How about we start with a quick quiz.
You are lost in a huge store that looks like a maze and you don’t know how to get out of it. Who do you ask for help?
Question 2. You are writing a policy document to advise the United States government on how to govern its national borders, where do you go for advice?
final question. You need to draw a map of the cosmic web, how do you do it?
There are, of course, several answers to these questions, but in all cases, you would do very well if you consulted an organization that goes by many names: slime mold, slime mold, slime mold, slime mold, slime fungus and water mold.
Despite what most of its names indicate, being scientifically accurate, it’s not really mold… but at least one of its species is extraordinary.
“Mould is a division of the fungal world, but slime mold is actually a protist (not animal, plant, or fungus); it’s essentially a giant cell,” said biologist Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life.
Slime mold is a plasmodium, that is, a cell containing many nuclei. Therefore, unlike most unicellular organisms, you don’t need a microscope to see it.
And that single cell is capable of weaving vast exploratory webs made up of vein-like tentacles that can stretch up to a meter.
The star among all
There are about 900 species of slime mold, but we are going to focus on Physarum Polycephalu, also known as many-headed mold or blobs (referring to the classic 1958 film The Blob).
Why are the world’s scientists so excited about this particular species??
“It has become an emblematic body for problem solving. It is easy to grow and grows fast, which is one of the reasons it has been studied so well,” explains Sheldrake.
“But above all, their behaviors are extraordinary.”
It can do all kinds of things.
“Explore, solve problems, adapt to new situations, make decisions between alternative courses of action, and all without a brain!”.
As it does?
“Physarum is sensitive to the chemical gradient, so it can grow toward chemical signals, or stay away from unattractive ones.”
“First, it tends to grow in all directions at once. And then when it finds food, it retracts and forms the connections between its food sources.”
It’s a bit like you’re in the desert and you have to look for water. You have to choose one and only one direction to walk.
The Physarum Polycephalum can “walk” in all directions at once until you find food; then it shrinks the branches that have found nothing and strengthens the ones that have, through a series of chemical contractions.
“It never ceases to amaze me that they can use these contractions to do that kind of analog calculation., to integrate information without the need for a brain. May their coordination take place both everywhere at once and nowhere in particular.”
All of this means that the blob is capable, human terms, of solving problems, networking, navigating systems and mazes with incredible efficiency.
There’s an iconic Japanese study from 2010, when Physarum mapped out Greater Tokyo’s rail network, and all it took was a small petri dish and a handful of oatmeal.
“To Physarum She loves oatmeal, it’s her favorite food.”
“So, they modeled the Greater Tokyo area by putting oatmeal in urban centers, and then released it. Over the course of a few hours, it had formed an efficient network connecting the oatmeal, and that network closely resembled the existing subway network in the Greater Tokyo area.”
He had laid out in a matter of hours an effective network that has taken decades to do in real life.
The blob in the cosmos
After the Tokyo study, experiments with Physarum Polycephalum took off all over the world, to design new urban transport networks or to find effective fire evacuation routes, even to map the cosmic web… which sounds weird, but here goes.
A team of scientists did a digital simulation plotting the locations of the 37,000 known galaxies.
Then a blob-inspired algorithm, adapted from the petri dish to work in three dimensions, was unleashed at that virtual banquet where galaxies were represented by stacks of digital oatmeal, so to speak.
From there, the algorithm produced a 3D digital map of the underlying cosmic web, visualizing the largely invisible strands of matter that astrophysicists believe bind the universe’s galaxies together.
They compared it to data from the Hubble Space Telescope, which detects traces of the cosmic web, and they found that everything coincided to a great extent.
So there seems to be an uncanny resemblance between the two networks, the blob network put together by biological evolution and those of structures in the cosmos created by the primordial force of gravity.
the learned blobs
Let’s go back to the harsh reality of that little blue dot in space that is our world.
Physarum can also help us with problems beyond mapping and networking to more complex human things like policymaking and governance.
“In a way, the physarum are economists, in terms of reaching a universal optimum,” says experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats.
In 2018, he approached Hampshire College in Massachusetts, USA, with an idea.
“I proposed that the blobs be named visiting scholarswith the idea of having a group of these experts on campus to reflect on some of the most challenging problems in the world”.
It was the world’s first academic program for a non-human species and was called the Plasmodium Consortium.
Physarum polycephalies became scholars in residence, complete with office.
“It doesn’t have any windows, but blobs don’t really like light, so from their point of view it was nice, and once they settled in there, we were able to get started.”
They modeled human problems in ways that the blobs could “understand” them to get their unbiased perspective.
“The Physarum are superorganisms: they are one despite being many. Therefore, they are more objective than we are when it comes to human issues.”
They started with the usual network and mapping, distribution and transportation issues, before moving on to some larger political concerns, “from drug policy to issues of our use of resources,” Keats notes.
Perhaps the most controversial of the experiments were those that explored international border politics.
“We create a simplified world, which is really what anybody does when they’re creating any kind of model (economists do it all the time).”
“What we did was take one of the most fundamental conditions: one place has something, another place has something else, and each place wants to protect what it has against the other.
We took two essential resources for the blobs, protein and sugar, and spread them out in a Petri dish, one on one side, the other on the other side, and tried with a wall between them and also without it, letting Physarum figure out what do with those resources.
They not only survived, but thrived in the event that there was no wall, and they flourished more in the border area.”
“So we wrote a letter to Kirstjen Nielsen, who was the Secretary of Homeland Security in the US at the time, and we also sent it to the United Nations and many other government bodies, telling them that borders are not a good idea. and that we must overcome fear to recognize how having open borders benefits everyone.”
Of course, these multifaceted international problems cannot be reduced to a few petri dishes.
But the point is that these experiments are deliberately far fetched to challenge us to think in new ways.
“The Plasmodium consortium is, in a sense, absurd. People laugh when they hear that blobs have set up a human-collaboration think tank at a university in the United States because that’s just not the way things are done.
But I think there is also something very serious behind this. Physarum polycephalies have exceptional intelligence, so we need to incorporate some of the insights we get from watching how they behave, thinking of ourselves in ways we haven’t before.”
That is the most attractive aspect of all this. That an organism without a brain can teach us to be more objective, to think more long-term, and that it can approach a problem in a way that we simply wouldn’t think of.
And in the case of some puzzles, like mapping the cosmos, it may outwit us.
All of this calls into question our human definitions of intelligence..
“Our hierarchical view of intelligence with humans at the top of the Great Pyramid reveals the narcissism of our species,” says Sheldrake.
“Thinking about the world without using ourselves as the yardstick by which all other living things should be judged can help dampen some of the hierarchies that underpin modern thought.”
Those hierarchies have meant that we, the Homo sapiens, we have an incredibly high opinion of ourselves, and that has helped us get far.
But maybe they already served their purpose.
“I think we humans have a need to believe in a kind of superiority. That high self-esteem has been the engine of domination. We have been able to do more as a result of believing that we can do more,” says Keats.
“But we are reaching a limit, to the point where that way of thinking is making the world worse for us and for other species. So it’s time to rethink”.
And a catalyst for this rethinking is Physarum Polycephalum, a brainless, single-celled protist that sits at the bottom of this hierarchy, from where you can shake the whole system. (YO)