Friday, June 11, 2021

The Word for "Forest" is "Holobiont:" Reviewing a few Books on the Subject


The idea of "holobionts" is making inroads just about everywhere, although sometimes people describe the concept without using the term. But we are learning from what we see around us, and the best example from which to learn about holobionts is the forest. 

Just like no man is an island, a single tree doesn't make a holobiont. Not even several trees planted together make a good holobiont. They are a plantation, a completely different thing. And the naive faith that planting trees will solve all our climate problems is just that: a naive idea that plays straight into the hands of the logging companies which get to be paid twice: once for planting trees (to save the environment) and once for cutting the trees (selling the wood on the market). 

A true holobiont is not a single tree, not many trees stuck together in nice rows. It is a forest. And a forest needs to be born, to live, to grow, to mature, and to become a full-fledged holobiont. A living being. A creature of the planetary ecosystem that lives with it and gives life to much more than itself. Forests are part of the "biotic regulation" of the whole system, which includes controlling climate and managing the atmospheric rivers by means of the biotic pump mechanism. We cut forests at our own risk. Forests may not survive humans, but humans will surely not survive without forests. 

So, a quick review of 4 books about the forest as a holobiont, none of them mentions the term, but all of them are infused with it. 

The Hidden Life of Trees. Peter Wohlleben.(2016). A popular science book that had a remarkable success. It deserves it. It is timely, well done, and overall understandable, although at times a little too long. Wohlleben cites the biotic pump and one of its discoverers, Anastassia Makarieva, although, curiously, he doesn't use the term, always saying "water pump." But it is a fine book, by all means recommended. 

Finding the Mother Tree, Suzanne Simard, (2021). I had big expectations for this book, but I must say I was disappointed. There is nothing wrong with enlivening a text with personal stories about the author but, if one exaggerates, the book is no more a scientific text, but an autobiography of the author. This book should have been titled "An Autobiography of Suzanne Simard." Some people like biographies, personally I found this one completely flat. The stories about discovering the way trees communicate with each other are interspersed in a mass of uninteresting details about Simard's personal life told in a style that reminds that of a second-rate novel. Too bad, because Simard surely has interesting things to say. But, here, the idea just didn't work. 

The word for world is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1972). Not the best novel by Ursula Le Guin, it has an ideological overtone that harms the story, but it is still a gem -- as just about everything that Le Guin wrote. The Forest in the book is a metaphor for human consciousness: truly an anticipation of the concept of holobiont that came much later, but that Le Guin clearly had in mind. This novel also was at the basis of the later movie "Avatar" which also used some concepts by Suzanne Simard in describing inter-tree communication in forests.

Il Segreto del Bosco Vecchio, (The Secret of the Old Woods). By Dino Buzzati (1935). This is not a science book, it is a novel. But if you want to read about a true holobiont, do read it. The story of someone who inherits a wood and plans to cut it to make some money. Then, he discovers that the forest is inhabited by invisible spirits. In my modest opinion, it is one of the best novels ever written in the world. Too bad it doesn't seem to have been ever translated into English. A splendid movie was made out of it but, again, only in Italian.


And if you have some time, take a walk in the woods and discover the great holobiont yourself! Humans can be friends with trees even in difficult conditions. Here is a photo taken in Florence a few months ago, this lady made a little garden for herself and for everybody out of a small patch around a tree growing in front of her house, near a busy avenue. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Descent of Man: How Collaboration Made us What we are




150 years ago, Darwin published "The Descent of Man" -- another great intuition by one of the greatest scientists in history. Today, we understand how humans are what they are because they collaborate with each other -- something that we tend to forget in our current views that emphasize cutthroat competition. Here is how Richerson, Gavrilets, and De Waal comment on this point in their recent article on "Science"

"What makes us different is that our ancestors evolved greatly enhanced abilities for (and reliance on) cooperation, social learning, and cumulative culture—traits emphasized already by Darwin. Cooperation allowed for environmental risk buffering, cost reduction, and the access to new resources and benefits through the “economy of scale.” Learning and cumulative culture allowed for the accumulation and rapid spread of beneficial innovations between individuals and groups. The enhanced abilities to learn from and cooperate with others became a universal tool, removing the need to evolve specific biological organs for specific environmental challenges. These human traits likely evolved as a response to increasing high-frequency climate changes on the millennial and submillennial scales during the Pleistocene. Once the abilities for cumulative culture and extended cooperation were in place, a suite of subsequent evolutionary changes became possible and likely unavoidable."

