Archives for the month of: January, 2022

Myth, the word alone is elusive. In current media, myth mostly refers to a story or explanation that is false, something that needs to be debunked by scientific rigor. Myth is also widely, and long been studied in the social sciences and humanities, but still not entirely understood. Myths and legends, terms that are often used interchangeably are considered as cultural accounts of major (natural and cultural) events that typically happened in the remote past of that culture, it can serve to establish local customs, recounts migrations of people and account for the deeds of heroes, it also archives knowledge of local landscapes. The current use of the word myth as a false story, devalues the cultural stories that are larded with imaginative elements, but are also rooted in observations of people’s worlds, natural phenomena, social constructs and the like.  Furthermore, It is also good to remind ourselves that all of science starts with a belief, we create stories around nuggets of truth, elements of the story we have demonstrated to be justified belief. Our scientific accounts are anchored in belief systems, world views, myths, if you like. 

The simple division of myth as falsehood and science as fact is not helpful. A number of scientists have argued that myths are also accounts of geological events and phenomena, and began to demonstrate that these accounts provide insights from different perspectives. In fact, the practice of geomythology is not that new. Myths as mnemonic devices to memorize and relay events that happened in the past. Such stories can also provide a model for imagining different worlds in our future, ones that are not based on human dominance and ecosystem services but on ideas of embeddedness and symbiosis. 

For long, but specifically the last centuries or so, many of us behave as if the world is an ecosystem service for us humans, based on the idea that humans are special, the chosen ones, the top of the tree of life. Natural resources are therefore free for us to take. In our current world system, whoever gets there first is at liberty to capitalize on whatever resources are the latest source of energy. However, as a consequence, these activities also produce a lot of waste products that often turn our to be harmful for humans and other organisms. We tend to ignore these aftereffects and just move on. Out of sight, out of mind. On to the next uncharted territory, be it deep ocean, space, or far-off peripheries of our ‘smart’ centers that hold rare or not-so-rare minerals to mine for the chosen ones. 

Viewed from another perspective however, these wastelands can form new habitats for other organisms to colonize. A notable example is the Geobacter, bacteria that rose to fame as the ‘sponges’ to soak up radioactive uranium waste. And right there, starts another story. 

It is no secret that I am a believer in symbiosis, the need for us to understand that we are interconnected, engaged in interdependent relationships with our environments that form large intertwined networks. I am not alone, in fact, this belief is rooted in relatively recent scientific supported proposals that life, as we know it, may be organized a bit differently, upending our hierarchical confidence. This idea of interconnectedness is also the foundation of many old cultural stories, myths if you like. 

Turning things on their head, it is now proposed that it is not us humans who direct, but the microbial world, large networks that are flexible and that can quickly adapt to new emerging habitats, an ability long attributed to Homo sapiens. And to be fair, humans have an interesting track record of adaptation, developing technologies to tap into different energy sources to grow and expand our species’ reach. Mining deep, fossil fuels, reserves of fossilized  past plant life, hidden in rock crevices that we unearth like deflating a balloon. We burn it to stay warm, to travel fast, and thereby contaminating our breathing space, we have to deal with it. 

We mine wide, energy to fuel our bodies, fast calories to be gained by eliminating the competition and the more nutritious options in the process. We produce and eat it in large quantities, creating a large distributed fat repository, also called the obesity pandemic. Although the obesity problem has largely been a problem of the developed world, it is spreading and is becoming a problem of access and availably to healthy, nutritious food sources. It affects the poor disproportionally in detrimental ways. We have to deal with it. But even in my own birth country, the Netherlands, quantity is valued over quality. Quantity, contributes to economic health. Quality is easily disregarded as being a complex issue.

Taking the microbial perspective, the world is your oyster. Human activities have created a number of interesting new habitats of synthetic materials and waste products. Geobacter, gorging on radioactive waste and Ideonella sakaiensis, the plastic consuming bacteria for instance,  eating away at our left-overs, as welcome late-coming guests. Humans are not from yesterday and have also begun to think and act on how to collaborate with, and exploit these abilities of the microbial world. But are we the one to choose? Are we in control? Many myths tells us no, and a number of scientists have begun to support that general idea, from a microbial perspective. It is time, we change our attitude if we wish to engage in mutually beneficial relationships with our fellow beings. 

