Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"A Small Triumph" --- wartime's natural penicillin-for-all a triumph FOR the small, BY the small

During the Error-of-Modernity (circa about 1875-1965), most educated humans sincerely believed that "Evolutionary Progress" had only one possible pole of measurement : basically, it boiled down to the number of peer-reviewed scientific articles published annually.

Naturally that meant that the oldest, smallest and least apparently complicated beings, like the microbes, were at the very bottom left of this "45 degrees to the right" Pole of Progress.

It was the era of 'Might is Right', 'Biggest is Best' and 'God and Evolution is on the side of the Biggest Battalions'.

And so at the top right were the newest, biggest and most complex human civilizations like those of the Germans, British, Americans, Russians, French and Japanese.

As a Law Of Nature and as a Fact Of Biology, this was a doozy.

Even Darwin had tended to restrict evolutionary success to reproductive success, rather than to a nation's citation index in the journal Nature.

Darwin's measure needs a bit of further defining.

After all, it would seem that the ultimate in evolutionary success is best measured by finding the beings with the most offspring that survive, in the most habitats and for the longest period of time.

In which case, Biology borrows from the Bible to proclaim that the Last indeed are First, as by this definition the microbes sweep all before them in an Alberta Orange-Crush-like manner.

But still, why judge Evolutionary Progress by only one pole anyway, particularly when only one group gets to pick the pole and does so in a manner to suit their particular talents and hide their many biological weaknesses ?

One particular measure that then force all other biological talents to be judged defectives and so worthy of being eliminated ?

In a multi-poled world of Evolutionary Progress, one can imagine hundreds of different poles.

Some assessing all life on its ability to swim faster or fly longer.

Or on its ability to burrow quicker or live under great pressures or flourish in acidic conditions or reproduce under conditions of great cold, heat or drought.

On and on and on.

In this multi-pole world, sometimes the First (biggest,strongest, most seemingly most complex) would indeed be first, but sometimes they might finish in the middle or even foot the tail of the race.

And the Last (the smallest and weakest, seeming the simplest) might finish in the middle or even first.

It would  all depend.

Dr Martin Henry Dawson, building upon his school day phenology studies that revealed the infinite variety of life, found that the supposedly stupid simple bacteria actually bested the smartest human scientists in the universe in an interwar period area of hot scientific interest --- directed genetics.

His 1920s-1930s pioneering studies of what was then called bacterial variation - HGT, quorum sensing, molecular mimicking, biofilms - had already suggested to him that the small and the weak weren't as useless or as uncomplicated as then generally viewed.

In 1940, this led him to two then highly controversial conclusions : that the human small and the weak weren't as useless as both the Allies and the Axis blandly assumed AND that the small and weak fungus currently producing all the world's penicillin might actually do a better job at it than all the smartest human chemists in the universe.

Against his own dying body and the Allies' fiercely resisting medical establishment, he held on long enough to see naturally penicillin succeed when human synthetic penicillin efforts failed AND to see the medical establishment reluctantly bow to public pressure and make wartime penicillin available to all, on all sides, whose lives would be saved by it.

A small triumph maybe - unless it was your kid or spouse that was saved - but also a triumph for the small , by the small ...

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