The History of the Global Brain XX
The global brain is not just human, made of our vaunted intelligence. It is webbed between all species. A mass mind knits the continents, the seas, and skies. It turns all creatures great and small into probers, crafters, innovators, ears and eyes. This is the real global brain, the truest planetary mind.
"If you want to stride into the Infinite, move but within the Finite in all directions."Goethe
The honey badger uses the black throated honey guide as its surveillance craft. The bird cruises the forest hunting a bee hive, then, chattering and darting, leads the badger to its find. The clawed beast tears apart the tough walls of the hive, and both honey guide and badger share in a wax-comb-and-honey repast1.When black-capped chickadees spot danger and shriek their mobbing call, ten other bird species recognize the signal and prepare to flee or to defend their all2.Off the shores of Costa Rica, tuna and dolphins hunt together, meshing information to increase the harvest of their prey. Seabirds watch their movements carefully and follow in their wake, waiting for them to churn a school of fish to the surface so they, too, can partake. Fishermen scrutinize the movements of the seabirds and from them learn where the meaty tuna and the dolphin churn.3
The Microbial Brain and our Use of it
A mere 500,000 years after the earth took form there set forth upon this orb a global brain. It was the product of the birth of life and sociality - a network of mass-communities - those of cyanobacteria, which were among the first cellular beings. The microbial brain rapidly learned new lessons and added to its arsenal. From it evolved a super weapon, a sliver of 50 or 60 genes wrapped in a protein capsule capable of boarding and grappling. This was the virus, the bacteria's collaborator and its foe. Viral assaults devastated bacterial colonies - yet they tested bacterial intelligence, tweaked bacterial ingenuity, and amplified bacterial skills. Viruses also pried loose genetic pages from the creatures they attacked and inserted them in the DNA library of those they visited next while on their predatory rounds. Thus they became couriers through which bacteria swapped molecular pamphlets of new tricks and old collective memories.
Later cells learned to build a different form of collectivity - the multi-trillion-celled cooperative which forms a plant, an animal, a you or me. 3.5 billion years ago bacteria had their global brain up and running - running very fast indeed. By swapping genetic bits and reengineering themselves they could create upgrades in hours or in days. Multicellular collectives, on the other hand, were no longer able to stitch borrowed genetic snippets into their DNA and instantly switch form and strategy. Instead of creating new ways of being in blinks of time, they were limited to evolving in geologic yawns and heaves.
In a sense, microbes saved the day. Roughly 300 million years ago, colonies of the bacteria Blattabacterium cuenoti worked out an arrangement of mutual advantage with primitive cockroaches. The cockroach easily became starved for nitrogen. However it had a body of fat in whose molecules nitrogen was trapped. The bacteria took up residence inside the roaches, fed on the fat molecules, peeled off the nitrogen, and offered it up in usable form to their cockroach hosts.4 In exchange the cockroach furnished new forms of haven and mobility.5 When another species - a protozoan - entered the cockroach gut, it submitted as its admission ticket the ability to digest cellulose. If the bacteria-bearing roach chewed and swallowed wood, the protozoan in its digestive system turned the chunks of sawdust into food. Some roaches evolved into termites, and from a triple-species web6 - insect, bacteria, and protozoan - a lumber-munching way of life was born.7 Meanwhile, viruses teamed up with parasitic wasps to penetrate the immune defenses of live caterpillars in which both fed their young. The wasp transmitted the virus from generation to generation as a snippet of its own chromosome.8 Our body, too, has a knowledge base it gains from plug-ins to the microbial brain. At first, we used microbes accidentally. Bacteria in our intestines provided us with skills we didn't have. They manufactured pantothenic acid, a vitamin without which we would stop growing, develop skin sores, and end up prematurely gray. "Friendly bacteria" also fed our needs for folic acid and for Vitamin K.9Bacteria produced our body odors. This may sound pretty ghastly, but our aroma contains pheromones with which we communicate. The fragrance we give off has been shown to play a crucial part in our sex lives10and to bring the menstrual cycles of women who live together into synchrony.11
The 100,000,000,000,000 non-infectious bacteria which inhabited each of our bodies12helped protect us against those which would pounce and sicken us.13By struggling to maintain their turf, they made it difficult for disease-causers to gain a foothold deep inside our inner organs and our breathing passageways.14
Then we learned to use bacteria more deliberately. We employed lactic-acid-making bacteria to turn milk to yogurt and to cheese, acetic-acid-producing bacteria to turn wine to vinegar, and carbohydrate-fermenting bacteria to preserve our food through pickling.
