisheries and have something to do with the story of Moby Dick as told by Melville.

You could also say the mousetrap network is a holobiont because holobionts are non-hierarchical networks of entities that communicate with each other. It is a kind of holobiont that exists in nature, but it is not common. Think of a flock of birds foraging in a field. One bird sees something suspicious, it flies up, and in a moment all the birds are flying away. We didn't have birds to try this experiment, but we found a clip on the Web that shows exactly this phenomenon.

It is a chain reaction. The flock is endowed with a certain degree of intelligence. It can process a signal and act on it. You can see in the figure our measurement of the number of flying birds. It is a logistic function, the integral of the bell-shaped curve that describes the flying balls in the mousetrap experiments



In Nature, holobionts are not normally fully connected. Their connections are short-range, and signals travel more slowly through the network. It is often called "swarm intelligence" and it can be used to optimize systems. Swarm intelligence does transmit a signal, but it doesn't amplify it out of control, as a fully connected network does, at least normally. It is a good control system: bacterial colonies and ant colonies use it. Our brains much more complicated: they have short range connections but also long range ones and probably also collective electromagnetic connections. 

One system that is nearly fully connected is the world wide web. Imagine that traps are people while the balls are memes. Then what you are seeing with the mousetrap experiment is a model of a meme going viral in the Web. Ideas (also called memes) flare up in the Web when they are stimulated it is the power of propaganda that affects everybody.

It is an intelligent system because it can amplify a signal. That is that's the way it reacts to an external perturbation. You could see the mousetraps as an elaborate detection system for stray balls. But it can only flare up and then decline. It can't be controlled. 

That's the problem with our modern propaganda system: it is dominated by memes flaring up out of control. The main actors in this flaring are those "supernodes" (the Media) that have a huge number of long-range connections. That can do a lot of damage: if the meme that goes out of control is an evil meme and it implies, say, going to war against someone, or exterminating someone. It happened and keeps happening again as long as the memesphere is organized the way it is, as a fully connected network. Memes just go out of control.

All that means we are stuck with a memesphere that's completely unable to manage complex systems. And yet, that's the way the system works. It depends on these waves of out-of-control signals that sweep the web and then become accepted truths. Those who manage the propaganda system are very good at pushing the system to develop this kind of memetic waves, usually for the benefit of their employers. 

Can the memesphere be re-arranged in a more effective way -- turning it into a good holobiont? Probably yes. Holobionts are evolutionary entities that nobody ever designed. They have been designed by trial and error as a result of the disappearance of the unfit. Holobionts do not strive for the best, they strive for the less bad. It may happen that the same evolutionary pressure will act on the human memesphere. 

The trick should consist in isolating the supernodes (the media) in such a way to reduce their evil influence on the Web. And, lo and behold, it may be happening: the great memesphere may be rearranging itself in the form of a more efficient, locally connected holobiont.  Haven't you heard of how many people say that they don't watch TV anymore? Nor they open the links to the media on the Web. That's exactly the idea. Do that, maybe you will start a chain reaction in which everyone will get rid of their TV. And the world will be much better. 




Saturday, July 10, 2021

Who is the Emperor of the World? The New Age of Epistemic Dominance

 King Kamehameha 1st of Hawai'i (1736 - 1819) practiced the art of gift-giving during his reign, as it is typical of kings and rulers. It is remembered  that he said, "E 'oni wale no 'oukou i ku'u pono 'a'ole e pau." "Endless is the good that I have given to you to enjoy." In our times Google seems to have taken the same attitude: it gives us gifts in the form of free data. In view of the concept of "epistemic coup" proposed by Shoshana Zuboff, Google is rapidly becoming the Epistemic Emperor of the world.


In Roman times, it was a good thing to be the Emperor: you had gold, palaces, women, slaves, and lots of privileges, including the power to put anyone to death at your will. Emperors were supposed to be semi-divine creatures, enthroned by the Gods themselves but, in practice, they would soon become balding old men (if they survived to old age, not easy given the competition). So, why would anyone obey them?

Not a difficult question to answer. The Roman Emperors practiced a game that all rulers practice. It is called "gift-giving." It is part of the concept of sharing: something deeply embedded in the nature of human beings, ultimately a manifestation of empathy among humans. 

Sharing naturally creates social bonds that generate the hierarchical patterns that allow society to structure itself. In a harmonious society, the leaders govern without the need for force. They rule by their prestige, in turn obtained by judicious use of gift-giving. Gifts need not be in monetary forms: a leader becomes one because he or she shares knowledge, wisdom, or other skills. Of course, societies are never perfect and, in the real world, governance is a combination of positive and negative enhancements: the carrot and the stick. But the carrot is way more effective than the stick: for a leader, a live follower is much more useful than a dead enemy.

The Roman Empire was a monetized society, but the gift-giving game was played without involving money when the Emperor graciously provided the plebeians with "panem et circenses," (bread and games). If the plebeians were not happy enough, the Emperors could switch from the carrot to the stick, and employ the armed forces stationed in Rome, the Guardia Praetoriana, to teach the rabble a lesson. Of course, the Pretorians needed gifts, too, and they usually got them in the form of money. No Emperor could survive for long without large, sometimes extravagant, payments to the troops supporting him.

But, where did the Emperors get the resources they needed to provide gifts to their followers? Of course, from taxes. It was a tool that they would often use also to impoverish and eliminate potential competitors. The poor were normally too poor to be taxed and so the Emperor, though no Robin Hood, played a useful role in terms of wealth redistribution. Otherwise, wealth would have mostly accumulated in the coffers of the wealthy nobles (just as in our times it accumulates in the bank accounts of our financial tycoons). The Roman system was far from perfect but, as long as there was something to redistribute, it worked. When the Roman state collapsed, there was nothing left for the Emperors to tax or rob, and nothing to redistribute. No gifts, no empire

Here is another example of how ancient rulers tended to rule by their prestige. Below, you see the plaque on the monument to Ferdinando 1st, grand-duke of Tuscany from 1587 to 1609, still standing in Florence today. It says "Maiestate Tantum" meaning that, like King Kamehameha of Hawaii, the Duke ruled "by prestige only." That's the way of the good rulers. Note the bees collecting around the queen bee!

 


Fast forward to our times, and you can clearly see how we still practice a simple, non-monetized form of gift-giving on Christmas. But that is just a relic of old times. In practice, the Western society was built over a century or so by a gift-giving system larger and more pervasive than ever seen in any society in history. Politicians get elected by promising gifts to their voters, but they mainly provide gifts to lobbies, corporations, and power groups. And the lobbies give back awesome gifts to politicians. In the flurry of transactions, something trickles down to ordinary people. It is this network of givers and receivers that keeps the Global Empire together. Or, at least, has kept it together so far. It is a hierarchy based on money: the more you have, the higher you are on the social ladder.

In practice, you don't climb the social ladder by showing around the balance of your bank account. You do that by the mechanism called "conspicuous consumption." The more you consume, the higher you go. 

"Consuming" means, ultimately, to throw away old stuff and replace it with new stuff -- it is a practice that has much in common with the ancient usage called "potlatch" of the North-Western American Natives. In a potlatch, a chief would show his social worth by destroying valuable things he owned, "consuming" them. In our case, conspicuous consumption is done on a much larger scale and it is normally monetized. But you probably understand that if you can buy stuff and then throw it away it is only by means of a gift from the powers that be: the salary you receive for doing something that you know is useless, too.

And here you see the problem. With the gradual depletion of the mineral energy resources that power our society, consumerism is toast, just like the Roman Empire was when it ran out of gold. At some point, people will have to discover that the "money" they cherish so much is no more than numbers in a computer memory, and that these numbers can be erased at will by the powers that be. For a start, no more mass tourism and no more dining out. Then, in a short while, the flow of trinkets arriving from Amazon will dry out, too. It is coming, it has to.

No money, no conspicuous consumption. But how will the elites maintain their power? Right now, they seem to have decided to go for the stick, but governing by force is expensive and it has never really worked. What we need is government by prestige, but based on what? Right now, the prestige of our politicians seems to be more or less at the same level as that of leeches and other invertebrates. Evidently, some change is necessary. 

A hierarchy doesn't necessarily have to be based on money -- especially if money becomes useless when there is nothing left to buy (I called this "The problem of the shipwrecked sailor"). All hierarchies are, ultimately, based on prestige, and prestige can be gained in many different ways. For instance, early medieval Europe was poor and and "consuming" things (that is throwing away the old for the new) would have been considered a sin of vainglory. Prestige was the result of knowledge: the access to the sacred books of Christianity gave to the Christian church a prestige and a political importance that today we can't even imagine anymore. (*)

Once we get rid of consumerism (we must), we will move to a form of prestige based on knowledge. It is not just prestige: those who know more have more power, just think of what we call "insider trading." But, on the whole, prestige is the main output of knowledge. Those who know more -- or have access to more data -- are higher in the hierarchical scale. 

