This cartoon is offensive. And yet.
A few months ago I did some reading about viruses and other parasites, inspired by the obvious, but also those ants that get commandeered by cordyceps fungi, as seen in this awesome Richard Attenborough video:
Besides the incredible feat of programming ants to disseminate fungus spores, the video reveals two other astounding facts about this system. First, worker ants from afflicted colonies selflessly identify and remove infected ants and dump their bodies far away, reflecting intergenerational genetic training as well as the ability to gather and process the information necessary to make the diagnosis and act on it. And second, there are many, many cordyceps species, each evolved to prey upon only one species, reflecting a pattern of co-evolution between host and parasite.
This led me to reading about colony defenses in general, including not just ants but things like wasps and termites that leave chemical protection for future generations, and bees getting together to make hive fevers to ward off parasitic infections. I don’t find a video of exactly a hive fever, but this one is similar: It’s bees using their collective body temperature to cook a predatory hornet to death:
Incredible. That got me thinking about how information management and dissemination is vital to colony-level defenses against parasites. They need to process and transmit information to work together in the arms race against parasites (especially viruses) that usually evolve much more rapidly than they do.
And you may know where this is going: How the US failed against SARS-CoV-2. In an information arms-race, life and death struggle against a parasitic virus that mutates exponentially faster than we can react — who knows how many experimental trials it took to design SARS-CoV-2? — this kind of efficient information system is what we need. And it worked in some ways, as humanity identified the virus and shared the data and code necessary to take action against it. But clearly we failed in other ways — communicating with our fellow citizens, dislodging the disinformation and misinformation that clouded their understanding and led so many to sacrifice themselves at the behest of a corrupt political organization and its demented leader.
Is this social evolution, I asked (despairingly), in which the Chinese system of government proves its superiority for survival at the colony level, while the US democratic system chokes on its own infected lungs. Worse, is the virus programming us to exacerbate our own weaknesses — yanking our social media chains and our slavery-era political institutions, like the rabies virus, which infects the brain and then explodes out through the salivary glands of a zombified attack animal. Colonies of ants rise or fall based on how they respond to parasites, which themselves are evolving to control ant behavior, as they evolve together. How exceptional are humans? Maybe we just do it faster, in social evolutionary time, rather than across many generations of breeding. Fascinating, but kind of dark. lol.
Anyway, naturally my concern is with information systems and scholarly communication. How human success against the virus has come from the rapid generation and dissemination of science and public health information (including preprints and data sharing). And failure came from disinformation and information corruption. Dr. Birx in the role the rabid raccoon, watching herself lose her grip on scientific reality as the authoritarian leader douses the public health information system with bleach and sets it on fire with an ultraviolet ray gun “inside the body.”
So I wrote a short paper titled, “Host, parasite, and failure at the colony level: COVID-19 and the US information ecosystem,” and posted it on SocArXiv: socarxiv.org/4hgam.* It includes this table:
* I barely took high school biology. In college I took “Climate and Man,” and “Biology of Human Affairs.” That’s pretty much it for my life sciences training, so don’t take my word for it. Comments welcome.