But our information-mesh with other species went much further. We studied the hunting ways of the leopard, the jaguar, the eagle, wolf, and bear. We gave our clans their names, pretended they were our ancestors, imitated them in our rituals, wore their skins, and carefully, painfully, we learned their hunting skills, the silence of their stalk, their patience as they lay in wait, and the stratagems with which they tracked, confused, and trapped their prey. Eventually we built our ramparts, improved our tactics and our weaponry, and seized the hunting territories of our predatory teachers. We gave the land, recast and re-formed, to plants and animals which had networked into our communities - wild grasses turned to crops and goring bulls now turned to ox. The grasses which fattened under our tutelage to become wheat and corn and rice thrived by using us to clear their land, to water them, to convolute the plains to feed them rivers and to channel them vast lakes, to find new ways to give them nitrogen, to rearrange their genes, and to fight their killers off. We made religions and vast industries to minister to the super-grass's needs and service their fertility. Dogs, sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, and cats also snagged us with the lure of their docility. They prospered and together the net of they and we - the "master" humans and the animals and plants which exploited our powers and our brains - remade the world to fit our needs. Our partners thrived in multitudes, and so did we.
The wolf was the mother of all Rome. The eagle is still an emblem of the United States, Poland, Albania, and Germany. The lion stands for England. By emulating these lords of plains and skies our ancestors invented modes of conquest whose spoils they turned to empire - and to farmland - in later times. But our ancient opponents, the noble beasts of prey, had only the most rudimentary form of collective mind. Their societies, too crude and local went into retreat. Eagles and lions relied on an old form of adaptation - the natural selection which culls the individual. We had the swift flow of interlaced ideas - they the sluggish isolation of seldom-changing genes.
The Microbial Mesh - a Group Brain without Parallel in Creativity
When the current of human concepts became fast and planetary we were finally ready to take on our ultimate aide de camp and adversary - a worldwide-webbed intelligence which telegraphs its knowledge more instantaneously than do we, a group brain without parallel in creativity, the microbial mesh which links quadrillions of individuals into its processing machinery. In the 1900s, France's Louis Pasteur, England's Joseph Lister, and Germany's Robert Koch discovered that microbes were the source of much disease. What they failed to realize was the cleverness of the newfound enemy. Bacteria are quick to dodge the onslaughts of our drugs and immune systems. By lengthening or shortening bits of apparent junk DNA15, they re-tailor their membrane and their interior workings so they can shift appearance, roles, and tactics, evade our defenses, then a few generations down the line switch back again. Viruses hack into our genetic code to undo our immune system. They incorporate bits of DNA similar to the regulators16inside our immune cells, bits which allow them to bamboozle our internal defenders by giving them disinformation in our immune system's own vernacular. Others, like cytomegalovirus and Kaposi's sarcoma-associated herpesvirus, steal genes outright from their prey, then use them to churn out subversive proteins which twist the control knobs of their target's cell duplication, intercellular communication, and immune gadgetry.17The bacterium responsible for the sexual disease chlamydia has stolen 20 genes from higher organisms during its evolutionary history.18
Some bacteria work in multi-species teams, reading each others chemical whisperings. When P. aeruginosa colonize human lungs, they pave the way for the more fatal Burkholderia cepacia to move in and take over. Burkholderia wait until they detect the signals with which P. aeruginosa talk among themselves, then rush in to multiply.19Bacteria swap scraps of DNA with creatures from other microbial species or simply scarf up the DNA fragments from dead cells and try them out for efficacy20. Some of the tricks their new genetic combinations allow them to play include: producing enzymes which pick drugs apart21and sending up a flack of decoys which lure our drugs away.
