Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In a crisis, r-selected COPYRIGHT is better than K-selected

Here I go again, "Arguing From Nature!"

I am going to borrow the kernel of a very complicated and subtle theory from biology and apply it , as a metaphor, to a critical issue in human culture.

Metaphors have a habit of climbing away from their Doctors Frank-n-Steins and developing an independent existence of their own, so there is always a danger to this kind of activity.

None the less, let's try out r- and K- for size.

A generation of disinterested Art and Commerce undergraduates have tried to slither through the exams in a scientific subject they didn't really like, by recording the following mnemonic :

K-selected/K-strategists = K-oncentrated

r-selected/r-strategists = r-adiated .

In stable,narrow, niches in ecology, K-selected species are competitively successful by doing only one thing (being rigid in their ways of surviving) but doing it better than anyone else.

They tend to be very large in size and few in number; producing relatively few offspring late in life, which they then tend carefully to maturity.

What energy they do collect they mostly devote to keeping themselves alive and growing bigger than other competitors and then, late in life, they K-oncentrate what little energy they can give to reproduction, towards producing a very few offspring which they nurture to maturity.

Humans are mostly K-selected in our biology - in our culture we are a mixture of K- and r- . We have a choice. More on this later.

Bell Aliant is an typical example of a K-strategy human institution - it has one successful strategy that has worked well for them in the stable niche-period of the Industrialized West during the last 150 years and they are almost biologically- reluctant to change.

Species that are r-selected tend to be extremely small - think of bacteria, other microbes and many rodents and insects.

They flourish best in unstable niches - unstable in conditions and in time. Regard them as Nature's weeds and opportunists. They do many many things, none of them very well -- jacks of all trades.

They are very numerous and reproduce early, releasing (r-adiating) thousands and millions of their offspring widely all over the environment.

In point of truth, they abandon their offspring when they are (a) very small & weak (b) and floating into mostly hostile territories.

It seems to be both cruel and an unsuccessful strategy, in our contemporary /western/ urban/ middle class/ eyes.

But we are the ultimate in K-orientation and we are living, moreover, on borrowed time and space.

Color us ignorant and arrogant.

We fail to realize that throughout most of human existence, let alone for the rest of Life's creatures' existence and and let alone the rest of earth history, the world, in sum, has been more unstable than stable.

Whether as human peasants or as bacteria, r-selected jack-of-all-trades fecundity tends to work better than the alternative, over the long haul and over the enlarged range.

In fact, while your professors of biology will rarely tell you this because their interest is almost always animals or plants, most of life on Earth has always been r-selected, not just in numbers, but in weight of living biomass and in 'space and time'.

By 'time' in the phrase, 'space and time' , I mean that over the roughly four billion years of Life on Earth, the r-selected have always been around while the k-selected have only appeared intermittently and then only stayed for a short time.

The blue green algae we see in every stagnant pool of water are actually bacteria and have been found, as massive fossil collections, in the oldest rocks on earth.

They may be even older - we simply haven't found any older rocks yet.

Found everywhere water pools and collects, around for almost four billion years - as a strategy, r-selection looks pretty good on our blue-green pals.

By 'space' in the phrase ' space and time' , I mean the fact that while K-selected creatures like blue whales,elephants and even humans can only exist (unaided by fossil fuels) in a few small corners of the world, r-selected microbes exist everywhere.

Inside us, for a start, their cells outnumbering ours many fold - though most of "them" are "us", as we would die and cease to be human without our helpful commensal bacteria and their services.

But bacteria exist miles underground, without any sun, living off the chemical energy in minerals - perhaps having unexpectedly profound consequences in the creation of petroleum and natural gas, among other semi-minerals.

They exist high into the atmosphere.

They can flourish on ice at the Poles, and in extremely hot and extremely harsh chemical-waters pouring out of volcanic structures.

Now this is biology, not culture, and may seem to be totally deterministic, beyond all interest to humans who can alter their cultural practices.

