Goodreads is honoured that Greg Bear has given permission to allow this excerpt from his engaging novel, Slant, published in 1997. (He has a new one coming out June 1st, and I feel I should give it a plug. Check out his website -link below - for more details).
Originally published in Slant, pages 138-146
(Tor Books, 1997, ISBN 0812524829)
Available for purchase here
and presented courtesy of Goodreads.ca
with permission from the author.
Bacteria as Multicellular Organisms
by James A. Shapiro (Editor), Martin Dworkin (Editor)
Talking Bacteria, the Work of Bonnie Bassler
by Marguerite Holloway (goodreads selection 04w3:2)
Tonight I hope to pull aside some curtains and dispel a few misconceptions that haunt our culture, our philosophy, our politics. I'll have the help of some...what used to be called media. Everything is media nowadays, so that word is out of use, like saying 'heat' at the heart of the sun. Because of your charter, I've been challenged to avoid the more sophisticated effects I've been known to use to get my points across.
We'll begin with words, words only. Imagine you're in a library walking through stacks of books. Let's say you're in the Library of Congress, walking in a pressure suit through the helium-filled chambers, between miles of shelves, just staring at the millions upon billions of publications, periodicals, books, cubes...every single one of those books begins, of course, with an act of sex. Are you offended by the old sexual words? Then use the euphemisms. Men and women, getting together - and exchanging ideas.
Sex is often confused with reproduction. But bacteria engage in sex for the sheer desperate necessary joy of it - sex is their visit to the community library, the communal cookbook. They wriggle themselves through seas of recipes, little circular bits of DNA called plasmids. When they absorb a plasmid they don't necessarily reproduce, buy they still swap genetic material, and that's what bacteriologists call sex. Unlike us, however, bacterial sex - this kind of swap - can even occur between totally different kinds, what we once regarded as different species. But there are no true species in bacteria. We know now that bacteria are not grouped into species, as such, but evanescent communities we call microgens or even, more currently, ecobacters.
The plasmids contain helpful hints on how to survive, how to make this or that new defense against an antibiotic, how to rise up as a community against tailored phages flooding in to eradicate.
In the very beginning, for bacteria, this was sex. This was how sex began, as a visit to the great extended library. I call this data sex. No bacterium can exist for long without touching base with its colleagues, its peers. So how do we differ from bacteria?
Not much. You come to this group, you exchange greetings, arrange meetings, sometimes you exchange recipes. Sometimes we - and here I don't mean the members of this club, necessarily - get together, conjugate, to exchange genetic material, either in a pleasant social jest or joust with biology, or sometimes in earnest, because it's really time to reproduce.
Since the days of the bacteria, there are few higher organisms who reproduce without conjugal sex. This may be because we are fewer than the bacteria, who can afford to make many millions of mistakes, and consequently we are especially protective about the kinds of information that enter our bodies. We have to check out our potential partners, see if we really want to refer to their genetic library in creating our offspring - judging them by their appearance an actions, and initiating in evolution the entire peacock panoply of ritual and display.
In the Library of Congress, every single book, every item, began with an act of reproductive sex, allowing the author to get born and eventually to write a book. That book now acts as a kind of plasmid, reaching into your mind to alter your memory, which is the con-template -- my word: the template, through cognition , of behavior. The medium of course is language. Sex is language, and language is sex, whatever form it takes. Changes in anatomy and behavior are the ultimate results -and sometimes, coincidentally, reproduction.
So let's begin where sex began, with the bacteria. How do bacteria remember? Their behavior is fairly basic, individually.
Bacteria have no home, no rest, and their individual existence is fleeting. But they invest in a kind of communal memory - not just the genetic pool of a species, but their overall acquired knowledge of the community. Not unlike our human communities. The result is rapid adaptation throughout the community to threats - and magnanimously, as if bacteria recognize the importance of the overall ecosystem - the clues and recipes spread to other types and other microgens.
Only in the past half century  have we studied these microgens, and determined all the ways they share experience. They are not that different from humans, at least ad far as the mathematics of networking is concerned. From the very bottom, to the very top, webbing or networking - autopoiesis - the behavior of self-organizing systems - shares many common characteristics. So -
What makes us so special? Like the bacteria, as social animals, we engage in communal sharing of information. We call it education, and the result is culture. The shape of our society relies on spoken and written language, the language of signs, the next level of language above the molecular. Some insert another level between these two, that of instinctual behavior, but I believe that's really just another kind of language of signs.
