Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, March 30, 2020

The March of the Holobionts: Why Gaia is one of us

As a Goddess, Gaia may not be all-powerful, but She does what She can.

One of the good things about the current epidemic is what it is teaching us. Apart from a welcome slap to human hubris, it is a test of population models (right now, it seems that everyone I know is busy at fitting data with logistic equations). But there is more than population dynamics in this story. It is the occasion for a reflection of the role of viruses in the ecosystem. In my case, it led me to discover concepts that I only vaguely knew before. One is that of "virome," a term analogous to that of "genome" -- the idea that viruses are part of us. Did you know that 8% of the human genetic code is directly derived by viral genes? The role of viruses in our metabolism is still largely to be discovered, but surely most viruses are not pathogens, they are commensals or symbionts. Companions of our travel to an unknown destination.

And then there is the related concept of "holobiont" -- a term originally invented by Lynn Margulis, the co-discoverer, with James Lovelock, of the idea of "Gaia" as a homeostatic planetary system. Once you learn what a holobiont is, your view of the world changes completely. The evolutionary unit of the ecosystem is not the organism, but the holobiont: an ensemble of creatures that cooperate with each other without sharing the same genetic code as multicellular organisms do: a tree is an organism, a forest is a holobiont. The forest holobiont includes not just trees, but all the animals together with the microbiome of fungi, bacteria, archaea, viruses, and everything.

That opens up a whole new evolutionary frontier: multicellular organisms transmit genetic information by the complex process of sexual reproduction followed by competitive selection. Holobionts do something similar, but they don't have a genome that they pass to their descendants by sexual transmission, they have a hologenome that successful holobionts can transmit using different strategies. And that answers a difficult question: who is Gaia, exactly? You guessed it, the Queen of Heaven and Earth is a holobiont! As a Goddess, She may not be benevolent and merciful, surely not all-powerful, but she does what she can. She is one of us.

Below, a translation of an article that I submitted to an Italian newspaper, "Il Fatto Quotidiano" where I try to explain some of these concepts. These submissions are limited to ca. 650 words, so you have to be extremely synthetic and also take into account that the readers are ordinary people, not scientists. So, I didn't mention the concept of holobiont, maybe in a future article. But I thought that also the readers of "Cassandra's Legacy" will find it interesting in this short text. (BTW, as a translation service, Yandex seems to be somewhat better than Google).

Coronavirus: what's happening?
Submitted to "Il Fatto Quotidiano" by Ugo Bardi

Translated using Yandex, slightly revised and modified

The most recent data indicate a decrease in the number of coronavirus infections in Italy. That means we could get out of the epidemic in the coming months. But why do we expect this trend? It is explained in the field of Science called "epidemiology" that studies how epidemics spread.

The first epidemiology studies date back to 1927, when two British researchers, Kermack and McKendrick, developed the "SIR" model (susceptible, infected, removed), still used today. However, the basis of these studies was the previous work of the American Alfred Lotka and the Italian Vito Volterra. A few years earlier, they had developed the model that we now call “Lotka-Volterra,” but also “predator-prey,” or “foxes and rabbits” (although neither Lotka nor Volterra ever spoke of foxes or rabbits).

Let's explain. Imagine a green islet in the middle of the sea, populated by only two species: foxes and rabbits (there is no such island, but let's take it as a hypothetical example). The population of foxes (predators) tends to grow when rabbits (prey) are abundant. It grows so fast that, at some point, the surviving rabbits can no longer reproduce quickly enough to replace those eaten by the foxes. The rabbit population reaches a maximum and then falls. At this point, Foxes starve. With few foxes around, the remaining rabbits can reproduce peacefully and the cycle begins again.

The model is based on the idea that predators tend to take more resources than nature can replace: it is what we now call "overexploitation” It always ends badly, but the model describes the trajectory of the populations that first grow and then collapse as a bell-shaped curve. An example of a real case is that of St. Matthew Island in the Pacific. There were no reindeer on the island before the US Navy brought some, in 1944. In a couple of decades they became thousands, they devoured all the grass, and then almost all died of starvation. Then, a couple of particularly harsh winters exterminated the last individuals, sick and hungry. Reindeer was the predators and grass the prey: a classic case of resource overexploitation.

Not that the model can explain the complex interactions in a whole ecosystem, but it is useful to provide us with a framework for what's happening. And we can use it to understand the current epidemic. It is the same thing: the virus is the predator and the prey is us. The population of the virus is growing rapidly as it always happens when resources are abundant. But soon the virus will begin to run out of prey, fortunately not because infected people die (some, unfortunately, do). They are no longer prey because they become immune. Indeed, the epidemic is following the bell-shaped trajectory predicted by the Lotka-Volterra model.