But the r-selected amongst us are deterministically flexible - and this seems almost an oxymoron, but is actually the key to their ongoing successful domination of Life on Earth throughout history.

While in stable times, the expert/specialist/professional earns the best incomes, in times of crisis, they flounder while the poor freely adapt and go on surviving.

We see this during every world war, in the worst affected countries.

The problem in a crisis, for the specialist and the K-selected, is that they have intellectual assets that cost them plenty to obtain and of which they are very proud.

The fact that those assets no longer work during the crisis is only half realized and this inertia in adapting is often fatal.

By contrast, bacteria and other small celled creatures have very good mechanisms for correcting errors in reproducing DNA - during stable conditions.

They are thus acting in a strictly K- fashion with regards to their precious intellectual property - in times of stability.

But when their world goes into an unstable crisis, they stop repressing their other built-in repair mechanisms that are extremely careless in reproducing their original DNA.

Strange and wonderful mutations emerge - most are useless or even worse, fatal.

But a few are the way forward to surviving under these troubling new conditions.

Waiiit ! There is more !

They don't hold onto this wonderful news, this Gospel, they radiate it far and wide as Open Source DNA, not demanding copyright royalties from other species and variants of bacteria that take it up.

As my good friend Dr Dawson demonstrated way back in 1930, bacteria, when hit by a crisis, "Unleash Chiang Kai-Shek" in the form of 'cassettes' of DNA encoding a new or underused function and send it out onto the bacterial Internet (the fluids surrounding them) for any species to take up and use.

Generally these different species bacteria not being (by definition) exactly the same as the original bacteria releasing these Open Source Genes, they have to mash up their own DNA to get the Gene to work.

What emerges - to the benefit of the whole of bacteria-dom - is two variants on that gene. One is the original gene, the other is the new mash-up version. Both work well - but under different conditions.

All bacteria-dom benefits under these loose copyright rules.

Lets look at a concrete example : the worldwide bacterial collective response to the billion-fold increase in antibiotic bactericides after 1945.

Antibiotics are natural bactericides, found in nature in terms of hundreds of millions of microgram-sized amounts annually worldwide - widely dispersed in tiny amounts all over, but only lethal to what bacteria had to be extremely close by.

We humans - by giving antibiotics freely to humans and farm animals - upped the annual outpouring into the waters of the world to levels of hundreds of millions of kilograms of antibiotics.

A billion-fold increase - now antibiotics were killing all sorts of bacteria under all sorts of situations.

Bacterial Antibiotic Resistance was how humans saw the resulting response.

Bacteria had worked out ways to ruin the effects of antibiotics eons ago, but they usually leaves the genes that encode for this ability way in the background - very few bacteria have these genes and even fewer among them are using them at any point in time.

It costs precious energy to create these gene products and bacteria are successful above all for being the most frugal creatures on Earth.

They travel lean - devoting all their free energy to reproducing and as little as possible to storing tools, "just in case it needs them".

But in their unstable and crisis-oriented world, they do need those tools - perhaps not minute by minute, but over periods as short as every few weeks.

Their solution is to create a worldwide library of Open Source Genes that aren't needed for basic daily life, but are life-saving on occasion.

A bacteria that daily faces and defeat antibiotics might also daily leak out into the environment the genes that can ruin antibiotics.

Other bacteria that have no need that gene's function, right now, have excellent systems for detecting unwanted DNA - they simply 'eat' the antibiotic-destroying gene rather than incorporating it into their chromosome.

But when antibiotics flood the area, for both types of bacteria, threatening all, the bacteria start up a collective response.

The antibiotic destroying bacteria starts producing more of their gene product and starts leaking more of the gene that produces it, into the environment.

The bacteria without the capability to destroy antibiotics suddenly throttle their foreign DNA check system and start taking up all sorts of foreign DNA into their chromosome, including the antibiotic-destroying gene.

At the micro level ,this process isn't pretty - billions and billions of bacteria die trying to get it right, but eventually some do and flourish and bacteria-dom, as a whole, survives.

