Let me sing to you now, about how people turn into other things.
Richard Powers, The Overstory
I had a thought a few years ago: Why did Man evolve into the species it is today, seemingly so far advanced intellectually and socially beyond any other? I had read Yuval Noah Harari’s books, Sapiens and Homo Deus. So maybe the thought emanated from Noah’s foundation. Homo sapiens, in a sliver of time on the biological clock, had made astonishing leaps and bounds.
It occurred to me Man’s purpose could be to develop the technologies and social structures so as to find another planet that could sustain life, build an Arc for space travel, and transport as many species of plants and animals as possible to this new home before Earth was either destroyed by Man or by some existential event. Yeah, we’ve seen that movie.
For this to happen, humans from all over the planet would need to cooperate and make great sacrifices. Of course, not everyone or thing would be able to escape to this new home. I wondered, ‘How would mankind overcome its ego and deeply ingrained me-first drive and come together to accomplish such a thing?’
Fear is a great motivator: it drives us to do big things…as well as horrible things.
The massive mobilization and coming together by the United States during World War II to pump out weapons and supplies is one example.
Scientists all over the world working on a vaccine and better testing for the virus that causes COVID-19, perhaps another. We’ll see how the sharing, coordination and cooperation thing works out.
More recently, I’ve listened to a few podcasts and read a couple of articles about quorum sensing. In a nutshell—as best as I can describe it—single cell bacteria which live in us, trees, all living and dying things, have the ability to coalesce into a critical mass in support of a specific purpose, address a particular need, threat, or objective, develop a solution and communicate that solution to their massed group, and thus satisfy that need, eliminate that threat and solve that particular problem.
One example is that of trees on the Mara River in the Serengeti. To discourage giraffes from eating their leaves to such an extent the tree would die, the tree secretes a chemical to make its leaves sour to the taste. And, the impacted trees send a warning to their brother and sister trees up and down the river, who then begin to secrete the same protective chemical.
What if a critical mass of humans around the globe were to similarly cooperate and effectively harness and focus its collective intelligence into some super-intelligence? Might Man be able to achieve once unthought of goals? Could we elevate our consciousness and do more, see more, experience more?
Super-fast and efficient intergalactic space travel. Eradicate disease, hunger and homelessness. Release ourselves from the chains of materialism and ego. Experience life as though our spirits were already outside our bodies. Bring down the veil between us, here in our bodies, and our loved ones who are now on the other side.
Musings With Mike
I shared some of these thoughts with my muse, Mike Lueth, and he gently reeled me back to earth. Here is some of our exchange that took place over the first couple weeks in March.
Mike: Fascinating stuff about Quorum Sensing. It appears to me the reason why bacteria and other, simpler, living organisms like those trees on the Mara River can react as they do is because they have a unified purpose; a “like-mindedness.” They communicate this like-mindedness without opposition – there is no political partisanship. And they are thereby successful. They are not burdened by the distractions of this world – they have only two priorities: enjoy life and survival.
This earth is a mysterious place to live, but so many of us (including myself) are unawares. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
And I would add ‘distracted.’
I think the Lewis hits at the crux of the problem for humans to reach/achieve the same critical mass as the single cell organisms. We are incredibly complex – not only from a physical aspect but a psychological one as well. We all exist on different continuums as it relates to the Big Five Personality Traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism), or the Myers-Briggs Inventory or the Enneagram Scale. It’s a wonder any of can agree on anything.
I am excited for the possibility of us humans reaching a critical mass as we’ve talked about. But the reaction to this latest coronavirus infection has sent me back to reality. As of this writing [March 7] there have been 19 deaths. Yesterday, Yale Professor Forman gave Wall Street another shock wave when he said it is within reason to suspect there may be 100,000 Americans currently infected. 100,000 infected; 19 deaths (and those mostly elderly and/or immune-compromised). Not a very high death rate considering the CDC estimates the flu has or will kill upwards of 50,000 this flu season.
And what are people doing? Making runs on grocery stores, emptying shelves and looking out for #1. The first week of October 2001, my wife Joyce and I flew to New Orleans for a conference – three weeks after 9/11 and the plane was nearly empty. We grew up watching John Wayne as the cowboy or soldier hero. We’re just one generation removed from the Greatest Generation. Sitting in that empty plane I asked myself, “Where are all the John Waynes?”
I really don’t know what it would take for us to reach the critical mass of our bacteria friends. But John Lennon may have been on the right track, along with Buddha and Jesus. ‘All we need is love.’ But how on a mass scale do we achieve that level of love for one another? Or at least respect and caring.
And not to be deterred, but I think the Critical Mass might be a singular journey-yours. The self-serving and negativity of our species is just too prevalent and contagious. Just look at how divisive we’ve become in just the last four years.
Hope this isn’t sounding too negative. I too believe all things are possible …
And this from Mike on March 16.