And we arrive to what Shoshana Zuboff calls the "Epistemic Empire" -- government by knowledge. Of course, our knowledge is not anymore stored in holy books, it is stored in the Web. Those who control the Web, control the world. The ruler of the Web is the emperor of the world: an epistemic emperor. 

So, who controls the Web? The struggle is ongoing, but the outcome starts to be evident. Imagine you were transported to Imperial Rome, how could you say who is the ruler of the place? Easy: the one who gives the most gift to the public: smaller rulers couldn't match the Emperor's largesse. In our times, it is just as easy: take a look at which internet company is giving away the larger number of gifts: by far it is Google

Let me write down a list of the free tools that Google provides.

  • Google Blogger
  • Google Books
  • Google Calendar
  • Google Data Studio
  • Google Docs
  • Google Earth
  • Google Jigsaw
  • Google Mail
  • Google Maps
  • Google Marketplace
  • Google Mobility
  • Google Ngrams 
  • Google Pay
  • Google Scholar
  • Google Translate
  • Google Trends

and many more. Just take a look at this page https://cloud.google.com/ai-workshop/experiments#experiments.

It is amazing that Google gives you for free such huge databases as "Google Earth" and "Google Ngrams." No other Web entity does anything comparable. The financial tycoons, Musk, Gates, Bezos, and the others are unbelievably stingy in comparison, they look like petty provincial tyrants. Other entities do provide data for free, for instance, the World Bank, NASA; and even the CIA, but the scale is much smaller. Then, Wikipedia, but that seems to be rapidly becoming mostly a battleground of paid trolls. Facebook, then, doesn't give you anything, it only takes from you. Most of the new social networks seem to be interested mostly in showing you cute kittens and scantly clad young ladies. As for the world's universities and scientific research centers, they are a sad bunch of misers. They pretend to be creating knowledge but, in effect, they get money from the public and give nothing back to the public. Finally, governments are giving you only propaganda and fake news, the equivalent of counterfeited money. There is absolutely no data coming from governments and their mouthpieces called "The Media" that you can really trust.

So, Google plays the role that the Emperors of once would play, that of redistributing some of the wealth that the system creates. In return, just like the Roman citizens of old times, you have to pay back with your taxes. How? Not in monetary terms, of course, because the gifts you receive are not monetary. You pay data with data. By using Google services, especially their search engine, you give data to Google: it is an exchange, a gift-giving system. With the data you provide, Google builds up its knowledge, and with it, its dominance. And Google can afford to give you back knowledge as a gift. It is the dominance of the Epistemic Emperor of the world: Google.

One thing we know is that powerful entities always strive to increase their power. So, Google is clearly poised to sweep away the whole band of bloodsuckers that we call "universities" and take over the task of public instruction, something that governments don't seem to be able to supply anymore. At the same time, Google had already tried to oust its only remaining competitor, Facebook. The now-gone "Google+" didn't succeed at that, but, as we all know, revenge is something that is best served cold. The clumsy censorship machine that Facebook created is backfiring. Lots of people still use Facebook but hate it deeply and would love to leave it if they just could find something equivalent. Not that Google doesn't censor, but it does so in a much subtler way (see the Google Jigsaw site). So, the destiny of Facebook may be written in the cloud. Don't forget that FB rose on the ashes of a previous social network, the now-forgotten Friendster. Sic transit gloria!

And from now on? The huge and proteiform Google virtual machine can only continue expanding, not necessarily destroying the competition, but merging with it in an even larger machine. Google may take over one public service after the other, replacing even the state. After "Google University," we may see a "Google Police," a "Google Court," a "Google Retirement" a "Google Bank" (actually, it is already there) and, why not, a "Google Government." Government for Google, by Google, in the name of Google (***). After that, there remains only "Google God" -- which seems to be incarnating already (Facebook, clumsy as usual, has now a "pray" button).

