The Biology of Innovation #48 #cong17

By Barre Fitzpatrick.

I came across the Slime Mold in the 80s. It turns out to be a life-form uniquely well-equipped to handle change. A natural innovator, in fact. A role model for our times. More of that anon.

My uncle was in the French Resistance in WWII. 

He told me that once he arrived late for a meeting of his little cell, and saw the Gestapo lifting all his comrades. They were taken to jail and he never saw them again.

So he was glad to have been late for that meeting.

He had the experience of being part of a loose network and fighting against a strictly hierarchical military organisation.

(One night he came upon a sign in German praising the German Motherland on the gate of a barracks building in Paris, and he became very angry. He ripped the sign down from the wall. It took him longer than he expected. He ran off with it. It was a risky thing to do, but he had taken bigger risks than that. It’s just that this was a small, but very emotional thing for him. He laughs about it now.)

Niall Ferguson, the historian, has written The Square and The Tower about seeing history as an argument between hierarchy (the tower) and networks (the square). For example, he says that Confucian China, Rome and the French Monarchy established their dominance because they were strong enough to last for centuries.

But the Reformation 500 years ago was driven by a network of dissatisfied movers and shakers (and Quakers!) who were empowered by the new technology invented by Gutenberg. They brought down the hierarchy of the church. The French Revolution was fired by rebels who brought down the monarchy and decapitated the kingdom. And today Ferguson says that the web is liberating people to move away from large corporate structures and to work remotely. So networks have, at certain times in history, been able to topple hierarchies.

Looking at ‘remote working’ as a phenomenon, it may not be an accurate description. It implies that the worker is remote from the centre. But the today’s ‘remote’ worker is often closer to the customer, and can him/herself be seen as the centre. There may be no need for a ‘head office’ or a watercooler any more. (Yet some might feel remote, almost like Matt Damon in The Martian, trapped on the red planet.)

The current trend is clear: hierarchies are ‘out’, networks are ‘in’. No more priesthoods and patriarchies, thank you, no more top-down decision-making and monarchies. (OK, there are annoying exceptions. But that is what they are, exceptions.)

Gutenberg ushered in an era of literacy with his printing technology, and we are now witnessing a second literacy, which is also highly democratic. So networks are winning the battle because of their speed and flexibility. And with their flat structure, they are suited to adult-adult communication patterns.

So who is enjoying this new networked organisation with its virtual teams? It seems that we can identify two separate groups in the forefront: the Millennials who are happy to be digital nomads, and the Boomers who are in a position to alter their lifestyle so they can leave wage-slavery behind.

A friend of mine tells me he has moved to the Costa Del Sol from Malahide, and is saving €3000 a month on rent and electricity etc. while he continues to service clients in Ireland. 

A company I work with has no head office, but 80 staff working singly from their homes and co-working locations all over the world. One of their employees left last year to work with Google. Why? He said it was because in 10 years of working, he had never had the experience of working in an actual office… even digital nomads need to be loved, I suppose.

I find that biology often offers solutions to the puzzles we face in our working lives. So, back to the slime mold, technically known as Dictyostelium. Its unique capability is to be both a single-celled organism and a multi-cellular organism. It is referred to as a ‘social amoeba’. The individual cells survive alone as long as their food source holds up. When the food runs out, they emit a chemical signal to each other, and move together to form a single body or ‘grex’. This can consist of up to 100,000 cells. The grex moves off in search of a new food source. The crucial point is that they move off as one body, coordinating 100,000 nucleii to behave like a brain. Prof. John Tyler Bonner studied them and made a video which you can find it below:


(For his efforts, his students called him ‘the Sultan of Slime’.)

The slime mold is a revolution in a single life-form, being both hierarchy and network. To function as a grex it has to suppress dissent, stamp out me feiners, apply the three-line whip. And yet when it reaches a new food source, it stops, grows a stalk with a ‘fruiting body’, and scatters in the form of individual cells again. And note that, in this process of raising the fruiting body, up to a third of the cells sacrifice themselves. 

So the slime mold is a role model for our times. We too need to be able to handle the solitary existence of the single-celled organism, tackling each problem as it comes along in the way Matt Damon encourages the astronauts to do in The Martian. But then reverting to a social form, our ‘grex’ equivalent, whether it be the team meeting, the conference or the café. We are still just learning the social patterns of our new technologies. They come as toys, but without instructions. 

Welcome to the era of the social amoeba.

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie