Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Altruism? An instinct only about a billion years old.

Believe it or not, there's an article on slime molds that I'm going to recommend as utterly fascinating.

Well, it's by Carl Zimmer, so maybe that makes it less of a surprise. Anyway, here's a taste:

Slime molds first came to scientific fame in the mid-20th century with the work of the Princeton biologist John Tyler Bonner. Dr. Bonner learned of a North American species of slug-forming slime mold called Dictyostelium discoides and began to raise them in his lab, studying them as a simple analog of animal embryos.

Today, biologists no longer think of Dictyostelium as an embryo: It is more like a society of amoebas that come together for a common cause, for which some will sacrifice themselves.

The organisms respond to starvation by rushing together by the thousands into a single blob. The blob stretches out into a slug-shaped mass about one millimeter long (one twenty-fifth of an inch), which then crawls like a worm toward light.

Once it reaches the surface of the soil, the slug undergoes another transformation: Most of the cells turn into a stiff stalk, while the others crawl to the top and form a sticky ball of spores. They stick to the foot of an animal and travel to a hospitable place.

Inside the slug, about 1 percent of the amoebas turn into police. They crawl through the slug in search of infectious bacteria. When the amoebas find a pathogen, they devour it. These sentinels then drop away from the slug, taking the pathogen with it. They then die of the infection, while the slug remains healthy.

When the slug is ready to make a stalk, more amoebas must die so that others can live. They climb on top of one another and transform their insides into bundles of cellulose. Eighty percent of Dictyostelium cells die this way, allowing the survivors to climb up their lifeless bodies and become spores.

It also appears that slime molds are capable of recognizing their relatives, are good at making maps, and also act like humans when they're looking for food. Ooze on over to the rest.


Uncle Ebeneezer said...

Damn you beat me to it. I have a post queued up in my blog on this story in a couple days. Very cool stuff. My friend who is a biologist raved about slime molds to me years ago and I just scoffed. Little did I know!

TC said...

So when they referred to W as a "slime bag" it was actually a compliment? LOL

Anonymous said...

George Price worked on it



Jack said...

I was going to try to say something about how when I was in high school, and my brother (six years older) was an Ayn Rand devotee in his early twenties, he and I got into an argument about the word, and its entry in the dictionary.

I said it was just a word to describe the spirit of helpfulness, selflessness in particular. He said it was a collectivist doctrine of the far left. I was like, "wha?"

So I looked it up in the dictionary. "Nothing about 'collectivsm' or 'leftist doctrine' in here," I said.

"That's because the 85% of editors of dictionaries are liberals!!!" my brother replied. You see, the dictionary itself is part of the plot to institutionalize Marxism.

This is how crazy they are.

So, that's what I was *going* to say, but I didn't know if you'd believe me that this is what Randites really believe. So I decided to just Google "altrusim Rand." And, what do you know:


"Theory: What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value."

Not only do they believe "Greed is Good," but they think altruism is bad.

A philosophy with a moral code this out of whack strikes me as just a bit dangerous.

Brendan said...

I see what you're saying about the danger, but I'm inclined to think that there's a reason hardcore libertarianism never gets more than about a one percent political share: it is in our nature to want to help others and to want to be part of something larger than just our own individual desires.

I am reminded of something I read* yesterday, an exchange between Janet Radcliffe Richards and Derek Parfit, that strikes me as the real problem:

D.P.: I read some of Sam Scheffler's recent work and he's arguing that people care about the future of humanity much more than they realize. And I think that's right, actually.

J.R.R.: The Future of Humanity Institute people keep talking about engineering humans to make them more moral. I haven't got a clear enough view of what it would be, because it would have to be something so different from humans that I'm not sure why bother, any more than turn everybody into termites or something.

D.P.: Oh, no! You could---

J.R.R.: The essence of us is that the things we value are close connections and families and groups, and that necessarily means that we care about other people less.

However, at least some of us seem to be making progress on the notion of expanding the group we should care about. (This is the real far-left agenda!)

* Yeah, I was reading an article about philosophy. Sue me. It was the only magazine in the bathroom, and I'd already read all the cartoons.

Uncle Ebeneezer said...

We'll overlook the Philosophy thing so long as you don't speaking in a condescending French accent ;)

The people who really confuse me are the Libertarians who also consider themselves Christians. How exactly does "Love thy neighbor" square with the let-them-eat-shit mentality of Ayn Rand? Talk about some serious cognitive dissonance.

Brendan said...

Yes. If there's one thing wingnuts are especially skilled at, it's cherry-picking. Compared to them, Cafeteria Catholics are fundamentalists.

Jack said...

More on the hilarious (or disturbing, depending on how seriously you take these fuckwits) tendency for Randites to view "altrusim" as some kind of horrible disease.

Brendan said...


Hope this unplanned expense doesn't cut into their profits too much.

Or, more accurately, their "profits."