In trying to defeat the microbial foe we have learned how to make its intelligence an extension of our own. Experiments with E. coli in 1958 helped uncover the double helix which makes DNA tick. By the 1970s, we'd further learned to harness our bacterial enemy. We hunted for new ways to study genes, and found we could use bacterial enzymes to snip them from their chromosomes. Then we tucked the gene that interested us into a living bacterium - E. coli, a microorganism we nourish in our intestines every day. Occasionally E. coli attack - churning out poisons which sicken us, invading the mucosal lining of the gut in which they normally reside in peace, or simply clinging to the intestinal wall in a manner which gives us diarrhea, weakness, cramps, or bloody stool. Tamed and confined in the lab, however, we turned E. coli into shoemaker's elves, diligently cranking out identical replicas of themselves...and of any gene we'd spliced into their chromosome. So productive were these bacterial laborers that a less than a quarter teaspoon22of the creatures could churn out ten billion copies of, say, an intriguing human gene between the time a researcher left her lab at night and her first sip of coffee in the morning23. Once we had gene copies to spare, we could go to work to see exactly what they do, or use them to catch a thief or find the father of a child or two. Scientists got credit for the resulting discoveries, but it was a bacterium doing the grunt work in our genetic laboratories.
Plasmids helped the process mightily. These are boarders in the bacterial cell, walled off with their own DNA, which itch to multiply from time to time. When two bacteria slide up against each other, a plasmid will build a pipe between the pair and move a part of itself through24, hauling precise forgeries of a few of the old host's genes as it goes. Then it will create a clone of itself and of its genetic contraband in the new home. We used plasmids to inject a gene into a cell like that of E. coli, thus turning it to a factory25. Or we used it to insert a gene into a human cell in gene therapy. Completing the new package we called biotechnology was PCR - the Polymerase Chain Reaction - which rapidly copied DNA fragments using an enzyme26we burglarized from the heat resistant bacterium Thermus aquaticus.
This paved the way for the drug industry in the 1990s to create new pharmaceuticals by harnessing bacteria, plasmids and their products as gene sequencers, splicers, and reshufflers, and even as assembly-line producers of complex proteins27. A thousand biotech firms were operating in the U.S. in 1996, and a feeding frenzy had developed among drug companies to either buy a biotech operation or partner with one or more. Molecular biology became heavily dependent on recombinant DNA technologies, many of which relied on bacteria to do their dirty work. We used bacterial enzymes to help monitor glucose levels in diabetics28. We employed bacteria to assemble new materials - like a substance which can be turned from a liquid to a gel and back on cue, useful properties for delivering medicines or live cells to target sites inside the body of a suffering human being29.
A bacterially-based Revolution in Genetic Engineering
We tapped bacteria's wisdom in many other ways. The bulk of the labor-force in our sewage treatment plants consisted of microbial teams grouped into tiny spheres30. On the outer husk were bacteria which ate the sewage and other unpleasantries. In the core were others which feasted on the poisons excreted by the waste-eaters31. As of 1997, most of the world's farmland was planted with crops in which microbes had been used to insert new genes. The result was larger harvests courtesy of fruits, vegetables and grains resistant to herbicides, insects, and disease. Meanwhile, food processors experimented with a chemical weapon bacteria manufacture to destroy their foes - bacteriocins. Our goal was to prevent food spoilage and food poisoning32.
