What can global social movements learn from microbes – Part 1

I love social movements. I started working on them ever since my university days over a decade ago. The passion. The creativity. The hope. It’s life-affirming. I also like microbiology. I completed my PhD in microbiology and am now completing my medical training. I see suffering daily, often needless suffering, for which I believe social movements can help mend.  But I also see failures in myself, in peer communities and beyond, on building and sustaining human social movements. Something isn’t quite right. Slowly, but surely, ego, turf wars and inefficiencies dominate and the movements die out. They do not evolve. Recently, my science word and social movements world began to collide as I realized that we can learn an awful lot from how some of the most ‘primitive’ creatures on the planet – microbes – organize themselves.  Indeed, Human social movements can learn from microbial ones.

I will focus on this in 3 parts  over the coming months.

Let’s start the series with amoebas.

You see, 100 million years ago, amoebas were in trouble. Big trouble. As single-celled, haploid protists they were individually starving for food. They were dying off.

Then, some amoebas underwent an adaptation so fundamental that it changed the world: they came together.

One by one, members would come together to form a slug-like creature, a plasmodial slime mold, that moved with collective polarity towards a food source. Once fed, the slug like creature would transform to a stalk-like creature with 80% of amoebas forming the stalk and 20% the spore seeking a vector in the soil (usually a snail) to transport the spores to newer pastures. This initial cohesion was incidentally the dawn of multicellularity. This was, simply said, nature’s first social movement. And, it was magnificent.

These adaptations in moments of crisis remind us humans of what is at stake right now in the parable of our species — of our human history. It’s easy to forget. For the first time in human history, there will be more people over the age of 65 then under the age of 5. And yet there is regress, not progress: in rich countries, the children of today may not live as long as their parents – life expectancy is stalling and may even decline. Globally, rich or poor, we are expanding, not compressing, morbidity. We are headed in the wrong direction.

The slime molds and their seminal movement may provide some hints for us humans.

First, they put ego and turf aside. Too often in social movements there is turf that keeps individuals or organizations operating as single, isolated amoebas (or ‘siloes’). I would argue, that this cost lives and does not maximize individual & collective good. Slime molds knew better. They were social.

Second, the slime mold movement was not perfect, but there was movement. Lots of it. Slime molds moved toward higher ground where food was more abundant. Human social movements often, well, stagnate quietly and then start to rot.

The next part is my favorite: slime molds differentiated themselves to figure out tasks – each amoeba assumed a task (much as the individuals cells in humans do). There was little redundancy; and great support. One curious question is whether the 80% of amoebas that supported the 20% that were able to leave to other pastures were truly unselfish; or whether the 20% that made it to the top were simply out-competing the other 80% in the amoeba race to the top. It’s not clear –  we still don’t quite know. But what is very clear is there is great organization and role definition in how these social amoebas organized themselves to get things done.

Finally, slime molds were humble. Sometimes, they needed a champion (in the form of a snail or some other soil-dwelling creature) to get things done — and they used the champion wisely. We should always be asking who our champions are – on the lookout for asking other humans the basic question of “Will you be my snail?”. It could mean the difference between life and, well, extinction.

Where are the real-world applications you ask?

Just ask the winners of the 2010 and 2008 Ig Nobel Prize, given for science that at first is laughable, but then makes you think. These Japanese and British researchers won the prize for comparing how one slime mold (Physarum polycephalum) can inform how the Tokyo rail system could optimize their train networks (2010). They observed biologically inspired networks that could help solve costs, inefficiencies and provide solutions to human infrastructure problems. And in 2008, they showed slime molds are smart: they showed slime molds can solve puzzles (Intelligence: Maze-solving by an amoeboid organism).

Taking a lesson from slime.

Thus, cooperation, cohesion and community were vital for nature’s first social movement. 100 million years later, in humans, we can/should/must learn from slime molds – after all if social amoebas can (and still do) inform how we build rail networks in Tokyo, can they not help us solve the puzzle of building better, more robust social movements for Global Health in the 21st century? Perhaps for our greatest leap forward, we must look millions of years backward.

Stay tuned for more parts on translating what we humans can learn from microbes.

Sandeep Kishore is a microbiologist (with a PhD on the evolution of how malaria came to infect humans), and an M.D. student at Cornell University. He is the current Chair of the Advisory Council for the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network & NCD Action Network. He is interested in crafting approaches to 21st century health with emerging knowledge leaders globally. Find him on twitter @sandeep_kishore or @ncdaction

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