Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Ethnic Conflict Helps Bacteria Cooperate

A recent Science News piece reports research indicating that “bacteria assassinating each other when crowded together ironically can favor the evolution of cooperation.” This happens when different strains of bacteria are initially mixed randomly. Using their own brand of natural antibiotic, each bacterium launches an attack on its neighbors from different strains. This eventually leads – through a kind of bacterial ethnic conflict – to clumps of same strain bacteria that can then shift from expending energy on warfare with opposing clumps to cooperating with each other in its same-strain clump. As the researcher summed up: “This resulting clumpy distribution, despite its murderous origin, favors the rise of cooperation, such as secreting substances useful to a whole community.”

This seems quite clear and while not really surprising – like prefers like – also suggests a possibly illuminating thought experiment. Imagine a beneficent bacterial power – lets call it the USA (Union for Safe Association) – that seeks to use carrots and sticks – super-antibacterial agents plus sugar – to push the different strains into coexisting rather than trying to kill each other. This would require maintaining an unnatural balance and might never succeed in making each bacterium focus its energies on anything but finding other ways to win living space. Perhaps it could work as long as the USA worked diligently, non-stop and forever. But should the effort lag, nature would probably just take its course.

Despite billions of years of evolution, identity-specific living organisms – strains – seem to follow the same imperative to clump. This is the state of nature. Past human experience suggests that there are only a few ways to establish a stable order out of mixture: strong, perhaps brutal central rule (whether from inside or outside, a Leviathan), sufficient nutrient (wealth) to allow all strains a piece of the pie (Western liberal democracy), or letting nature take its course (“ethnic” conflict finally ending in more or less homogeneous entities that at least have that to be proud of). Does the human species suggest better?