The Absence of Rules

Camus said “there are no rules.” Amorality, or the lack of any moral code, is thought to be growing globally. People prone to amorality include Vladimir Putin, dictators, politicians and political advisors, rapacious business chieftains and bank robbers.  Yet most members of these groups clearly recognize there is a moral code.

That’s not true for most of life. Most of the creatures on this planet don’t care whether people live or die, do right or wrong. They don’t care, period.

Forget human hubris for a moment. Arguably the most effective, durable, ubiquitous and competitive life form on the planet is – bacteria. There are far more of them than there are us.

It’s hard to measure just how many bacteria there really are. Perhaps there are 40 million in a gram of soil. But how far down do they go? Some suspect that 80% or more of global bacteria live beneath the surface of the earth – penetrating miles beneath, with a biological mass larger than all plant and animal life combined.A few bacteria live in stasis for tens of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of years within glops of underground Antarctic ice. Others fly through the air, helping to form clouds; subsist in the deepest oceans; wander the welter of above-and-below surface plant life.  Estimates range to higher than 10 to the 31st bacteria on Earth. Humans – we’re just 7 X 10 to the 9th.

With so many bacteria around, it’s no surprise so many live inside you.

Friend, Foe, Frenemy, or Neither?

These days, bacteria are getting a lot more respect. Someone even won a Nobel prize for noting how just one group of them, helicobacter pylori, could live in the stomach. Marty Blaser of NYU has argued that bacterial maltreatment has provoked the rise of diabetes, asthma and many diseases of civilization. Carl Zimmer of the New York Times has suggested what this author and many others have argued for years – that bacteria help set your appetite and tell you ( nor verbally, of course – that’s your parents’ and doctors’ role) what you like to eat. Probiotic manufacturers list on the stock market, trying to convince people that their bacteria are better for you than the next guy’s.

In this environment, what’s a poor gut bacterium to do? Befriend humanity – helping us deal with depression, preventing asthma, decreasing the risk of autoimmune diseases – or destroy us, like clostridium difficile does so frequently in hospital wards or necrotizing staphylococcus on battlefields?

Neither question is correct. 

The Ultimate Gangland

Just take a peek into the human gut.

There are 100 trillion (100 X 10 to the 9th) bacteria down there. That’s ten times as many as your human cells.

But those bacteria are not so concerned with humanity – beyond the food, chemicals, and antibacterials we shove into our GI tract. First, all those bacteria need to survive each other.

It’s hard to know how many “large groups” there are down there. Estimates are at least five to ten thousand “large populations” somehow survive  – perhaps many, many more. And they are all fighting with each other.

That conflict is for survival and dominance.

Though they may operate in groups in the hundreds of billions, bacteria have innumerable foes who desire their turf. Warfare co-exists with cooperation, often simultaneously.  Sometimes one group is an ally, sometimes a foe, but often it is just plain foe. Bacteria who live in anaerobic (non-oxygen) conditions will be pitiless with any oxygen loving bacteria that arrives nearby. Chicago in the 1920s is no competition. Your gut is often a Hobbesian war of all against all.

It is fought on a scale and speed humans can hardly appreciate. Bacteria can replicate from singlets to the billions in days – or less time. An invader never before seen may appear in your territory and prove able to outrun you, outproduce you, outweaponize you. Evolutionary flexibility is key. Beset by thousands of groups interested in your destruction, you must create with new defenses and alliances or risk total annihilation.

And every other population is doing the same thing.

Then, sometimes, some particular subspecies becomes dominant. It breaks out of its territory and goes on a warpath of conquest. Occasionally it is so capable, it overwhelms all defenses of the host, killing it.

Humans can’t understand why bacteria would destroy their host. Kill us, and who’s left?

Another 7 billion humans, that’s who. Not to mention all the other animals that might enjoy playing host to a more successful, martial bacterial strain. Evolution usually does not care a lot about individuals.

We are expendable. Species matter far more.

In past centuries humans often were annihilated by bacterial epidemics. These days, with improved sanitation and nutrition and vaccination, we last longer.

A truce of sorts seems to hold. This of course, is an illusion.

Benefits and Injuries

Perhaps half of human DNA looks very, very similar to that of bacteria and viruses. We have lived together a long time.

Domination may be desirable, but survival is safer.

Humanity is presently – in our own terms at least – the “dominant” species on the planet. But the travails of bacteria show us what happens when any species becomes too dominant.

The other species get rid of it – if the environment does not first.

Not that extinction is necessary. Chance still controls the world. Some day machine intelligences may evolve that have no interest in sharing this planet – or any other – with complex, energy hungry biological life forms.

But the complex relationship of humanity and bacteria has much to teach us, including: 1. That we cannot see the world merely from our own perch. 2. That evolution can and will throw up innumerable species and strategies to survive. 3. That biological life is a regenerative information system that wants to keep on living.

And the information provided by bacteria as they ceaselessly evolve can tell us a lot about us – where we come from and how we survive.

In time, understanding the interactions of biological and human worlds may give us keys to understanding many human diseases – particularly immune ones, like Crohn’s or cancer – and ways to prevent them.

In the meantime we cannot consider bacteria as friend or foe. They are amoral actors on the same stage we inhabit. Their “desires” are not human or even vaguely like our own.

But we need them. And sometimes they need us.

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