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The Ladder of Investment: parasite or symbiont?

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The ladders of investment are lonely creatures.They wander the plains of the Regulatorium, a vast continent whose middle is   populated by very few, very large idea-creatures, who dwarf the ladders of investment.  These bigger creatures graze on consumer surplus, and run into each other at large water holes, where they bellow their challenges to each other and complain that the game wardens should allow them more pasturage and eliminate both their larger rivals and the new smaller creatures which try to graze on their pasturage.

A ladder of investment- a loi -was first spotted by the British regulatory biologist Martin Cave, who noted its strange and novel features. It begins as a small creature, and he speculated that it should be permitted, nay encouraged, to grow into a larger and more complex one. To this end he thought it should be permitted to feed on the bodies of the larger networks that graze on consumer surplus in the vast plains of Regulatorium. The larger creatures of the Regulatory plains hated the ladder of investment, which, they felt, was a parasite, not a symbiont. Mr. Cave identified this newer, smaller creature as a "ladder of investment" because, in the general poverty of species  that characterizes the central plains of Regulatorium, there are no other large animals than consumer surplus grazers, and since it was assumed that all creatures wanted to become big grazers, he assumed the loi wanted to become one too.

 

On the savannahs of Regulatorium, the ideas of the regulatory biologists matter, and they have very few ideas. Like the creatures around them, they have lived in the isolated middle of a huge continent, cut off from from the prodigious evolution elsewhere. This evolution has been confined to shorelines and coastal plains that lie beyond the mountain ranges that ring the central savannahs of Regulatorium. So it was hardly surprising that the loi posed conceptual difficulties for the wardens, because it conformed to none of their available classifications. Mr. Cave's early identification and speculation about the ladder of investment stimulated new ideas, which were not welcomed, but clever as he was, he failed to see how innovative the loi really was.

 

Beyond those ranges, entirely new species, belonging to a new taxon of creatures, had arisen. The taxon to which many of them belonged was called the Internet. Its members had been characterized by biologists as having open end points, as opposed to the closed end points of the grazers in Regulatorium. The open end points of the creatures of the Internet generate entirely new possibilities. They seem to mate with one another promiscuously, and across species boundaries. Moreover, any new parasite or symbiont could attach itself to any other creature of the Internet and modify its possibilities. So new creatures were constantly evolving. Some of them were harmful, some were useful innovations. Furthermore, it was hard to tell the difference between a parasite and a symbiont, between something that drained the energies of the host and something that lived with it in a useful harmony of interests. But as it is with other branches of life, a complex ecology rapidly developed in the Internet taxon.  Some of them evolved back into creatures with closed endpoints, called Apples, and reaped high short term benefits, while some maintained open endpoints, patiently enduring the possibility that they would have to fight their parasites or join their symbionts, and they were called Googles. Both Googles and Apples had viable life strategies, but they were, above all, new. Googles or Apples, it was just a question of where you trusted evolution would occur best.

Whether to maintain the open end point, and be open to innovation, or to be closed, and manage evolution internally, was a fundamental choice of creatures in this taxon, rather than an immutable limitation. This feature was very confusing when the wardens and biologists of Regulatorium became aware of the new taxon. It was as if a creature could choose its sex, or become a vegetarian or carnivore at will, or go from marine mammal to land animal and back. The speed of evolution of these creatures, and the crazy combinations of body plans, led to dramatic species explosions and die-offs.

The game wardens and biologists of Regulatorium had never seen creatures with open end points before. The only taxon with which they were familiar are those with closed end points, which were very stable and long lived species, like turtles. So their biological thinking was assaulted by kinds of creatures thought impossible to exist but which, nevertheless, did.

 

So when the regulatroy biologist Martin Cave first identified a loi, it was expected that it would want to grow into a big consumer grazer. That, after all, was nature's way, as they then thought. For their part, the consumer grazers were hostile, noting the lois' "weak theoretical foundations and lack of supporting empirical evidence". Other wardens disagreed that the loi should be allowed, and proposed culling it. Their argument went like this

1) competition between consumer grazers for grazing land was the only possible basis of long-term stability in the ecology of Regulatorium, which meant controlling the grazing.

2) loi-based animals were necessary to provide this competition but inevitably they would grow into consumer grazers, because all animals heretofore had done so;

3) the survival of lois in their developmental stages depended on active management by the wardens, so they would not be crushed and eaten by the consumer grazers;

4) the selective breeding of lois would be an active process under the management of the wardens and regulatory biologists, which would depend very much on their understanding of the creatures they were fostering.

The wardens fighting for the existing grazers felt that the other wardens lacked the time, knowledge, skill and management techniques successfully to breed the lois into large consumer grazers. So they disagreed with the pro-loi faction on the possibility of assumption 4 - the assumption that they had the necessary wisdom.

No one ever questioned assumptions 1 and 2.

 

The regulatory biologists assumed that nothing new was to be found under the Sun. They were convinced that all creatures sought to evolve into consumer surplus grazers; and the only way to make stable the relationship of lois to grazers was to supervise closely how much the lois could feed off the grazers without weakening them.

Thus it was a surprise to one of the wardens when a loi was asked at a waterhole whether it wanted to become a grazer, and it said no, it was not interested in becoming a grazer. It felt that the ecological niche into which it fitted was quite distinct from that of the grazers. It would increase the rate at which the grass grew and feed the grazer indirectly by increasing the efficiency with which the grazer digested consumer-grass. Both would prosper in a new symbiosis.

The biologists and wardens of the Regulatorium were quietly astounded by this, but they should not have been. It turned out that the loi was a creature evolved in the coastal regions, and was part of the Internet taxon. It had wandered over the immense mountain range dividing coastal plains from Regulatorium, and had no idea that the denizens were unaware of the strange biological innovations in the Internet taxon. In fact they were, for biologists, a bit squeamish about the promiscuous trading of biological information by creatures in the Internet.

And no wonder! The symbiosis required that the grazer reveal a great deal of its genetic information to the potential symbiont, and for the symbiont to build a digester (I told you there were reasons to be squeamish) that would process the consumer surplus more efficiently, allowing the grazer to more efficiently digest the processed pulp that the symbiont fed it. The grazer could grow fat while doing less, and the symbiont would keep the grass growing better. It was rather like the relation between the animal cell and the mitochondrion, its energy factory, which had been captured and absorbed aeons ago.

So the assumption of wardens was that all creatures in the Regulatorium should grow into consumer-grazers, because that was the way it had always been. It was scarcely conceivable that lois were not really another small grazer, but were from an entirely new taxon. This misconception plagued their thinking for several decades until closer observation of the misnamed lois revealed they were from the Internet. They did not want to be grow into giant consumer grazers, nor did they desire to build or become large structures. Rather their innate openness made them highly innovative, which was in principle desired by the Wardens but not readily accepted, because their were filled with pre-Internet ideas of biology . And their advisors, the biological economists, were even more hide-bound. They felt that that lois were inadequate and parasitic, and should be encouraged to become big grazers as fast as possible.

The Regulatorium is a vast plain on which new things are not perceived for decades, and when they are perceived, they are often mislabelled. Such was the case when Internet creatures wandered into the savannahs of Regulatorium. The pre-existing ideas of the regulatory biologists misunderstood the phenomenon, just as Columbus mislabelled the Caribbeans he saw as "Indians". The confusion continues to this day.

 

 

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Timothy Denton is a lawyer by training who practices principally in telecommunications and Internet policy and domain name issues, with a strong concentration on explaining what the technology is and what it means.

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Guest Sunday, 25 August 2019
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