Culture from very early times was as much a factor in human survival as biology, and today, culture has subsumed biology. The language of signs inherent in science and mathematics has co-opted the power of molecular language. We begin with molecules and molecular instructions, but now the instructions feed back upon themselves, and we govern the molecules.
In nature, we're the first to do that - since the bacteria! For centuries, in trying to understand our own nature and behavior, we made basic categorical errors. We persistently tried to separate certain characteristics and study them in isolation, or to rank our characteristics in terms of fundamental importance. Nature or nurture - which is fundamental? Chicken or egg. Which came first? Throw out the question and the wrong-headed philosophy behind it, and start again.
Today, in mass education and LitVid - and especially in that cultural stew called the Yox - these wrong-headed assumptions still flourish, proving that human knowledge - lie human DNA - can be filled with useless, outmoded garbage. We don't prune efficiently at either level, because we can never be quite sure when we might need that so-called useless data, that useless guideline, that outmoded way of thinking. In other words, neither our brains nor our genes know the overall truth. We are always in the middle of an experiment whose limits we do not understand, and whose end results are completely unknown. We carry our errors around with us as a kind of safety net, even though they slow us down.
Now, let's leap to a larger view. We'll dispose of another error. Can we separate human activity, cultural or biological, from bacterial action? Are we a higher order phenomenon?
Evolution is a kind of thought, a making of hypotheses to solve the problems posed by a changing environment. Bacteria operate as an immense community, not so much evolving as exchanging recipes, both competing and cooperating. We are comprised of alliances of cells that are made up of old alliances between different sorts of bacteria. We are, in effect, colonies of colonies of bacteria that have learned many new tricks, including slavish cooperation. Does the brick house think itself superior to the grain of sand? Or the mountain to the pebble?
We are now taking complete charge of those processes once the domain of the bacteria, on a technological level. In a sense, nanotechnology is the theft of ideas from the molecular realm, the cellular and bacterial domain, to power our new cultural imperatives. Earth has become a gigantic, complex, not yet unified but promisingly fertile single cell.
And now - we're back to sex again - it's time to move outward and reproduce.
Unfortunately, in the ocean of empty space, we have yet to receive packets of data from other planetary cells. We are like a single bacterium squirming through a primordial sea, hoping to find others like itself, or at least find recipes and clues about what to do next.
We send out spaceships between the planets, the stars, containing our own little recipes, our own clues, like hopeful plasmids. We have found other living worlds, but none yet as complex as Earth, not yet rising above the level of molecular language. We know there are billions of worlds out there, hundreds of millions similar to Earth in our galaxy alone...
We are patient.
In the meantime, until we find that other community to which we must eventually adapt and belong, that larger network of autopoiesis in which we will become a node, we labor to improve ourselves. We seek to lift ourselves by our bootstraps, so to speak, to new levels of efficiency and understanding.
The imperative for the dataflow culture is to remove old errors and inefficiencies - to improve our information through continuing research, and to improve our minds through deeper education and therapy, to improve our physical health by removing ourselves from the old cycles or predation and disease, no longer capable of pruning the human tree. We hope to unite human cultures so we will end our internal struggles, and work together for larger goals. We engage in the equivalent of historical and political therapy.
All separation is a convenient illusion, all competition is the churning of the engines of sex. Our social conventions give our culture shape, just as a cell wall holds in the protoplasm; but we are soon approaching a time when education will overcome convention, when logic and knowledge must replace rote and automatism. This century can be characterized as a time of conflicts between old errors, old patterns of thinking, and new discoveries about ourselves. We have no big father in the sky, at least none that is willing to talk with us on any consistent basis. But there is promise in what we have learned so far - promise that can be shared between all cultures, in recognition that change and pluralism are essential.
If we all think alike, if we all become uniform and bland, we shrivel up and die, and the great process shudders to an end. Uniformity is death, in economics or in biology. Diversity within communication and cooperation is life. Everything your forebears, your ancestors, everything you have ever done, will have been for naught, if we ignore these basic bacterial lessons.