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Secret of Holobionts: How Excessive Efficiency can Kill


Five minutes are enough to take a look at this amazing video. It is extremely well done and it tells you about things that you would never have suspected. How can it be that trees exist? Well, it turns out that their metabolism is truly alien and it exploits physical phenomena that you wouldn't have imagined could be used in that way. But Mother Gaia has many tricks!

One point that has fascinated me most is how this behavior of threes highlights a fundamental characteristic of holobionts: the individual organisms that form the holobiont do not act with a purpose, they do not have "in mind" to benefit the group. But, if it is true that what's good for the hive is good for the bee, also the reverse is often true. And especially in this case. 

Trees pump water by evaporating water, which means they lose most of it. From the video, you'll learn that just about 5% of the pumped water is used by the tree for its needs. The rest evaporates away -- it is the process of evapotranspiration. 

So, trees are highly inefficient pumping machines. But, curiously, this inefficiency is what benefits the forest. This huge evaporation is what puts in motion another pump: the biotic pump. It is a mechanism that generates a depression that, in turn, pulls water from the humid atmosphere near the sea all the way to the inner areas of the forest. Without this mechanism, forests could hardly exist inland. 

If trees were 100% efficient, they would evaporate nothing and the forest would die. I think there is a deep message here, not valid just for forests: too high efficiency can kill. Living is sharing, and if there is no sharing there is no life.




Sunday, April 18, 2021

How I cured my Stiff Neck: Holobionts and Health.


This is a reflection on epistemology in medicine. It deals with my personal case of a bad stiff neck that lasted for more than a year, until I found the trick to make it go away. Please understand that I am no doctor and I don't claim to be able to cure anyone. I am just pointing out that you should always remember that you are a holobiont. So, if you treat your biome well, your biome will treat you well.


About two years ago, I developed a bad case of stiff neck. Sometimes it meant so much pain that I had to stop whatever I was doing and clench my teeth to avoid screaming. And sometimes I really screamed aloud. Then, I had to trust God every time I crossed a street because I couldn't turn my head to see if a car was running in my direction. 

There are various medicines you can take to ease the pain of a stiff neck and I tried several of them. Aspirin, NSAIDs, creams, exercises, acupuncture, massages. But, apparently, my case was bad enough to be resistant to pills, creams, and manipulations. What the hell was happening to me?

I tried to reason it over and I thought I had found an explanation. More or less in coincidence with the start of my neck pain, I had relocated to a new home. It was partly underground, and the humidity inside was much higher than in my old home. On the right, you see one of the windows of my new home. No, not the big one. Look at where my wife, Grazia, is pointing. Yes, that one! The hygrometer in the new home consistently marked over 70% humidity, whereas in the old home the needle would normally stay between 40% and 50%.

I know that correlation doesn't mean causation, but the logical inference was that humidity was the reason for my stiff neck. I found that it is commonly written on the Web that indoor humidity should be between 40% and 60% for optimal comfort, and that seemed to confirm my suspicion: my home was too humid. Even my hygrometer said that there was something wrong when the needle went over 70%. It was made in Germany, and their boffins are said to know what they say. Humidity could have been the reason of my stiff neck. 

So, I bought a professional dehumidifier, It made a lot of noise and it considerably raised my electricity bill, but it did lower the humidity level at home. Not so much, but it could bring it below 70%. But the effect on my neck was nil. During that period, I also happened to visit Iran for a couple of weeks. Tehran is a very dry city, I had brought my hygrometer with me: humidity was around 20%. I thought that it would have some good effect on my stiff neck, but I noted no improvement at all. 

In the meantime, I searched the literature to try to understand why the "perfect" humidity is situated exactly in the middle of the scale. I found very little. Plenty of people say that if humidity goes above 80%, it is bad for your health. And they say that, above that level, you should see green mold appearing on the walls of your home. I saw that happening at home, but did it have anything to do with my stiff neck? I couldn't find a serious study on the effect of high humidity on human health and, in particular, on neck pain.

About one year and a half of pain had gone by when I had one of those serendipitous moments that change your life. Wait one moment..... something HAD changed about two years before: I had bought a new pair of glasses with bifocal lenses. As soon as I started thinking about that, I also noted that in moving to the new apartment I had set up my desk on a table that was a little higher than the one I was using before. And I noted that in order to focus my eyes on the screen, I had to strain my neck backward.

This noted, this done. I got rid of my glasses, discovering that I didn't really need them to read text on screen. And the improvement was rapid: I felt better after just a few days. Completely getting rid of the stiffness took at least 4-5 months, but I can report to you that now it is gone. Zero pain, it is wonderful! I can turn my neck as much as I like and I can cross the street in safety. 