So, nothing unexpected. Viruses are creatures looking for resources just like we do. They're doing nothing different than what we did in the past by exterminating species like mammoths or the dodo. And, today, with the huge expansion of the human population over the last 1000-2000 years, we have become a great hunting ground for so many micro-organisms, also because of our tendency to live in crowded cities where it is easier to get infected. Thus, the past history is full of epidemics: plague, smallpox, cholera, influenza and many others.

In a way, we are at war: viruses attack us and we defend ourselves with vaccines, antibiotics, hygiene, and our immune system. But, if it's a war, we won't necessarily win it. Maybe we'll find a vaccine for the Sars-VOC-2 virus, but don't expect miracles.

Actually, species do not make wars against each other: they adapt, that's how the ecosystem works. Viruses and bacteria are seen almost only causes for diseases, but our body hosts a large number of them and of many different species. They are not parasites, many are "symbionts" – creatures that help us with so many things, think of our intestinal bacterial flora. So, in time, we'll end up adapting. And the virus will adapt, too.


A comment from Ugo Bardi's personal troll: Mr. Kunning-Druger

Mr. Bardi, you are just beating the bush, as you and your warmunist friends usually do to confuse the public. Now you mix magniloquent words at random, goddesses, viromes, holothis and holothat. And what does that mean? That we should welcome being infected by a virus and die? You are being exposed once more for what you are: an enemy of mankind.  So, if it has been all a fault of those stupid pangolins and bats (and those disgusting Chinese who eat them), well, there is a simple solution. As you said, our ancestors exterminated stupid animals like those dodos, why not exterminate pangolins and bats, which must be just as stupid? Problem solved. The reality is that man has no obligation toward nature, except to put it back in its proper place when needed. Now, it is the time to shelve those silly plans such as the energy transition and the green new deal. We need to go back to growth, and do that fast.


  1. hi Ugo
    I teach about holobionts vs superorganisms in my class. To me a holobiont is an assemblage of different species that form an ecological unit. This is different than a Superorganism -which is a collection of individuals of a social species that acts together towards some larger goal thus functioning like a larger organism. What is the 'goal' of the holobiont that you suggest? The 'goal' of the Amoeba (my name for the human cultural superorganism) is power -which equates to energy dissipation per unit time. (this is why humans collectively aren't really a superorganism which would be self-regulating - we are only regulating the 'growth' part, not the waste). In any case, what value/hope/insight does using the Gaia idea of holobiont offer our current circumstances?

    hope you are well old friend

    1. Thanks Nate, we are all well here. The epidemic is actually winding down in Tuscany, but people are still screaming the end of the world. Damn those catastrophists!

      About the Holobiont, well, it is a new concept. It says that cooperation, not competition, is the main driver of evolution. It is a considerable break with Darwin's ideas of the survival of the fittest -- and of so much politics related to that idea!

      So Gaia is a benevolent holobiont, that doesn't change much in our destiny as humans -- just that perhaps we don't need to merge into the great superorganism and lose our individual identity in order to collaborate with each other.

      BTW, Nate, maybe you should reconsider the term you use: an amoeba is not a superorganism -- it has its bacterial symbionts, though. But we do have them, too. We are all amoebas

    2. Ugo, in the science papers I used Superorganism. Amoeba I use graphically (as you know) and include corporations, religions, abstractions, nations all within it). In any case, the human Superorganism took a mortal blow in past few months.

      I think its 70/30 or less now whether we pierce Q4 2019 energy and GDP levels for humanity, and if we do it will be in a damaged, weakened state -as the main driver of consumption - credit and trust in governments/finance as unlimited pools - has also taken a blow.

      I remember fondly visiting you and Grazie in Florence, and wish you well during these strange times

    3. I have started to look over your paper - and so far I agree.

      As for:

      "3. Human behavior

      Humans are unique, but in the same ways tree frogs or hippos are unique. We are still mammals, specifically primates".

      There is no doubt that we are mammals and related to primates - but there is a significant difference:

      "This video segment from NOVA: "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial" reveals how genetic evidence helped to confirm an important component of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection: the common ancestry of humans and apes. In particular, it explains that humans have one fewer chromosome pair in their cells than apes, due to a mutation found in chromosome number 2 that caused two chromosomes to fuse into one".

      And while the ruins of the Gates of ancient Babylon featured the currently existent Lion, then the now extinct Auroch, and then surprisingly the allegedly mythological Sirrush, how did the Sirrush come into Being - was it - or wasn't it?

      If Primates have 24 pairs of chromosomes - and Humans have only 23 - and Humans appear to have chromosomes 2 and 3 together fused together - along with a long list of genetic defects - what a miracle that we survived as a Species.