Is all this good or bad? An ill-posed question. Google is neither evil nor good (correctly, they removed the "Don't be Evil" motto from their code of conduct). Google is what it is -- and if it is, it means that it had to be

It seems clear that the huge Google machine is, by now, impossible to control by mere human beings and it may well be the reason why the founders (Larry Page and Sergey Brin) are so rarely mentioned. The parts that form Google are self-assembling and creating a huge virtual holobiont that's expanding in the memesphere. The great thing may well evolve further into a hierobiont (**), but that will be beyond our capabilities of human beings to influence or even understand.

All that will last as long as the industrial system can keep the creature alive. Just as the Roman Emperors are gone by now, even Gods have their Götterdämmerung. And what will be, will be because it had to be.



(*) The Christian Church was the first epistemic empire in Europe, setting up a governance system based not anymore on money, but on the monopoly of data and information. Since it would have been unthinkable to teach everyone to read Latin, the Church had the monopoly of the knowledge of the holy scriptures. Hence, it had a near-monopoly of communication and, as a consequence, of governance. In parallel, in the Middle East, Islamic countries were going through a similar evolution, but they maintained a gold-based economy, so they didn't develop the equivalent of the imperial Christian church.

The Epistemic Empire of the Christian Church was a fine-tuned machine that worked well for centuries, then troubles started when new precious metal mines were discovered in Eastern Europe. That made it possible to pay soldiers again and it led Charlemagne to recreate a military-based European Empire in 800 AD. The Church acquiesced to the new entity and the Pope himself crowned the new emperor -- hoping to be able to control the new state just as it had managed to control the many small European statelets. 

But Europe was too small for two Empires. Gradually, the balance of power tilted against the Epistemic Empire in favor of the reborn military powers of Europe. The decisive blow to the Church's power was when Martin Luther translated the Bible into German and made it available for everyone. Maybe Luther knew that he, alone, was bringing down a whole Empire, surely a remarkable feat. Then, the new European powers proceeded with killing and enslaving one nation after the other until, some four centuries later, they were dominating the world.

(**) Hierobiont is a term that I coined expressly for this post. It describes an organization orthogonal to that of a holobiont. A holobiont is created by horizontal (paritetic) network connections, while a hierobiont has vertical (hierarchical) connections. A holobionts is homeostatically stable. A hierobiont is allostatically stable. In other words, a holobiont reacts to a perturbation in real time by damping its effects: it has no separate control unit. A hierobiont, instead, may plan ahead and avoid the perturbation before it appears: it does have a separate control unit (a "brain"). A holobiont practices Judo, a hierobiont practices Kyudo. Purely horizontal holobionts exist, purely vertical hierobionts may exist. We, humans, are a mix of the two: a brain-endowed hierobiont (aka organism) that coexists with a holobiont formed by the microbiota of the system. There are many more possible combinations, holobionts and hierobionts are both fractal. The Goddess Gaia is said to be a nearly pure holobiont, but she may have tricks we don't know about. 

(***) I noted in a previous post how "something" has appeared in the world's military arena that was preventing the kind of reckless behavior that Western Governments had been indulging in for the first two decades of the 21st century. During this period, bombing the country of the evil guy of the year seemed to carry only benefits and no risks -- and it was a lot of fun (except for the bombed people, of course). Strangely, though, from around 2011, that was not done any longer. In 2012 Obama had already announced that he was going to bomb Syria, but he stepped back. And, from then on, it was deafening silence. In July 2021, NATO carried out the "Sea Breeze" operation, right in front of the Russian forces in Crimea. It was the perfect moment to simulate an incident, a false flag, and that would have been the start of WWW3. Surely, plenty of people wanted exactly that. And yet, as I am writing, the Sea Breeze exercise is over from yesterday. Everything went on in total silence and nothing happened. What could that "something" be that stops all wars before they start? It is just a guess, but......



Monday, March 15, 2021

The Next Stage of Human Evolution: The Revenge of the Aspies

 

 I had never thought of Spock as a case of Asperger's syndrome (an "aspie"), in turn, a mild version of autism. But it is a concept that others had noted and that perfectly describes the way Spock behaves in the "Star Trek" series. Spock's character was so successful because he may have been perceived as a possible new stage in human evolution, someone who can use logic to resist the onslaught of manipulation and propaganda that's destroying our civilization. Star Trek also illustrated how emotion and rationality can be balanced by respecting and valuing diversity. Live long and prosper, fellow aspies!

 

I keep discovering new things that completely change my view of the world. The latest one was just a few days ago when I found that I am probably an aspie, a term that describes Asperger's syndrome, in turn, a variant of the broader spectrum of autism.