During their existence on this earth bacteria have built a hefty database, and we've been plugging into it full-speed. Plans were afoot in 1998 to genetically engineer bacteria as pipe protectors, sending them deep into plumbing and air-conditioning systems to fend off corrosion. Ironically, these defenders would guard the pipe against the chief hasteners of its destruction--other bacteria which use metal as fast-food33.Biotechnologist Judy E. Brown discovered a bacteria at Yellowstone National Park which may, in the future, be employed to rid soil of contamination by aluminum34. The Department of Energy created an entire research arm - the Microbial Genome Program in Germantown, Maryland - to borrow secrets from and/or to harness bacteria35. One of its tasks was to sequence the genes of a remarkable bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans36which can withstand radiation levels that would kill any other life-form on this earth. The goal was to reengineer the bug so that vast armies of the creatures could be put to work cleaning up nuclear wastes37. Meanwhile, the effort to bacterially reengineer plants like potatoes and corn so they could be turned to biofactories, cranking out vaccines and other drugs, was sailing along. As we turned the corner on the year 2000, attempts to use bacterial tinkerers to convince these same plants to produce fabrics blending cotton with natural polyester or to mass produce plastics was foundering, but still hadn't given up the ghost38. Astonishingly, when many of these efforts began the bacterially-based revolution in genetic engineering which had spawned them was less than fifteen years old. With a few more lessons in multi-species cooperation, who knew what we humans might unfold?
Our bacterial knowledge helped us further network with the databanks of numerous other entities. We used the bacterial tricks of genetic engineering to rework cows and goats so they'd produce pharmaceuticals in their milk39. We did the same to retool lab animals so they'd spew out drugs in their urine40. Sheep were among the animals we employed to produce "recombinant protein therapeutics." One example was Alpha-1-antitrypsin, a cystic fibrosis treatment which was almost impossible to obtain by normal means. However a team at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, managed to insinuate the gene necessary to produce the stuff into the milk-making machinery of a sheep named Tracy in 1988. By 1998, she'd had 800 granddaughters, many of whom were pumping out the rare healing substance in their daily milk.
The udders of microbially reengineered goats poured forth antithrombin III, which prevents unwanted blood clots. (Retroviruses - our arch enemies when they cause AIDs - turned out to be among our best allies in reconfiguring goat genes so they'd pull off this feat.)41On the way was milk frothing with a vaccine for hepatitis B and with monoclonal antibodies, a hopeful candidate for cancer treatment. Science Magazine went so far as to predict that farmers might go from eking out pennies in old-style agriculture to making a handsome profit in the 21st century by turning their efforts to "pharming"42- raising pharmaceutical-producing herds and crops.
In the mid-1990s a Yale University developmental neurobiologist, Spyridon Artavanis-Tsakonas, managed to extract some key genes from the lowly fruit fly which proved remarkably similar to those of women and men. (Think about it--thanks to our common ancestry with all things low and high, you and I have genes like those of a humble fly.) These magic fruit fly genes were developmental programmers, fountain-of-youthers which could prod cells into acting with the growth power of embryonic tissue. More important, the insect genes showed promise of being able to regrow human body tissue which disease or accident had wiped out forever. The potential practical applications were mind-boggling: healing shattered bones, mending fractured spines, resurrecting missing muscle, seducing barren brain cells into once again emitting the critical neurotransmitters missing in Parkinson's patients, recreating the lost marrow of cancer sufferers during chemotherapy, stopping strokes dead in their tracks, and healing those with cancer of the skin. Other researchers ransacked the genetic wisdom of the mouse and rat, pilfering rodent genes which could potentially regenerate the lost nerves of those with Lou Gehrig's disease or replace the unusable blood vessels of those with damaged circulatory systems43.