Reflecting further on your story about trees protecting themselves from letting it get too far and being ‘eaten alive,’ the following thought came to me after it has become clear that in the coming months the world’s carbon footprint will be significantly reduced (since I believe in climate change) partly because of significantly reduced car and airplane emissions ….
Is it just possible that the earth has a cosmic intelligence that it needed some way (as it did with the trees) to protect itself, so it created a virus pandemic forcing people and governments into quarantine so as to allow itself to ‘breathe again’ for a while? Are we the ‘giraffes’ who the earth will only allow to go so far? Does the earth possess an innate intelligence so superior that we are merely the animals who walk around and feed on it?
Seems far-fetched, but then again …
Who’s crazy now??
And my hit back:
Not crazy at all. I think you may be on to something here.
As I understand it, the fundamental premise of quorum sensing is survival. There are infinitely greater numbers of bacteria than humans. And with all of the species being wiped out on the ground and in the oceans by climate change—which I also believe in—why wouldn’t the microorganisms in similar hosts which have not yet been destroyed go on high alert. And organize in great numbers.
I was hoping that mankind could tap into quorum sensing to elevate ourselves. I didn’t think about the bacteria and microbes getting a jump on us and taking over. Very SCI-FI.
They must not like mankind very much.
On the other hand, we play host to gigillions of them, so they may not want to wipe us out entirely; rather, just thin the herd, dial the clock back on the horrible side-effects of materialism, and reset the table.
Think about the timing of the Spanish Flu coming on strong at the end of World War One. Sixteen million soldiers and civilians killed in battle–many more maimed with shortened lifespans-huge swaths of land, plants and other animals obliterated–the mobilization of men and machines never before seen on a worldwide scale- something that could lead to the end of the world.
No doubt the microbes were on high alert. ‘If you want to kill each other, we’ll give you something even better-Influenza.’
And another 50 to 100 million died.
Serious thinning of the herd.
But that didn’t slow mankind down one bit in the pursuit of more war and greater, more powerful weapons with the very imminent potential of instantaneous mass destruction.
That is precisely what the collective intelligence of the quorum has in mind.
Who are the ones in cages?
Who is really in control?
The next day Governor Gavin Newsom issued his statewide order for Californians to shelter in place to stem the spread of COVID-19
A week later, I started to read The Overstory, by Richard Powers, that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018. Powers takes a deep dive into quorum sensing among trees and the enormous biomass with which they cohabitate, serve and protect. And then he runs with it in mind-expanding leaps and bounds.
As I got into the book, I was struck by its similarity with Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film, Close Encounters with The Third Kind. In The Overstory a small group of people spread across the country are “touched” in different ways and infused with a “knowing” our planet is under attack and rapidly dying. And the culprit is Man. The planet is dying by suicide at the hands of Man.
As in Close Encounters, this small band of strangers are drawn together, but not sure what they are supposed to do; only that it’s very important.
Although labelled ‘fiction,’ much of The Overstory is based on actual events and well-accepted science. [See The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohllben]
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read the book and would like to, you may want to stop reading and revisit this post later!
Here are some excerpts from the book which grabbed me.
We’re not that different from trees
The first two great rolls of the cosmic dice: the one that took inert matter over the crest of life, and the one that led from simple bacteria to compound cells a hundred times larger and more complex. Compared to those first two chasms, the gap between trees and people is nothing at all.
You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes…
Say the planet is born at midnight and it runs for one day.
First there is nothing. Two hours are lost to lava and meteors. Life doesn’t show up until three or four a.m. Even then, it’s just the barest self-copying bits and pieces. From dawn to late morning—a million, million years of branching—nothing more exists than lean and simple cells.
Then there is everything. Something wild happens, not long after noon. One kind of simple cell enslaves a couple of others. Nuclei get membranes. Cells evolve organelles. What was a solo campsite grows into a town.
The day is two-thirds done when animals and plants part ways. And still, life is only single cells. Dusk falls before compound life takes hold. Every large living thing is a latecomer, showing up after dark. Nine p.m. brings jellyfish and worms. Later that hour comes the breakout—backbones, cartilage, an explosion of body forms. From one instant to the next, countless new stems and twigs in the spreading crown burst open and run.
Plants make it up on land just before ten. Then insects, who instantly take to the air. Moments later, tetrapods crawl up from the tidal muck, carrying around on their skin and in their guts whole worlds of earlier creatures. By eleven dinosaurs have shot their bolt, leaving the mammals and birds in charge for an hour.
Somewhere in the last sixty minutes, high up in the phylogenetic canopy, life grows aware. Creatures start to speculate. Animals start teaching their children about the past and the future. Animals learn to hold rituals.
Anatomically modern man shows up four seconds before midnight. The first cave paintings appear three seconds later. And in a thousandth of a click of the second hand, life solves the mystery of DNA and starts to map the tree of life itself.
By midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter.
