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© Karl Simpson

The end of growth - worms and society

Caenorhabditis elegans is an unassuming nematode which is found in soil. Of microscopic size, it nonetheless embodies much of the complexity - and many of the genes - which characterise higher eukaryotes such as man.

In short C. elegans has an inside and an outside, a digestive system, nerves, a front end and a back end. The course of development of this little worm from fertilised egg to adult has been painstakingly mapped so we know that only some 1000 or so cells are involved in the worms development. During that development phase many cells undergo apoptosis, sacrificing themselves for the integrity of the organism.

The complete genome sequence of C. elegans is now known and a large number of mutations has been identified. Probably no other organism presents such elegant arguments for being used as a model for genomic involvement in developmental processes (with apologies to Drosophila and Zebra fish communities!).

In the process of development cells divide, migrate and differentiate to play the full range of roles dictated by the genomic programming. Some flexibility of programming allows limited adaptation to changed environmental circumstances. Ultimately survival is guaranteed by the production of eggs and sperm.

It occurred to me that mankind emerged from small beginnings in East Africa. The species evolved and its component parts, individuals, multiplied. Some individuals were programmed to die as they attempted survival in unwelcoming niches. Even in the most comfortable niches unlimited multiplication was not allowed. The operating unit of humanity in its earliest days seemed to comprise the tribe of a few hundred individuals each with a defined role to play.

As humanity migrated and expanded into new niches, mankind adapted to extremes of heat and cold, wet and dry.

No metaphor can be pushed too far, but there were attractive lessons to learn from my idle day-dreaming. I summarise these in an annotated diagram. This takes the form of a growth curve. From this simple and familiar curve I proceed to draw some novel conclusions about the growth of our society and the consequences of that growth, confluence and stabilisation upon factors as diverse as economic growth, globalisation, conflict and local variations in population growth.

Mankind has grown into a world where expansionism, colonisation and "lebensraum" have run amuck. On a global scale unlimited population growth is now at an end, with current predictions forecasting a peak at a level of 8-9 billion souls, with a strong probability of long-term decline to some stable lower level.

One of the most important aspects of the curve is labelled "discontinuity". Major events driven from within or without can dramatically alter the evolution of a society. Some 8000 years ago the discovery and application of agriculture altered the equilibrium of human culture in the "Fertile Crescent" leading to a previously impossible explosion in the human population. A global calamity such as a major meteorite impact could once again introduce a discontinuity. Just possibly a change from within, like agriculture a novel human discovery, might lead to a new expansion - into the solar system and new planets perhaps.


Let us look at the various points on the curve.

1. Conception
For both a worm and human society, beginnings mark a discontinuity. New growth is made possible where once was a mature and stable entity - the precursor. With no opposition the individual cells or humans multiply.

2. Exponential growth
In the phase of exponential growth multiplication is the major attribute. However as cells or humans multiply they abut against each other and environmental constraints leading to confluence.

3. Confluence
At this stage cells or individuals start to differentiate adopting specific roles in the society/organism of which they are part.

4. Stability
Competition for resources and the lack of new niches for development means that cells or a society enter a stationary phase, where no new growth is possible without creating new space (see discontinuity and apoptosis)

5. Discontinuity
A dramatic change in circumstances, new food sources, new transport mechanisms or catastrophe can radically change the prospects of worm or mankind.

6. Renewed growth
Where radical change is beneficial, by removing barriers to a a new food source (bigger fermenter, agriculture or space colonisation) population growth can be renewed. Alternatively the worm or the society, may change so that new environments can be exploit where previously this was not possible (genetic change leads to assimilation of novel food source). Or more radically we can change the labels and move from population to economic growth.

7. Decay
May occur when radical change diminishes food supplies or adaptability to circumstances that were previously survivable.

8. Apoptosis
The programmed death of cells in a worm, making space for new differentiated cells to take up residence in a particular niche may be likened to the death of the "hunter gatherer" society in mankind. The hunter-gatherer was sacrificed to the farmer.


And where do we extrapolate from here?

In the worm development takes place in a microcosm. One cell becomes approximately 1000. If the environment is benign, reproduction can take place with one worm begetting many.

In human society the environment has reached the stage at which its benignity can no longer be taken for granted. Our many demands and outpourings have made the environment incapable of sustaining future exponential growth. We have seen already that certain modes of life - the hunter-gatherer society - became long ago incompatible with growth. Long ago is relative, for the fierce acceleration in growth saw the global population expand from 1 to 6 billion in less than 3 centuries. The farmer settlers in America drove out the "Indigènes" (Indians) who were by and large hunter-gatherers.

Human expansion - by organic growth from the cradle in East Africa to the Middle East, Europe and Asia was at first tentative and uncertain, susceptible to setbacks and disasters. Ice ages and flooding decisively changed the nature of human speciation and societal groupings. Hunter gatherers moved into the near virgin lands of North America without learning about the agricultural revolution occurring in Turkey and Syria. That revolution also failed to back-track human development into the lightly populated forests and savannas of Africa.