In the 1980s, we were challenged to an intergroup tournament by HIV. "Know the enemy," said Sun-Tzu. We learned more about viruses in our war with AIDs than we'd ever known before. From 1981 when the disease was first identified to 1998, 150.992 studies on AIDS were published in peer-reviewed journals - each a contribution to our knowledge of biology. This involved new work in recombinant antigenic peptides44, new disease detection techniques45, innovative studies of viral structure46, new genetic approaches to the study of viral ancestry47, fresh insights into the operations of the immune system48, the development of bacterially-based recombinant-gene techniques to create varieties of vaccines a generation ahead of those in the past, and the creation of new drugs like nucleoside analogs (among them, AZT) and protease inhibitors. The research effort was so intense that by 1998, investigators David Baltimore and Carole Heilman declared, "Scientists know more about HIV--the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS--than any other virus."49John's Hopkins' University School of Medicine's John G. Bartlett and Richard D. Moore saw even broader implications: "The therapeutic advancement achieved [via the study of AIDs] since 1995 has few parallels in the history of medicine, save perhaps for the revolution sparked by the introduction of penicillin."50Conflict had been a data-connecter, forcing us to copy our enemy's database into our own.
Viruses are Worldwide Transportation Experts
The knowledge gained could prove vital for yet another face-off with the microbial army, one whose loss might devastate humanity. Back in 1918 and 1919, an influenza called the Spanish Flu wiped out 20 million people in a matter of months - more than all the victims of the recently concluded First World War51. The origins and treatment of this pandemic long remained a mystery. Then a worldwide scientific team was assembled after the Hong Kong Flu of 1968 to find out where influenza viruses hid between assaults on human beings. Robert Webster of the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital was among the members of this research team. Webster suspected that the viruses might be using birds as airborne storage and transport vehicles, so during the 1970s he studied the droppings of waterfowl flying through his backyard in Memphis on their way from Canada and discovered that the indelicate smears of waste harbored influenza A52- the shape-shifting viral type which had triggered the Spanish Flu. Webster networked with colleagues from Europe and Asia to check out his findings. For the next 20 years the team surveyed migratory wild birds in Germany53, Canada54and Alaska55and bird flu in the pigs of Italy56Their detective work revealed that influenza viruses are worldwide transportation experts.
Fifteen varieties of influenza subtype A travel thousands of miles in the guts of migratory birds without disabling these aerial carriers57The microbes take advantage of such commuters between continents and hemispheres as mallard ducks, Peking ducks, pintail ducks, and dabbling ducks, geese, swans58and gulls. The viruses which voyage in the intestines of wild fowl are also adept at moving from birds into horses, seals, and whales. In the marine mammals, they can continue their intercontinental voyages by sea59. When they land in a promising spot, they use their talent for mix and match, and easily infect monkeys - and hence, in all probability, human beings60.
Research indicated that influenza viruses had used three different species to concoct the biological mix which led to the Asian flu pandemic of 195761(killer of 70,000 Americans) and to the pandemic of Hong Kong Flu in 1968 (eradicator of another 36,000 Americans). Viruses soared from Arctic tundra down the Asian continent in the bellies of migrating birds. They disembarked from their flights in the farmyards of China, where they transferred to the innards of the homesteads' chickens. From there, it was a short hop to the farms' pigs, in which viruses able to infect humans had long before established residence.62When two viruses invade the same cell, they trade and shuffle genes, creating offspring so novel they can baffle the immune system of human beings63. The visiting avian viruses had apparently picked up secrets of camouflage and strategy from the human viruses homesteading in the pigs. Then the visitors had switched from pigs to people and had struck in their new garb and with their new weaponry64. When we Homo sapiens counterattacked using drugs and our immune systems, the clashes only spurred the microbes' creativity, impelling the viral raiders to take on forms even more clever and deadly than before65.