Multi-antibiotic Resistance Killed Charles Darwin's
Evolution Theory Stone Dead

Well not all of it - his core idea of survival of the fittest still survives unchallenged within science.

But his ideas of slow and steady vertical inheritance of slow and steady change has been dealt its deathblow in recent years.

The sudden existence of multi-antibiotic resistant bacteria in populations as isolated as uphill tribes in New Guinea, only a few years after all these various antibiotics were first manufactured by Man, couldn't mathematically be explained by
accidental small mutations accumulating over millions of years.

Ask any math major the odds that a bacteria in a human in uphill New Guinea, could by a very slow (10 to the minus nine rate of random DNA coding error, so called point mutations) process, randomly create the dozen genes needed to destroy four antibiotics first manufactured only 6 years earlier in London !

Talk about monkeys typing up all the works of Shakespeare....

No ,what happens is that some bacteria collected up all the various antibiotic-destroying genes floating out in the waters around them and re-packaged them in larger cassettes of bacterial resistance software - and then returned them to the waters for other bacteria to take up as one unit, if they really needed them , say in hospital or farm settings.

Collectively, bacteria already have all the genes to destroy any known antibiotic - or they can quickly mash up a variant to deal with a new variety.

But all this takes up precious energy - so only a few individuals, at any one time, holds an active copy of any particular method of destroying antibiotics.

It is all rather like a single planet-wide huge, multi-billion volume, free public library that does not exist in big government-owned buildings but in the homes of all humans.

Each human only has a few, but unique, selection of books, but because they freely share them without demanding copyright fees, collectively humans have access to a far bigger library than if they were selfish and didn't share their books.

Oh, and another thing - each human is both an author and a book reader - reading a lot of books before writing their own variant on the vast body of already existing thought.

What does this mean for us humans in crisis?

The habitually poor human being, having few assets to protect or to lose, are promiscuous in taking up new ideas and tools and adapting them in unexpectedly creative ways.

They 'mash-up' a variety of unrelated technologies, careless of the fact that their owners or creators don't want them mashed up that way.

In doing so, they come up with new takes on old ideas - some, a few,very few, turn out to be strokes of sheer unfettered genius - and help point the way ahead for a society in crisis.

And we are a definitely a society and a world community in profound crisis.

The depletion of natural resources, from the end of Cod to the beginnings of the downhill slope of Peak Oil, threatens both our cozy way of life and the fate of all Life on this Planet, through Global warming and habitat destruction.

Expressed in terms of economic 'business models' , this crisis can be described as 'the old business models are no longer working.'

The most K-selected amongst us - Conservative Parties , the Telcos and the record & movie labels - have responded in true K- fashion: they have drawn up their intellectual wagons in a circle and are decided to defend what they already have, rather than venture out into scary un-charted waters.

In copyright law terms, that means the K amongst us, the wise and the mighty, have sought and won longer and longer terms for the copyrights they already own, and also won the right to greatly restrict the creative mis-use of those copyrights by others.

And it is no surprise that it is the poor (the weak and the foolish r-selected) around the world who have led the way in mash-up copyright, from scratching, sampling to today's video mash-ups

We humans face a similar serious crisis to what bacteria face frequently and we need the same sort of solution - we need to loosen, not tighten, our copyright/patent/building code rules.

Unleash the Chiang Kai-Shek amongst the poor and small and remote parts of the world where the inhabitants are flexible and versatile by necessity.

My own region, the Maritimes, is small, poor and remote and are famous (infamous) for its rural citizens being masters-of-no-trades .

Maritimes are not paragons of 4-H agriculture , but rather of 4-F agriculture: farmin',fishin',forestin', and factoryin' .

They get by, they improvise.

When the crisis hits ,they'll get by.

But why wait till a crisis hits, with all its suffering, wars and misery ?

Loosen up our rules on house-building, on copyright and patents - let's see what emerges - it will benefit the 'suits' in Toronto as much as the fisherman down in Cape Sable.....

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