What brought this revelation for me was the book by Temple Grandin "Thinking in Images." (1995) (1) Grandin was born with a serious case of autism, a condition that made her life very difficult in her youth. I never experienced the same level of difficulties but, as I was reading the book, I started seeing myself in Grandin's shoes. Things like being clumsy in everyday tasks, finding it difficult to follow a group conversation, getting lost in your thoughts while other people speak to you, and more. 

What clinched it was when Grandin said that most autistic people love Star Trek, especially the cold logic of first officer Spock. That's me: a Trekkie if there has ever been one. So, I concluded that I am a probable case of Asperger's, although in a mild form -- the kind familiarly know as "Aspie." (BTW, I have also been a member of ASPO, the association for the study of peak oil. Maybe that was a premonition, but it is another story!)

On the fact of considering myself an aspie, I know that there is such a thing as "confirmation bias," typically operating with horoscopes. You may also remember Jerome K. Jerome's book "Three Men in a Boat" where the protagonist describes how he became convinced to have all kinds of possible ailments (except the housemaid's knee) by reading a book of medical symptoms. Maybe I am just a little eccentric, as university professors often are. But I think there is something real in my self-diagnosis of mild autism. 

It is not just character that makes me behave in a certain way: my mind really clicks a little different. Let me give you just an example: I can't remember street names. It is not a choice. Really, I can't. Call it "toponymic dyslexia" if you like (a term I invented), but it is the way my mind works. With a few exceptions, such as the street where I live, my mental map of my town is purely visual, not verbal -- it contains no street names. As far as I can tell, I have always been like this.

That's not an impairment, I have no difficulties in orienting myself in my city. But people find strange, and sometimes maddening, that I go completely blank when they tell me something that has to do with a specific street name that they think everyone should know. I didn't find this symptom described exactly in this way as typical of autism, but it agrees with Grandin's description of how she doesn't think verbally, but by images.

There is more that I could tell you, but let me just add that my wife confirms my interpretation. When I told her, a few days ago, about having discovered I am an aspie, she was a little surprised at the idea of having lived with a neuropath for more than 40 years, without realizing it! But then she thought about that for a while and she said that, yes, that's what I am. She agrees that the term "aspie" describes me very well. 

 

Empathy and Autism

Autism is strongly related to the concept of "empathy" and autistic people are often supposed to be unable to feel empathy toward other people. But is it true? And what is empathy, exactly? It is often defined as the capability of "stepping into someone else's shoes." That's a necessary social skill: if we can't do that, we are bound to make people angry at us. Even worse, if we don't understand how Earth's ecosystem (aka Gaia) works, we are bound to make the Goddess angry at us. And that could be much worse. But what are we doing wrong, exactly? And what would it mean to do it right?

It is a subject that I have been discussing a lot with the "Empathy Guru," Chuck Pezeshky. We are even planning to write a book together on it. As you can imagine from the photo, working with Chuck may be a lot of fun, and his blog is a mine of ideas and concepts about empathy (a fundamental one being, "as we relate, so we think." It applies very well to aspies). 
 
It is a complex matter and, here, I can only summarize my views (not necessarily Chuck's ones) by referring to a rather abused metaphor, that of Zen story of how you can excel in the art of archery by "becoming the arrow." An even better way is to use the term that Robert A. Heinlein invented in one of his novels: "grokking," nowadays becoming common with Earthlings (especially with the one named Chuck Pezeshky).
 
"To grok" is a verb in the Martian language,  It is impossible to translate it exactly in earthling languages, but it means that you become the person, the animal, or the object you are trying to understand. 

Perhaps the best way to recursively grok grokking is to refer to an extremely ancient kind of earthling lore called "Shape-Shifting," the capability of wizards and deities to take the shape of other humans or animals. Of course, ancient wizards couldn't actually transform themselves into -- say -- stags. But grokking stags meant gaining something of the powers of the stags. Wearing a horned hat surely helped. The image on the left shows an ancient horned wizard from the Gundestrup Cauldron. That style of dressing seems to be still popular, nowadays, as some recent events showed. But let me not go into that. 
So, empathy means grokking and how do aspies fare with that? They are often described as people who can't feel empathy, but I think that is wrong. They are not cold-blooded, reptile-like individuals, unable to feel anything. Not at all! Aspies are potential, and sometimes real, hyper-grokkers.