Agriculture was the phenomenon that changed man from an itinerant super animal into the sapient being forming part of a society with vision and purpose. The hunter gatherer tradition has rarely thrown up a culture with goals more advanced than the survival of the group. Agriculture created the city and city state group and continues to act as the raw material for sustaining the cohesion of superpowers.

The fermenter can change C. elegans from an unremarkable little worm to a huge quantity of biomass - given good nutrients and growth conditions. For man and for C. elegans agriculture and the fermenter can be seen as the cause of a discontinuity giving rise to new growth.

Our metaphor starts to run dry here, for no worm has yet shown evidence of sentience, that which marks man apart from his fellow life-forms on planet Earth.

But the starting point is useful. Sentience starts to intervene in human cultures and especially in cultures based on agriculture. It is no accident that writing evolved first as a means to document stores of grain. Mathematics began as a form of accounting - for food stores. Trade began in hunter-gatherer communities, based on local objects and food resources. With the agricultural society trade became disciplined, records were kept and finally surrogates for bartered goods led to the innovation of money.

Trade in grain led to markets and communities around markets - which became towns and cities. The market began to build up a radically new infrastructure. Human beings became specialists and money, the new means of exchange led to the development of service and manufacturing industries; accountancy, building, transport, protection and entertainment. Individuals, like cells in a worm, took up specialised roles in their society. Some 10,000 years ago the first towns came into being, almost as soon as agriculture itself. Recorded history traces a coherent record from about 5000 years ago. In the North of Europe, Asia and America, the ice ages were just drawing to an end, leaving behind land scoured clean of all life. The retreat of the ice opened up new vistas for plant growth and human expansion.

Meanwhile in the fertile crescent, towns and cities became true societies linking other towns and cities with trade. Groups of towns and cities evolved into nations, usually maintained intact by a tradition of strong leadership. The oldest human writings document the beginnings of conflict, competition for resources that were "low hanging fruit" rather than something to be worked for to be exploited. New lands for expansion became the driving force of early societies and the emergent civilisations.

In primitive hunter-gatherer societies expansion generated conflicts at the boundaries of expanding territories. An often nomadic life-style and low technology levels (bows and arrows) tended to prevent any long-term dominance of a particular group.

In the agrarian civilisations, technology and communications tools developed to support agricultural production. The wheel became a necessary tool for the transportation of harvested grain. And weapons manufacture became sophisticated with the appearance of edged metal weapons and primitive armour. Organised warfare made territorial conquest and subsequent consolidation possible. The concept of the nation and sovereignty probably emerged at around the same time as organised warfare. Without agriculture and transport to support a logistic base, sustained warfare was limited in scope. The control of granaries and food supplies became a vital strategic need.

Perhaps the golden age of nationhood began at the time of the Greek and Persian civilisations. And this same age produced some of the nastiest conflicts in history. From then until the twentieth century the concept of the nation evolved little, although the fragile flower of real democracy came to mean new hope in the 18th century.

This golden age of the nation is associated with the exponential growth phase of agrarian society. Today that golden age is coming to an end with quite dramatic consequences for nationhood, sovereignty and the global economy. Mankind evolved into a void. From a population base of perhaps a million at year dot, we have grown exponentially to 6 billion. In our lifetimes exponential growth has ceased.

The repercussions of this on concepts as basic as imperialism, expansionism, African isolation, sovereignty, economic expansion, national responsibility and globalisation must be evaluated.

In the developed world no longer are there any real advantages to be obtained by the forceful occupation of a neighbouring state. Even in much of the developing world the consequences of such occupation spell economic ruin for both invader and invaded, to the benefit of neither.

Many of the conflicts seen today, with the possible exception of Africa, seem to be related to the settling of very old scores based on racial and ethnic issues, rarely on real economic grounds. Nations must now grow to accept that border changes will be made on the basis of peaceful accords dictated by economic necessities. The creation of the United States of America is a microcosm of societal evolution, moving from conflict to peaceful growth.

Where bloody and mindless conflicts continue, as in sub-Saharan Africa, supra national structures such as the United Nations are beginning to accept that sovereignty can no longer be an excuse for slaughter of fellow human beings.



We can argue that population stagnation is leading to a new discontinuity. It may be necessary to substitute economic growth for population growth. Economic expansion as opposed to military expansion can best be achieved by empowering developing nations. Globalisation has eroded sovereignty, but the economic consequences of open frontiers seem to benefit most citizens exposed to open market forces.

Biotechnology, my source of income, is a growing economic force which can serve developing nations, aiding them to join as equal players in the global economy. What biotechnology can deliver to sub-Saharan Africa is food and health, two commodities that form part of the essential infrastructure for a modern economy.

The positive example of Eastern Europe which is emerging stronger from a decade of turmoil, shows that we can all grow rich together. We all watch South Africa, hoping that it may be a model for the rest of what is so aptly described as the Dark Continent. Let the light of hope eradicate that appellation.

Human society can no longer grow numerically, except where war or disease has eliminated populations and created a void. Human growth must now be economic or intellectual, taking advantage of that precious gift of sentience to do what has never been achieved by life before.

As animals we have peaked, as sentient beings we are still at the beginning.

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