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The Full Spectrum of Obligate Parasitism

August 22, 2010 3 comments

Biological systems are a good proxy for understanding social systems as they have a similar level of complexity, feedback and plasticity combined with the ability to evolve.

In a previous post, I had made two statements.

1] All producers are obligate parasites.

2] Not all obligate parasites are harmful, and some can be incredibly beneficial.

So let me explain both points with well documented examples from biology. It is first necessary to understand the difference between symbiosis and obligate parasitism, as beneficial forms of the second can often masquerade as symbiosis.

True symbiosis involves two organisms or species that can survive on their own but often work together. A good example is Rhizobia and Legumes, where both can survive without each other but benefit immensely from their partnership.

Balanced trade between two countries, or functional business partnerships are social homologs of true symbiosis.

Now compare this interaction with mitochondria and chloroplasts which are present in eukaryotic cells. There is a very large body of evidence to suggest that both were once free-living Eubacteria that established symbiotic relationship with proto-eukaryotes (about 1-1.5 billion years? ago). However mitochondria and chloroplasts can no longer exist on their own.

Some of you may point out that without them animals and plants would also be crippled, but as the architect of the matrix reminds neo- “there are levels of survival we are prepared to accept”. In any case Archaea who are pre proto-eukaryotes have been kicking around since life began on earth. Archea and Eubacteria are sufficiently different, in biochemical and functional organisation, that it is possible for cellular life on earth to have evolved more than once.

I would consider this to be a good homologue for the development of agriculture and the first manual jobs. Note the word “jobs”, not work. Humans can exist without both though at much lower levels of complexity.

Now let us consider the case of retroviruses that have successfully integrated into the genome of animals- aka endogenous retroviruses. While most of you immediately think of HIV when retroviruses are mentioned, it is worth noting that the vast majority of retroviruses are either already integrated in the genome or are almost harmless. Infact, normal pregnancy in placental mammals requires controlled reactivation of some endogenous retroviruses that cause partial immunosuppression of the mothers immune system allowing her to carry the immunologically distinct fetuses to term.

A good social homologue of this is using customs, laws and regulations instead of de novo case-by-case decisions. While they can become immensely destructive and corrosive if they run wild without frequent calibration and change, under the right circumstances they can make social and economic interactions far more productive.

“Endosymbionts” in Paramecium and insects can under the right conditions enhance the survival of its carriers to the exclusion of those who do not.

This is analogous to using people with homicidal tendencies to fight wars for your group against other groups.

Then there are parasites that are common but harmless under most conditions. Viruses such as those that cause Herpes Simplex, Warts, CMV, Mononucleosis are common, chronic but rarely kill people.

Most bureaucrats are a good social analogue to such critters. They are widespread, undesirable but not particularly malicious- most of the time.

Parasites like HIV (virus) and various cancers (neoplasms) on the other hand cripple and ultimately kill the host for their own benefit. Some can jump from the dying host to a healthy host, others cannot.

Corporate lawyers, MBAs and other assorted ivy-league shysters are similar to parasites like HIV, in that they divert resources, multiply and cripple their host (company/ organisation)- ultimately kill it while trying to jump to a new uninfected host. The hereditary rich, monopolists and other rent-seekers are a lot like various cancers in that they metastasize throughout the host starving and displacing the functioning cells- and replacing healthy functional tissue with cancerous tissue.

All of the above examples (except the first) are obligate parasites. Some are beneficial to the host, some are neutral while others are lethal to their host.

What do you think? Comments?

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