Saturday, April 23, 2016


A new understanding among the many emerging from our amazing new information access in several disciplines is that of sheets and loops.  I’m talking cells and their communication among themselves that builds the world.  We are accustomed to thinking of these developments as something “done to” life, but now our paradigm, among those who have the information and can respond to it, is shifted in a way that penetrates into our very own cells.  Ouroboros, the snake who swallows his tail, is rolling through us.  This is the url of an article in Aeon that discusses what we might call sheet and feedback theory in terms of cells.

“The most local environment for many cells consists simply of their similar neighbours. This is especially so in a very common sort of structure that we find in all sorts of living things – the sheet. (Think of the surface of the skin, the lining of the gut, the inside layer of your blood vessels.) These sheets are collections of cells stuck together, edge to edge. The cells adhere to one another via a number of very small, specialised junction complexes. The outside part of a junction complex on one cell binds to the outside part of a similar complex on the neighbouring cell, while the inside part binds to long, strong filaments of protein that form a network inside the cell: the ‘cytoskeleton’, as it is known. It is the mechanical connection of each cell’s cytoskeleton to those of its neighbours, via the junctions, that helps to give the sheet its strength.

Cytoskeleton and junctions

“When cells first meet, in normal development or in a culture dish, neither can ‘know’ in advance precisely where contact will first be made. The internal cytoskeletons of the cells cannot, therefore, be built to an advanced plan; they must develop adaptively to suit the precise conditions at the time. The way they achieve this is both fascinating in detail and, in its general outline, thoroughly typical of life.

“The cells that are forming the sheet continuously make new branches of their cytoskeleton network. These branches head towards random points on the cell periphery. Those that do not happen to land on a junction will never experience mechanical force, whereas those filaments that do find and link to a junction will be placed under tension by the neighbouring cell. Now, it happens that cells are full of enzyme complexes that rapidly destroy cytoskeleton filaments. This destruction is, however, strongly inhibited if a filament is under mechanical load. The many filaments that end up in the wrong place are therefore quickly destroyed, while those that happen to be arranged appropriately to carry forces survive. Thus the cytoskeleton’s anatomy organises itself according to its environment and adapts continuously to changing mechanical loads.”

The example is presented in terms of four basic behaviours that cause bird flocks and fish schools: attraction (closing up to another fish), repulsion (increasing the distance from another fish), alignment (altering direction to swim parallel to a neighbour) and searching (looking for a school of fish).  But there is no “head fish” or “leader bird.”  The behavior is produced by natural reactions to the real situation at the moment.

“The feedback loops that guide self-organisation, at any scale, rely ultimately on the action of protein-based mechanisms, and proteins are encoded by genes.

“Genes are therefore essential to self-organisation at all the scales of life – just not in a deterministic way. Rather, the genes are needed to make the machines that mediate feedback-driven self-organisation: the self-organisation is a high-level property that emerges from the underlying network, not a feature of any of the individual components.

“A simple loop would be a much more universal symbol of how life works at all of its scales and levels. Perhaps the Ouroboros, beloved of gnostics and alchemists, has been an ideal symbol waiting in the wings for centuries: there can surely be no more evocative symbol of feedback than a snake growing by devouring its own tail.”


This is “meta-“ level thinking.  The term used here is self-organizing, but I’m also seeing emergent used similarly.  Even Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shift suggests that there is some kind of “paradigm” or plan or theory that fits the evidence better.  It’s a redrawing of a new structure that is meant to be maintained by those who use it, therefore tempting them to prevent any future change.  But this new way of thinking is about something more like alchemy:  one atom is changed in a molecule so now we have a prion, a differently folded molecule, which means a new way of reacting to the environment that might be destructive, interrupting the feedback loops of neurology or metabolism so that the creature malfunctions and dies.  I’m talking Alzheimers.  Unexpected, for a long time unperceived — for years I kept googling “prions” and got nothing.  It’s an un-living event that is contagious, upsetting all assumptions.

Those invested in control will try to seize on a paradigm and use logic to design it, plus power to compel it.  Regardless of how that might work in a capital-driven industrial system drawing on limited resources like coal and oil, it cannot succeed in the long run.  Ask a little mammal in the ancient jungle.  Ask a little virus in today’s African jungle.  Ask a Russian or a Chinese family.  There are always unexpected consequences.

Moving from the idea that humans are created and driven by an inherited game-plan enshrined in the 23 chromosomes of double-helixes to the realization that we are enmeshed in the world, animate and inanimate, means it’s our very responsiveness and ability to vary that is the key to homeostasis, which is just another word for survival.

It’s one way to disassemble the stigma attached to certain groups of humans thought to have lesser genetics, a deficient plan.  It's one way to reform the meta-inheritance of our culture through family and education.  It's one way to recognize the forces released by overpopulation, like violence and drugs to increase the distances among us.  It relates to the faulty feedback loops of the body wherein too much or too little exceeds the ability of the body to compensate or regulate.

A new paradigm is forming already, I think, one that steps away from Newtonian concrete mechanisms of the industrial era and into the responsive code world beyond the anthropocene into an understanding of the great SHEET of life on this planet, not just a tree.  

Tony Hartshorn is an assistant professor of soils in Dept. of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences Bozeman, MT, at Montana State University.  This is the place where the concept of “biofilm” developed, wherein cells are studied to figure out how they make themselves into a community of adjoining cells, very thin and very hard to disperse.  In fact, people weren’t really aware there was such a thing.  Engagingly, once it was realized that biofilms exist, an artist made them into “paintings” that could be hung on the wall, continuing to live so long as conditions persisted.

Bioart  "Oglyph"

In a sense, soils are a sheet community wrapping the earth, responsive to climate, molecular chemistry, and the rays of the sun.  We think of it as something like sand, which it might be, until biology gets woven into it in a thousand tiny ways.  Think compost.  Our focus on producing more, more, more food for more more more people (using the whip of more more more profit) has now begun to physically and biotically strip the land of fertility.  This is beyond the ken of most people though it is just as sweeping a disaster as climate change.  Holes are tearing the sheet.

Hartshorn is addressing the Blackfeet reservation and community, which includes much more than just one tribe and more than one species.  He wants to organize students to investigate and record soils across this ecotone, so as to create a map.  This is a little like Narcisse Blood and Ryan HeavyHead walking along this same ecotone to GPS map the old Blackfeet trails, finding and understanding the traces and loops their feet made across the great sheet of grass sustaining the buffalo.

( for YouTube short blip with Jamie Davis.)

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