Monday, May 6, 2013

WWII : began with "Bigger is Better - Inevitably" and ended up in "Global Commensality"

At the 1939 New York's World Fair , it seemed only common sense that life started out as tiny simple-minded microbes and inevitably ended up both bigger and smarter, with beings like us being the prime example.

After all, we all know that tiny embryos become babies then children before growing ever smarter and ever bigger as full grown adults.

True the big dinosaurs had disappeared while the tiny bacteria hadn't, but had not the dinosaurs been quickly replaced by mammals - not just as big as dinosaurs but also much smarter ?

Wasn't evolution, no matter how slowly and and how twistingly, inevitably progressing towards the reality that Bigger was not just Better (an idea that hardly needed proposing, it was so self evident to the 1930s mind) but Inevitable as well ?

These ideas were hardly the plot of conspiratory 1930s corporate elites, trying to hold down the working man , because everybody held these notions,  even if they only accepted them resignedly.

Bigger was Better and inevitable because Science had shown it to be natural and so man's efforts inevitably had to be but a mere echo of what was happening and had always had happened, everywhere, in Nature.

So instead every different ideology of the 1930s was content, or resigned, to merely contesting different 'Bigger Betters' : Big Fascism, Big Communism, Big Capitalism, Big Christianity and on and on.

But a few biologists in the Thirties - mostly microbiologists -  didn't find Bigger to be inevitably Better, at least in the natural interactions they were studying.

The brilliant if taciturn (Martin) Henry Dawson was in their forefront - certainly not as a verbal spokesman, but in his advanced concepts.

The 'little horse to big horse' dioramas beloved by every  local museum wall made it seem that small beings were just wayposts on the path to ever bigger-ness.

But instead of being just something to be eaten up or stomped on during the charge to Bigness , true natural reality, these handful of microbiologists claimed, showed small continuing to co-exist with the big, now as in the distant past.

And not just co-existing in widely separated niches either .

For trillions upon trillions of bacteria co-exist in and upon every one of us, along with endless numbers of viruses, fungi, protozoa, worms and mites.

With  all our medical science and with the best immune system in Life, it might see an easy task for us Biggies to dispose of such smallies but that hardly has proved the case .

As any infectious hospital ward in the Thirties would unhappily attest.

But Science, as always, had a ready answer whenever messy Reality clashed with the glib (Cartwright Machine) assumptions it shared with the non-scientific mind.

Science claimed that whenever a new small being invaded the human space, there was a tense period of ecological mismatch between the parasites' need for time to see to their continued survival versus their ability to make us (and thus them) instantly dead.

Dead human hosts meant dead microbe freeloaders.

So, gradually ,over time, the invading small beings reduced their virulency,the human host lived and reproduced and so did its parasites who also lived long enough reproduce their own kind.

Soon parasites became helpless and harmless commensals, merely tagging along with us for the ride.

Never again, once rendered a-virulent , would invading microbes bother the big and clever humans.

The 1930s Central Dogma of the Biology religion (one of many such Central Dogmas over the years) was that it was always a one way journey from high virulency to a-virtulency.

But Dawson , particularly in his studies between 1926 and 1940 ,
saw a much different picture.

To put it in modern day biological language, he was the first, or among the first, to explore Horizontal Gene Transfer, Quorum Sensing, Molecular Mimicry, L-forms, and Biofilms.

Just a few of the truly amazing and highly sophisticated ways bacteria survive in a hostile human body cum planet.

Because an individual bacteria is about the same size relationship to an adult human as a human individual is to the entire planet Earth.

Bacteria did not 'sense' they were invading and killing a fellow being when they land on and in us,  (as they might regard a competing fungi cell).

Instead each human body seemed an entire rich lush dangerous planet to them - one well worth learning to survive in , despite the risks.

because our human immune systems and human medicine are indeed big, rich and sophisticatedly complex.

But they proved to be, ironically, too big, too complex, too ponderous to beat back the microbes for very long.

Just too damned bureaucratical,  just like every big organization you and I have ever worked for.

The microbes' vast numbers (trillions) and short period between new generations (minutes), combined with their controllable ability to encourage new mutations to emerge and even travel from species to species,  ensured they could throw up a trillion new survival ideas in the time we got one new drug to stage three clinical trials.

Most of those new survival ideas would be harmful or useless, but with those numbers of ideas, it became like Monkeys typing Literature : something good was bound to come out eventually.

The small and nimble beat the big and ponderous often enough in our human corporate world to make Dawson's claim seem equally credible in the natural world.

Or so it might seem self evident , today, in our post-Modern world.

But that is getting well ahead of ourselves ---- because Dawson's 1930s notions of commensality are not just the object of our postwar post-modern gaze but one of the 1930s originating subject-creator of our postwar post-modernity.

Together with WWII itself.

Because until WWII came along and demonstrated over and over how often the very big fell before the very little , Dawson's notions gained no traction what so ever in the scientific or popular mind.

His scientific ideas did not change during WWII , but ours sure did .....

No comments:

Post a Comment