  2. Viruses control regulating genes - thus leading to gene selection and Organisms evolving.

    There are indeed stages of life - as Humans evolve or devolve into ever increasing complex life forms - or cockroaches and rats.

    The Hindu Nirvana - is what you are describing - and I will remind you that Hinduism is more that 10,000 years older than that of Christianity.

    The Age of Pisces - that which we are in now - would only last about over 2,160 years - and is now being phased out by the Age of Aquarius.

    The old must die out and the new is ushered in -


    As for the personal troll who says: "Now, it is the time to shelve those silly plans such as the energy transition and the green new deal. We need to go back to growth, and do that fast".

    A. We need spiritual growth - understanding - and the end to Industrial Civilization powered by fossil fuels.

  3. hahaha! this mr kunning things the solution is the extermination of bats and pangolins? so, should we exterminate ducks, pigs, chicken and cows to? we have got epidemics from them to

  4. “About the Holobiont, well, it is a new concept. It says that cooperation, not competition, is the main driver of evolution. It is a considerable break with Darwin's ideas of the survival of the fittest -- and of so much politics related to that idea!”

    I would stress the point that humans are within planetary succession both with earth systems, life systems, and human systems. I find one common force of cooperation and competition. This is the life cycle and they can’t be separated. They can modulate dramatically making for dualistic appearances. We are now seeing this dramatically as systems human and planetary break all around. This force of life happens at ascending levels of abstraction as well as below our feet.

    “So Gaia is a benevolent holobiont, that doesn't change much in our destiny as humans -- just that perhaps we don't need to merge into the great superorganism and lose our individual identity in order to collaborate with each other.”

    I am a green prepper. I am close to nature as a permaculturist but also a naturalist. I am repairing my local ecosystem of 500 acres in the MO Ozarks with native species but also managing invasives as the new natives. I avoid chemicals and mechanized management technics but use them when the system gets too far from balance. I also have a small multi-species grazing operation of goats and cattle who work together to manage pasture on 100acres of 10 paddocks on these 500 acres. I have small stocking rates so this covers cost but does not pay my labor. Yet, I have a food store but I also harvest solar energy through animals and plants. I have 3600 watt solar system. I heat with wood. This is a hybrid effort but one that attempts to go local in a delocalized world. So long story short I am a tree hugger with realistic view of Gaia as a disinterested force propelling us. There is a human side to Gaia of course but not much.

  5. "Actually, species do not make wars against each other: they adapt, that's how the ecosystem works".

    I would have to disagree Ugo - and I will quote Jay Hanson:

    "Step 1. Individuals and groups evolved a bias to maximize fitness by maximizing power, which requires over-reproduction and/or over-consumption of natural resources (overshoot), whenever systemic constraints allow it. Differential power generation and accumulation result in a hierarchical group structure.

    Step 2. Energy is always limited, and overshoot eventually leads to decreasing power available to some members of the group, with lower-ranking members suffering first.

    Step 3. Diminishing power availability creates divisive subgroups within the original group. Low-rank members will form subgroups and coalitions to demand a greater share of power from higher-ranking individuals, who will resist by forming their own coalitions to maintain power.

    Step 4. Violent social strife eventually occurs among subgroups who demand a greater share of the remaining power.

    Step 5. The weakest subgroups (high or low rank) are either forced to disperse to a new territory, are killed, enslaved, or imprisoned.

    Step 6. Go back to step 1".

    I wish it was the way YOU see it - but I believe that the way I see it - in agreement with Jay Hanson makes more sense of the World. Why else would Central Banks be allowed to exist - which are allowed to issue debt without the accumulated interest amount to also be issued?

    Life on debt ridden and now Oil Dependent Planet Earth is a risky venture.

    To those who followed Columbus and Cortez, the New World truly seemed incredible because of the natural endowments. The land often announced itself with a heavy scent miles out into the ocean. Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524 smelled the cedars of the East Coast a hundred leagues out. The men of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon were temporarily disarmed by the fragrance of the New Jersey shore, while ships running farther up the coast occasionally swam through large beds of floating flowers. Wherever they came inland they found a rich riot of color and sound, of game and luxuriant vegetation. Had they been other than they were, they might have written a new mythology here. As it was, they took inventory. — Frederick Jackson Turner

    Genocide is as human as art or prayer. — John Gray

    How much indigenous Oil and Natural Gas does Italy actually possess? What happens when it runs out?

  6. Ugo, elsewhere you said 'we are food to the virus'. Another good analogy is Goddess Gaia has an immune system just as people do. Her immune system heals Gaia of her human infection and that immune system is the COVID-19 virus. I like the analogy if it can engender thoughtful reflection; but it is true only from a humorous point of view. The virus causes much misery and no good.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)