Think about that: Spock, the prototypical aspie, is not someone who doesn't feel anything. He just uses logic to dominate emotion. The same is true for me, although I am not so glacial as Spock (and I am not even the first officer of a starship!). And it is true also of Temple Grandin who is a compassionate individual who dedicated much of her life to reduce the suffering of livestock. (1) That's true for most Aspies who are not impaired individuals, just people who behave a little differently from those we call "neurotypicals."

But why do aspies give the impression that they are the opposite of what they really are? It is because shape shifting/grokking is associated with the "imprisoning metamorphosis," The risk of turning oneself into something or someone else is to become that person or animal. Worse, the wizard may be unable to change back to his/her original form. In a modern version, this problem was masterfully described by Ursula le Guin in her Earthsea books. 

Grokking another mind is empathy in its purest form. And it is dangerous: mystics try that with God and they risk being burned to ashes by the pure brightness of God's spirit. With other humans, that's not the problem but, if you grok an evil person, you may become evil. If you grok a deranged person, you may become deranged in the same way. And if someone whom you grok wants you to do something bad, he or she may succeed at that.

It is a risk aspies run, so they put up a shield that protects their inside feelings. Sometimes, this shield becomes so heavy to be impenetrable. It is when a person becomes dysfunctional: too much protection shuts them off from the rest of the world. But, without shields, aspies would be an easy target for those predators who exploit empathy for their personal advantage. These people are called "psychopaths." (in short, "psychos").

Psychos are the exact opposite of aspies in terms of personality. Normally, they have little or no emphatic skills and, for them, other people are valuable only as tools. You can say that psychos are vampires of the mind: they will try to devour other people's souls if they have a chance to. 

The strategies of psychos are rarely subtle. Typically, they use intimidation. But they may exploit other weaknesses: greed, lust, pride, and vanity, as much as positive qualities such as kindness and compassion. Often, psychopaths tend to gang together to amplify their powers. National governments are typically colonized by psychopaths of the worst kind.

Now you can see how the counter-strategy of aspies works. Their personality is a defensive/evasive mechanism against psychopathic predators. They can "tune out," at least from the most blatant manipulation methods, for instance by their capability of intensely concentrating on something. It is what makes them poor socialites, but good scientists. It works especially well against government propaganda.

I understand that this is a controversial interpretation and I can't prove that it is correct. You could object, for instance, that autistic people just can't read some non verbal signals that are clear to "normal" people. And how would that be a barrier? It looks like a handicap. Besides, the fact that I can't remember street names, as I noted, is a barrier against exactly what?

True. But, as a rebuttal I could say that there may be several kinds of barriers that aspies build, not all of them are effective and some are counterproductive.  On the whole, I do think that my explanation works best for that fraction of aspies who are on the mild side of the spectrum of the condition, as Temple Grandin is. In that case, you may see autism not as a pathology, but as an ability. 

Of course, it is a delicate balance that these aspies seek for. If their barrier is truly impassable, they become dysfunctional people, useless to themselves and to others. If they can't keep the barrier strong enough, then they can be manipulated just like normal people. But when it works, the mechanism is effective as defense against the many attempts of manipulation that you face every day.

 

The Arms Race in the Social Holobiont

Why is it that there are psychopaths and aspies in the world? I think it is the result of an evolutionary mechanism. The human society can be described in terms of a "social holobiont" that changes and evolves all the time. A holobiont is an entity composed of various elements normally in symbiosis with each other. But, at times an unbalance develops, some elements of the holobiont become parasites of others, and the system must change and adapt to regain some balance.

In small social groups, as in the tribal societies where our ancestors lived, psychos may have played a useful role for the group. Their aggressive tendencies may have helped the tribe in war or in other occasions when the tribe needed to act fast and with all the members had to agree on some plan: migration, for instance. 

But, with larger societies, the role of psychos changed from symbionts to parasites. No more just the local big men, they became god-kings, then absolute rulers who pretended not just obedience, but uniformity of thought. With the development of mass media, the psychos in charge found that they could get whatever they wanted by hurling at the rest of the people the monster of the year to hate, just like, in the old days, the Detroit automakers would convince people to buy a new car using the trick of the "model of the year." It is the way our society works, nowadays. Psychos are social super-parasites that force all the other to follow a continuous emotional roller-coaster generated by the media. 