Our collective fat reserves a case in point. Yes it is a complex issue and we should deal with it. Like fossil fuel for us, our fat reserves are also an untapped fuel sources for others, one that is rapidly increasing. It is distributed among many bodies, but that is no problem for probing viruses, the Covid kind for instance. Imagine the analogy between our mining activities and energy quest of evolving microbes. Even if we think we have the intelligent upper hand, are we really that different? 

And so yes, likely, obesity is linked to Covid, is linked to our industrial agricultural practices, to our energy slurping technologies, and yes it is complex and difficult to grasp, but that is not a reason why we shouldn’t try to. Creating new stories may help us, at first they may seem fantastic, but maybe, our collective storytelling endeavors my take us in different directions. 

As other scientists have recognized before me, myths are valuable stories, not just for the cultures in which they originate, but as sources of knowledge valuable to humanity as a whole. Myths and speculative stories are means for us to remember and to imagine different worlds, worlds that can be more equitable. Access to nutritious food and clean water for all people would be a lofty goal. 

As we are trying to decide to re-name the current geological time period after our own species, The Anthropocene, our world got in the grip of another one, and its associated variants. 

I understand the arguments behind these efforts to define this epoch. Proposing this new name is based on the significant impact of human behavior on Earth’s geology climate, and ecosystem. What I do question is the impact of the name on our future behavior. It is clear that our behavior is changing our environment in ways that are detrimental to our own and many other species that share our world. Naming this epoch after our own species can however also give the false impression that we are in control, can fill us with a sense of (false) pride and belief that we are on top of things. 

So no doubt humans have changed the environment, the onset of the Industrial Revolution, proposed as a favorite date to start this time period, brought about rapid developments. To categorize these developments as either good or bad is not really helpful. Some are developed driven by good intentions, others not, but all can have unintended consequences that benefit or harm ecosystem health in certain ways, it is the nature of the world we live in. 

As humanity has grown into its current role, many of us have become convinced that intention, intelligence, and the ability to inquire into and foresee what is going to happen, is a privilege of our species, thanks to our big brains. However, a number of inquiring minds have also proposed other ideas, of a world that is much more interdependent, based on symbiotic relationships across species. Even proposing a much more important, even directive, role for the microbial organisms in our midst. 

Symbiosis, the living together of two or more different biological organisms, was, after it was first defined as such in the 19th century, long thought to be rare in the living world, and especially associated with lichen, as unique symbiotic organisms. It was thanks to Lynn Margulis however, who popularized the phenomenon in modern science, and showed that symbiosis is ubiquitous in the living world, it is the norm not the exception. Symbiosis can then be defined as a close and long-term biological interaction with organisms that is either mutualistic, commensalistic, or parasitic. These terms refer to types of relationships, where mutualistic is a relationship in which both partners benefit, commensalistic is where one benefits but no harm is done to the other. A parasite is thus not a specific organism, but an organism that is engaged in a parasitic relationship with its host, the parasite benefits from the relationship at the expense of its host. In principle, any organism can be a parasite. 

As a supporter of organic and biodynamic farming I rely on the principles of symbiosis, the fact that biodiversity in all parts of the system helps maintain the health of the system of the whole, a no one can rise to unbridled powers. For instance, our gut community is host to numerous organisms, viruses and bacteria alike, which can either be harmful or beneficial, but most of them behave in support of the system of the whole. Naturally, by sourcing our food from biodiverse soils, we ingest parasitic oriented organisms in this way, but also a host of other organisms that keep these free loaders in check. When the diversity dwindles, however, it is easier for opportunistic organisms to spread. Our widespread use of herbicides in industrial agricultural practices is now recognized to be a cause of the rise in parasitic kinds of organisms. 

Although certain organisms are more likely to act as parasites, any organism can engage in this kind of behavior. What is is harmful for one organism, may actually help another organism to get ahead, good or bad seems relative. 

Lichen, the poster children of symbiosis, are special in the sense that they can survive in extreme circumstances. They are early colonizers. It is that word however, that I used specifically to describe the lichen in a recent article. In that context the colonizing relates to evolutionary processes that we accept as a natural phenomenon. In that same article however, I also used the word Colonizers in a different context. In the later case it describes the behavior of one group of people that harms another group of people. It started me thinking if the three different types of relationships of symbiosis could also apply to the process of colonization. The kind of relationship indicated by Colonialism that I referred to, is then a predominantly parasitic one, at least in my opinion. It is ongoing. 

Maybe then, what characterizes our current time period is the rise in parasitic relationships at the expense of mutualistic and commensalistic ones.