Thanks to this early research, when Hong Kong officials first spotted an unusual, poultry-killing virus in 1997 they realized how easily it might make the passage through the guts of other animals to the human race. So they called in Robert Webster and sent the bug for inspection to a U.S. lab. In May a three-year-old Hong Kong boy was hospitalized with a fever. Five days later he died of what appeared to be "influenza pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, Reye's syndrome, multiorgan failure, and disseminated intravascular coagulation."66The toddler's school class had been raising baby chicks. Hong Kong's medical authorities became alarmed and sent fluid from the dead boy's throat for inspection to a team of viral specialists at Erasmus University in Holland 67, who identified the culprit as H5N1, a type of virus which Robert Webster's work had led him to understand quite well68. Webster's lab confirmed the findings, and Webster says the villainous virus turned out to be "nearly identical...to the H5N1 virus that was isolated during a March 1997 outbreak of influenza that killed 70% of the chickens on three farms in Hong Kong."69But this wasn't just any old chicken flu. The virus had bypassed pigs and gone directly from Hong Kong's chickens to one of its citizens, thus arriving in a form for which neither the human body nor modern medicine had developed a defense. The modus operandi of this flu virus was so unfamiliar to the immune system that according to Webster, it could have wiped out "half the world's population"70- three billion victims, a figure decidedly immense.
The first of these viral direct-jumpers was stopped in its tracks when Hong Kong's government ordered all the poultry in the area killed. But the appearance of the Hong Kong bird flu posed a disturbing possibility. Said Webster, the next fatal worldwide influenza pandemic was now a "certainty."71
The global mesh of humans and that of microbes were in a deadly race - the sort of intergroup tournament which accelerates a complex adaptive system's pace. Webster and the Department of Virology and Molecular Biology he heads at St. Jude's went on the alert, working with the World Health Organization to study the 1997 Hong Kong bird flu in an attempt to blunt the force of the next worldwide microbial outbreak. By now, Webster was co-leader of an international task force which had set up a special lab at Hong Kong University "to elucidate the origins of and molecular changes associated with the transmission of this avian H5N1 virus to humans."72Like AIDs researchers, Webster and his colleagues used an interspecies team in their efforts to understand and stop the viral mechanisms which could cause the next great plague73. They employed bacterial products for gene sequencing74, plasmids and laboratory mice to test the promise of "DNA gene gun immunization,"75, the cells of chicks, guinea pigs, and of African green monkeys to culture vaccines76, a careful study of the flight paths of birds and the ways of pigs, and insights into viral structure learned from the battle with HIV.
Our interconnect with other species was matched by that with which we meshed with other humans to scan each continent. One hundred and ten surveillance centers worldwide collected influenza samples each year, sent them to a central location for analysis, the World Health Organization picked the three strains most likely to produce the next season's flu, and a vaccine was made up in time for the onset of winter77. Meanwhile, the U.S. government kept up a worldwide viral watch via the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Infectious Diseases78and the National Institutes for Health's Pandemic Advisory Committee. The World Health organization, headed by a Norwegian, maintained a Division of Emerging and Other Communicable Diseases Surveillance and Control to keep an eye peeled on every continent for outbreaks of new bacterial and viral illnesses79. When Hong Kong restructured its poultry market system - separating chickens from ducks and other birds for the first time - it was in part a result of recommendations based on what Webster had learned in Tennessee and published in a Viennese journal80. However another strong recommendation made by Webster and his colleagues called for even more "intensive global influenza surveillance." Our worldwide efforts could not afford to fall short of their goal, for if there were a 21st Century flu pandemic, Webster and his fellow experts shuddered at the probable death toll81.
Bacteria will be our Allies as well as our Foes
With human minds from China to Scandinavia interchanging their ideas on everything from simple alterations in farming practices to the structure of the AIDs virus and the intricacies of its reproductive tricks, we may finally be the first multicellular creatures who can take on the microbial global brain and win. The irony is that in the process, bacteria will be our allies as well as our foes. For the global brain is not just a human interconnect, it is a multi-species thing. And that, in fact, is what it's always been.
It is said that we have enraged nature by tearing at the pattern of her tracery, and for this transgression we shall be punished mightily. But we are nature incarnate. We are made up of her molecules and cells. We are tools of her probings and if, indeed, we suffer and we fail, from our lessons she will learn which way in the future not to turn. For all that lives and all that ever has is part of a collective brain, a neural net of the most sprawling kind...an evolution-driven, worldwide, multi-billion-year-old interspecies mind. (Howard Bloom)