Friday, November 13, 2020

Sex Among Holobionts: Love is a Horizontal Thing


  Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is reported to have said, "Only love interests me, and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love."  His paintings have a certain "holobiontic" quality. This one, "Les Amoureux de Vence" was painted in 1957,


What do holobionts, empathy, and harmony have in common with sex? One thing: they are all forms of horizontal transmission of information. We tend to see ourselves as multicellular organisms and, for us, sex is indeed a "horizontal" thing, in a certain sense. 

But, sex was not invented by multicellular thing. On this planet, sex is mostly something that bacteria engage in, freely exchanging genetic materials among themselves. It is free love that goes on all the time among single-celled creatures. And it is the way they evolve. It is by exchanging genetic materials that bacteria have become more and more capable to resist to the human attacks against them by means of antibiotics.

And even viruses, which can't reproduce by themselves, have sex with each other. It is just that they can only do that when two different viruses find themselves in the same host cell. That can become even a little weird when the two viruses come from different previous hosts, say a pangolin and a human being. In any case, viruses evolve very fast, that's why almost every year a new wave of influenza spreads over the world. 

For larger holobionts, such as human beings, the situation is different when you consider the reproductive mechanism of the main organism, the human one. Two human organisms exchange genetic information, but then this information must be "read" in a complex process that involves the birth of a new human being (and, unfortunately, the death of the old one). It is slow: in terms of evolutionary prowess, viruses and bacteria run circles around us. Fortunately, our immune system can also change fast enough to match the new threats and we are also defended by the "good" biome that form the human holobiont, the bacterial and viral symbionts we carry with us. And we are part of the larger holobiont we call the ecosystem.

Holobionts are a fractal system: the true embodiment of the poem of Jonathan Swift

The Vermin only teaze and pinch
Their Foes superior by an Inch.
So, Nat'ralists observe, a Flea
Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller yet to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum:

And so it goes.

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Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)