Of course, the dominance of psychopaths on society is generating tremendous damage to everybody and everything. It is pushing us toward disastrous choices in all fields, from developing nuclear weapons to polluting everything, and overexploiting all resources. 

Is it possible that the growing number of aspies is a manifestation of society moving toward a certain degree of resistance to this kind of manipulation? For sure, the growth has been unbelievably fast. Autism was nearly unknown 50 years ago, today about one person in 30 is born autistic in the US, an increase of nearly a factor of 300. In part, it is also the result of better detection techniques, but it is also true that there are many unrecognized mild cases, so aspies are not anymore a tiny minority of handicapped people.

 
This is, again, a controversial proposal. Assuming that autism is a genetic trait, as it seems to be, according to the standard interpretation of evolution by natural selection, you might well object that it is hard to see how genetic evolution could lead to such a rapid change in just 50 years. And you would have to assume that the aspies have more children than the non aspie -- hard to maintain, to say the least. 

What I can say on this point is that the modern views on evolution allow for much faster change than the traditional Neo-Darwinian version. Concepts such as horizontal gene transfer and epigenetics have completely changed our views (if you want a hint of the complexity of the evolution of the human brain, just take a look at this review!) Once you note how the human mind is affected by the microbiome of the human holobiont, you understand how the human mind is plastic. It can change, and change a lot as the result of changes in the chemical and physical environment. Besides, the behavior of a human being is a complex mix of cultural and genetic factors. In mild cases of autism, cultural factors may be important and we know that they can change very fast.

In the human societal holobiont, we can see aspies and psychos as two levels of a trophic chain where psychos are the predator and aspies are the prey. As in biological ecosystems, say, rabbits and foxes, in the social holobiont predators and prey are locked together in an arms race where they keep trying to improve their survival chances. So, the increasing number of aspies might be the result of society rebalancing itself to counteract the excessive power of psychos. A society where most people are aspies would be much less sensitive to propaganda and could be managed according to reason for the advantage of everyone. 

Is it possible? As usual, complex systems have always ways to surprise you, and the human society is one of the most complex systems known. So, it may well surprise us for its adaptive capabilities. Think of the command deck of the Enterprise in Star Trek. The rational approach of Spock (the aspie) was balanced, complemented, and enhanced by the approach of Captain Kirk. He was not a psychopath, but a person who could be driven by emotions and who needed some rational complement. The Enterprise was an example of a well-balanced holobiont. It perfectly illustrated the awesome power of diversity and reciprocal respect that's the strength of all holobionts, including the societal one. And don't forget that Greta Thunberg is an aspie, too!

And so, live long and prosper, fellow aspies!



 


 

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Notes

(1) Temple Grandin's book "Thinking in Images" is a remarkable book, even for those who are not aspies. It is, clearly, something different from the average self-help book. The first chapters are hard to describe: they are "strange" -- the author wanders among many different subjects, giving the impression that you are really reading something written by someone whose mind works differently from yours. But, as you progress, you start understanding what Grandin wants to say. The first chapters are a sort of test. As it is typical for aspies/autistic people, she is not opening herself to you right away. You have to read through more than half of the book before she really starts opening up herself and her inner thoughts to the reader. If you arrive to that point, you start understanding that she respects the reader and that she asks respect from the reader. She never opens up herself completely, but enough for the reader to appreciate her as a human being, a little different from the average, but worth of respect for her caring attitude for humankind and all living beings. 

(2). World leaders are typical examples of psychopaths, with a few exceptions. One may be Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, who has been described as suffering of the Asperger's disease in the Western media. That was intended as an insult, but perhaps it is not so wrong as a description of Putin's personality. If you examine Putin's speeches, you will note that he never uses the kind of aggressive demonizing of enemies that Western leaders use all the time. He looks cold and rational, but occasionally he may show his feelings, as when he was shown to weep at a military parade. In the West, this behavior was understood as an especially devious trick. That would have been the case if Putin were a psychopath (imagine Donald Trump weeping at a parade!). But if Putin is an aspie, then an occasional puncturing of his defensive barrier might generate this behavior. Incidentally, have you noticed how all Russians seem to have some aspects of aspies? Try to ask for directions in the streets of Moscow, and you'll understand what I mean! In any case, that's not meant to disparage the Russians -- not at all! Once you pass the barrier, the Russians are the best people in the world. In fact, all the people in the world are the best people in the world once you come to know them well.