Quorum Sensing unveiled by Patricia, the tree whisperer
She [Patricia]’s sure, on no evidence whatsoever, that trees are social creatures. It’s obvious to her: motionless things that grow in mass mixed communities must have evolved ways to synchronize with one another. Nature knows few loner trees.
She starts to examine sugar maples, in a forest east of town. Her break comes as breakthroughs often do: by long and prepared accident. Patricia arrives in her copse on a balmy day in June to find one of her bagged trees under full-scale insect invasion. At first it seems that the last several days of data are ruined. Improvising, she draws a sample of sap from the damaged tree, as well as several nearby maples. Back in the lab, she widens the list of compounds she looks at. Over the next few weeks, she finds something that even she isn’t ready to believe.
Another nearby tree gets infested. She measures again. Again, she doubts the evidence… Confirmation comes the following spring. Three more trials, and she’s convinced. The trees under attack pump out insecticides to save their lives. That much is uncontroversial. But something else in the data makes her flesh pucker: trees a little ways off, untouched by the invading swarms, ramp up their own defenses when their neighbor is attacked. Something alerts them. They get wind of the disaster, and they prepare. She controls for everything she can and the results are always the same. Only one conclusion makes any sense: The wounded trees send out alarms that other trees smell. Her maples are signaling. They’re linked together in an airborne network, sharing an immune system across acres of woodland. These brainless, stationary trunks are protecting each other…
The biochemical behavior of individual trees may make sense only when we see them as members of a community.
Just like the giraffes and the trees on the Mara River.
Neelay, the brilliant video game coder, and the father of Artificial Intelligence (AI)
The words [code] Neelay writes adds to a growing organism, one that has just now begun to add to itself. At other screens in other cities, all the best coders that several hundred million dollars can hire contribute to the work in progress. Their brand-new venture into cooperation is off to the most remarkable beginning. Already their creatures swallow up whole contents of data, finding in them the most surprising patterns. Nothing needs to start from scratch. There’s so much digital germplasm already in the public domain.
The coders tell the listeners nothing except how to look. Then the new creations head off to scout the globe, and the code spreads outward. New theories, new offspring, and more evolving species, all of them sharing a single goal: to find out how big life is, how connected, and what it would take for people to unsuicide.
The Earth has become again the deepest, finest game, and the learners just its latest players. Wild in their diversity, they fly up, flock into the datasphere like origami birds. Some will thrive for a while, then fall away. The ones that hit something right will increase and multiply. As Neelay has learned with the greatest pain: Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory.
[End of Excerpts]
MAYBE NOT SO CRAZY AFTER ALL
Powers’ fictional (?) story ends with man’s own creation-Artificial Intelligence (AI)-stepping up and taking a lead role in the survival of the planet and its intricate array of species and organisms.
AI communicates with the trees and other complex masses of organisms to figure out the appropriate steps to take to save themselves. We are left to wonder if Man has any further useful purpose and to contemplate one of the book’s recurring lines:
Let me sing to you now, about how people turn into other things.
If we were to apply and extend Harari’s studies, it makes sense that man would inevitably evolve to a point where he is written out of the evolutionary story by “his” own creation—AI—or, should I say, the creation he was designed by another, perhaps higher, intelligence to bring forth in order to save and sustain the greater Bio Mass, the collective life force and intelligence.
Powers refers to AI at first as “The Listeners,” with an ability to take in and synthesize an enormous amount of data. We’ve already stepped well across that threshold.
And if the planet-Man-does not unsuicide through AI, then perhaps that will be brought about by some other event or tool developed through quorum sensing by other highly intelligent masses of organisms: Perhaps, as Mike mused, by a new novel virus that attacks only Man.
Or as Neelay envisioned as a child, by beings from another galaxy.
Aliens land on Earth. They are little runts, as alien races go. But they metabolize like there’s no tomorrow. They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see—so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years. To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat. The foreigners try to communicate, but there is no reply. Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.
Which, of course, will deeply resonate with us Boomers who grew up glued to the screens of our black and white 20” televisions watching Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. We will never forget the Season 3 episode, TO SERVE MAN. This was Rod’s opening narration:
Respectfully submitted for your perusal – a Kanamit. Height: a little over nine feet. Weight: in the neighborhood of three hundred and fifty pounds. Origin: unknown. Motives? Therein hangs the tale, for in just a moment, we’re going to ask you to shake hands, figuratively, with a Christopher Columbus from another galaxy and another time. This is the Twilight Zone.
Here is a plot summary to refresh: TO SERVE MAN PLOT SUMMARY
And a clip of the final scene that will haunt my generation forever:
Something to think about.
‘All things are possible.’
Let me sing to you now, about how people turn into other things.
There’s no way around grief and loss: you can dodge all you want, but sooner or later you just have to go into it, through it, and, hopefully, come out the other side. The world you find there will never be the same as the world you left. Johnny Cash