So, what did I learn from this experience? That medicine is a complicated matter. I am trained as a scientist and I am a firm believer in the experimental method. But that's very difficult to apply to medicine. In my case, I found a trick that cured my neck, but does it have a general validity? Does it prove that humidity doesn't cause health damage? Does it prove that my stiff neck was caused by my new glasses? Would that apply to other people? How could I tell?

It is the general problem of "evidence based medicine." The golden standard in medicine is the "randomized controlled trial." That means a complex series of procedures to evaluate a significant number of patients while trying to control all the multiple parameters that might affect their health. 

Seen in this light, my experience with neck pain doesn't count anything. How can I prove that my neck improved because I stopped wearing my glasses? How can I exclude other factors, maybe a special astral conjunction? Or something else? 

The interesting point of this story is that it would be practically impossible to carry out a randomized controlled trial on whether excessive humidity causes a stiff neck. Think about that: how do you find a standardized set of patients? How do you standardize the humidity conditions? How do you define the intensity of one's stiff neck? In addition, who would pay for such a study? Since it doesn't involve pills, no pharmaceutical company would sponsor it. 

The result is that everybody says that medicine is a science, but it is a peculiar kind of science where the "scientific method" is often applied in a creative way (to say the least). That was seen very well with the recent Covid epidemics, where most of the actions that governments took were not based on hard data, but on haphazard evaluations taken on the spur of the moment. Just as an example, we saw everyone suddenly disinfecting everything, everywhere, all the time. Do we have proof that all that has any effect on the spread of the Covid epidemic? No, as you can read on "Nature" -- not normally so unreliable as a source.

Does that mean that randomized control studies are a bad idea? Not at all, and I invite you to follow the blog by Dr. Sebastian Rushworth, a true gold mine of ideas, suggestions, and data, all useful for your health. He is specialized in evaluating randomized control studies and he is very good at translating the dry and incomprehensible language of scientific papers into something that normal people can understand. 

It is, just, that medicine is a world that deals specifically with the most complex system we know: the human body. And complex systems, it is known, can't normally be described in terms of "causes" and "effects." No, complex systems only know forcings and feedbacks. And a small forcing applied on a complex system can generate a chain of feedbacks that sends the system to a completely different state. Just like when a pair of new glasses pushed me from a state of "healthy neck" to a state of "stiff neck."

In the end, I think that always asking for proof in medicine is a double-edged weapon. It may help in many cases, but in others it may lead you completely astray. If you ask me (and let me repeat, I am not a doctor) I would say, "try what looks reasonable and keep what works." And always remember that you are a holobiont. Treat your biome gently (don't try to kill it using disinfectants) and your biome will treat you gently. And onward we go, fellow holobionts!

(on a line completely opposite to that of trusting randomized control studies, you may be interested in the work of Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, who wrote the book “Gut and Psychology Syndrome." She never mentions the concept of holobiont in her book or in her talks, but her whole approach is very, very holobiontic!)

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Vaccine of Ancient Times: Sharing Water

 The "Old Normal" was an age that spanned from the end of the last Ice Age to the start of the Covid Age. One of the weird things that the people used to do during those remote times was to collectively dip their fingers into a horrible soup of bacteria and viruses called "holy water." Then, they engaged in a ritual gesture that involved touching one's own face with their fingers still wet with that water. How could they survive that remains a mystery. (image source)


Last week, I stopped to visit a church in my neighborhood. An eerie silence reigned among the benches where no one seemed to have been sitting for ages. The holy water bowls at the entrance of the deserted church were completely dry -- not even a trace of humidity! They had been replaced by disinfecting gel bottles. You see both the empty bowl and the gel bottle in the picture. Maybe the priest had blessed the gel?

The elimination of the holy water dispenser would seem to be an obvious thing to do. Think of the unhygienic condition of the water: with people dipping their fingers into it, it must have rapidly become a cocktail of viruses and bacteria, maybe holy, but surely unhealthy

But, amazingly, these "stoups" of holy water are a very ancient tradition. They go back to the very origins of Christianity. Were our ancestors so stupid to pass germs to each other in this way?

It is a diffuse hobby to think that our ancestors were ignorant and superstitious. But if they had been really so ignorant and superstitious, we wouldn't be here. If the holy water rituals were killing people, that would have been noted and people would have stopped using them

But all the variants of Christian religiosity include this kind of ablution rituals. Islam does, too, although in different forms. And many other religions include communal ablutions. These rituals go very deep into the very essence of religion. Whether it is water, wine, or bread, it doesn't matter: it is the sharing that counts. And if those habits were supposed to be purification rituals, they had to purify something.

There is a good reason why purification rituals were good for the health of the faithful. They were early forms of vaccination. 

Think about that: the idea of a vaccine is to put a person in contact with some forms of pathogens in order to stimulate one's natural resistance. An early form of vaccination was called "variolation" (from the Latin term "variola," "smallpox"). It goes back to several centuries ago and it consisted of actually infecting people with smallpox. The idea was to have them develop a mild infection that would then protect them from more dangerous forms. Later, variolation was replaced with vaccination using a live form of the smallpox virus, taken from cows. And, of course, our modern vaccines are small miracles of molecular biology, but they do basically the same thing. They put our bodies in direct contact with some forms of the pathogen we want to fight.

You see that our ancestors were doing the same with their ablution rituals. Of course, they knew nothing about bacteria and viruses but, again, they were not stupid. They tried many things and they kept what worked. The idea of communal ablutions was to put everyone in contact with the skin biome of the whole community, sharing the "good" germs and stimulating an immune reaction that would protect the person from worse infections. That was done also outside religious practices -- in Buddhist countries, for instance, there is no equivalent of the holy water basin of the West, but they do have a tradition of communal bathing.

These old traditions could also go beyond ablution. Look at the picture: it is the "Madonna del Parto" in the Church of St. Augustine in Rome. If you go there, you are supposed to kiss the foot of the statue for good luck. Imagine many people kissing it, one after the other. Can you imagine a better way to transfer bacteria and viruses to one another? Actually, the foot is in silver, known to have some bactericidal properties. The idea may have been that, yes, it is good to share germs in this way, but let's not exaggerate. But, surely, if you didn't want bacteria to spread, you'd better avoid that people would kiss the Madonna's foot, rather than making it in silver! They wanted some germs to be transferred!

So, the ancients had empirically understood the concept that today we call "holobiont."  Our bodies are not single organisms, we are colonies of microscopic creatures: our microbiome. These creatures are part of us and, among the many good things they do for us, one is to protect us from the external microbes that tend to invade our bodies. The microbes living on our skin are the first line of defense we have, but we are protected by multiple defensive layers. The active immune system, the "adaptive" one, is the final layer. It enters into action only after that the other lines have been breached. Your microbiome makes sure that it rarely happens. It is part of the good thing that is being a holobiont!

But there is more than sharing water in being holobionts. It is a deep and significant way to show that we belong to a community, which we can see as a higher-order holobiont. The basic idea of religion, any religion, is sharing. Sharing is the essence of the great planetary holobiont we call sometimes Gaia, from which we came and to which we return. Without sharing, there is no God/Goddess, no community, no life. 

Something of this attitude has filtered through the rather anodyne ritual of modern vaccination, with many people reporting a feeling of spiritual completeness after receiving their vaccine against the Covid pandemic. They felt they had done their duty in protecting not just themselves, but the whole community and they were proud of having shared the burden with everyone else. Which is the way any good holobiont should feel! 

Of course, this kind of feeling depends on trusting that you are doing the right thing. One thing is dipping one's finger in a bowl of holy water: you trust your local community. Another is to have synthetic RNA being delivered inside one's cells to operate the molecular mechanisms of protein creation: you trust science.  

Is science an entity worth our trust? Trust is not bestowed by definition, it must be earned. And we must say that the composite entity we call "science" has not been always up to the standards that would make it deserve everyone's trust. Especially in recent times, scientists have shown attitudes involving petty squabbles, greed, ignorance, subservience to power, arrogance, political partisanship, and more. That explains the diffuse resistance against the modern forms of vaccination, perceived as a violation of one's body. Scientists must do much better than they are doing now if they want to maintain the trust that the community still places on them.

In the end, we keep making the same mistake we have been doing for quite some time: contrasting religion with science, as if the former were superstition and the latter the truth. It is not like that. They are different forms of understanding ourselves and the world (and, eventually, understanding is sharing). 

Even in health care, we are creating a schizophrenic situation by creating an artificial contrast that doesn't need to exist. Are we sure that we did well in abolishing the basins of holy water? They were ways to "prime" our skin microbiome against infection. With our emphasis on molecular vaccines, we forgot that the human defense system is multilayered. And if this first line of defense works, we are not necessarily forced to recur to more invasive ones.

Worse, we are forgetting that being human means sharing with others. Saint Francis would kiss lepers when he met them. We don't need to go to such extremes, but we still need to remember that we are human. Masked, disinfected, and isolated, as we all are nowadays, we are declaring that we are not willing to share anything with anyone. Are we still human? And, if we are, why we treat each other as if we weren't?

Monday, March 22, 2021

On the Role of Viruses in the Human Holobiont


This text is from Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride's book “Gut and Psychology Syndrome" I understand that it is not just heretic, but completely incomprehensible in the current debate. But is it possible that viruses are not our enemies but our friends? At least, to be carefully considered.



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)