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9 minute read

Nicole Walker and David Carlin: A Short Report on Evolution



By Nicole Walker and David Carlin

Elephant In the movie Waterworld, the audience discovers halfway through that Kevin Costner has grown gills. Waterworld is an eponymously titled film. The world is covered by water. There is no dry land anywhere in the world. The food is fish, if you can catch it. Water comes salt-cleaned from the sky or in the form of filtered piss. There are bad guys: Smokers, who smoke cigarettes and spew smoke out of the backs of their very bad Jet Skis. There are other kinds of bad guys who strive to make new dry land with the decomposing bodies of bad men or medium-bad men and maybe also decomposing fish guts. The making of land is almost as difficult as the making of water. Boats banded together with rotting hulls pile dead bodies in tanks, hoping one day the solids will outweigh the liquids.

But it must have been a short time since the ice caps melted and the world was swallowed up, because the hulls of all the boats haven’t rusted through and Kevin Costner still manages to keep a pot of lime and a pot of tomato alive on the deck of his boat and the bad guys, the Smokers, still have cigarettes and enough gasoline to power their smoke jumpers. But it also must have been a long time since everyone besides

Kevin Costner has forgotten about cities. No one remembers streets and cars. No one remembers when there were other bad guys like poachers and child molesters and Cabinet members. And, most pointedly, Kevin Costner has grown gills. He has evolved. He has become part fish. That can’t happen fast, can it?

In November 2016, an article came out stating that elephants were being born without tusks. In response to the poaching of elephants to sell ivory to Asia, especially China, elephants are evolving to save themselves. A big fuck you to the poachers of the world.

Think of this world so rich in substance, so rich in solidity, that you can stand assuredly on the ground. So rich in grasses and grains of sand and deciduous trees whose leaves fall to the ground and easily compost themselves into dirt. No one needs to work on dirt-making. The Earth is so plentiful that there are elephants enough to leave behind for dead on the grassy, sandy savannah floor, the entire body of an elephant, taking nothing but its tusks. The leaves fall on the scratchy elephant skin. They decompose together. It’s the

poacher carrying those heavy tusks who is alone. He sells his cut to a lonely man who sells the collection of tusks wholesale. A whole shipping container full of ivory. Two. Three. An abundance of ivory stacked on top of an abundance of shoes and lumber and lithium bound for the land most abundant with humans. Perhaps you can imagine a lonely man in that most-abundantly-peopled land looking for a way to say This part of the planet is mine. His Buddha isn’t quite the Buddha who urges mindfulness and living in the moment. This little Buddha statue carved from the great abundance of mineral, the great abundance of ivory, the great abundance of grasses and sands and deciduous trees. There’s something about taking a little bit of the world home with you in your pocket, even though you know it signals the death of everything around you. Ivory in your pocket is a talisman that says, “Not yet. It’s not over yet.” Until, of course, it’s over.

But it turns out the elephants aren’t any more in charge of their evolutionary skills than Kevin Costner with his gills or the poor boat people trying to make soil. They didn’t decide to stop being born with tusks. Evolution chose that fate. It happens every few years, when so many female elephants are hunted. The ones without tusks are the ones who survive. They go on to give birth to the next generation. Their tuskfree DNA gives way to tusk-free baby elephants. Neither intent nor timing has anything to do with it. It’s always been this way. Elephants have been getting rid of their tusks for decades. Every year, 10 percent fewer babies are born with tusks. Evolution, unlike ivory, is forever abundant.

Plasmodia I have come late to slime mold. Some things I know:

• Slime mold is neither plant nor animal. Slime mold metamorphoses from an amoeba into something called a plasmodium, that flows across the surfaces of damp logs, stumps, leaves, and other ground litter in forests, also within rotting wood. • Plasmodia don’t have legs; in fact, they are one giant single-celled organism with many nuclei so they don’t have brains either, or organs of any kind. • They move by pulsating forward and backward. • They live on bacteria, algae, and the hyphae, spores and fruiting bodies of fungi. • One famous slime mold looks so disgusting to a human eye that it is called dog’s vomit. My mum’s friend Von, from Adelaide, has a longstanding fascination with fungi. It’s not a fascination that’s quick to spread. The fungi people are more of an underground network, like the fungi themselves.

Von says: “I like small, secret things.” The other morning I was walking near the suburban beach at Glenelg just east of Adelaide, where Mum and Von and their friend Marg and I had been swimming, and it came up that the fungi season was about to start. Von had just been to her first Fungimap group meeting for the year. Fungimap is an Australian citizen science association dedicated to all things fungi.

“Haven’t you heard that story?” Von said when I asked how she got into fungi. “I was out camping in Tassie, and I was relieving myself in the bush in the middle of the night, as one does, when I saw this thing right beside me on the ground, glowing bright green. I hightailed out of there quick smart, but in the morning I went back and found my wet patch and there beside it was an ordinary, plain-colored mushroom. Next night I went out again and it was glowing green. I was hooked!”

Some fungi are indeed bioluminescent, to attract insects, after dark. But fungi are amazing in many ways humans are only just discovering. Trees, other plants, and fungi form symbiotic partnerships. The fungi intertwine with the tree roots, like hair extensions, and in exchange for wholesome carbohydrate energy from the trees, which the trees have extracted by photosynthesis from sunlight, the fungi reach down deep into the earth and bring back such essential minerals as nitrogen and phosphorus, which the trees need to grow big and strong. Trees use fungi to communicate with other trees, even to help take care of them when they are in need—all of this scientists have shown. Where forests used to be metaphors for individualist competition—the survival of the fittest, sapling-eat-sapling, pay-no-taxes, natural way of life—they are now revealed as sophisticated networks of multispecies cooperation, surviving on give and take. Trees and fungi, like humans, live their lives entangled.

Just as I’m finally coming to realize that fungi might be the coolest organisms with the best metaphoric potential on the planet, Von says: “You know what’s really weird? Slime mold!”

Slime mold is the fungi-lover’s fungi. It is not even a fungi anymore—it has been pushed over the classificatory

fence into the wild territory of protists. All I can understand so far about protists is that it is the category you go into if you are not in any of the other categories. Protists are like the + at the end of LGBTQI+, the cutting edge of organic diversity.

Slime molds are not just ugly, they are also beautiful. They metamorphose again, after being plasmodia, to the fruiting stage. This is when, like fungi (but not fungi), they suddenly produce profusions of spores, often looking like little lollipops on sticks, that blow away in the wind to live mysterious new amoebic, plasmodic, sporangic lives.

“Where do they go at the end of all that?” asks Von rhetorically, as we get off the tram. “Nobody knows,” she continues. “They disappear without a trace. We haven’t begun to understand them!” We part ways on Gilbert Street to hunker down against the heat. “Look them up,” she says. “It’ll blow your brains, I promise you!”

Scientists have discovered that, even without brains or nervous systems, slime molds are remarkably smart. Plasmodia can solve mazes, pulsating through them, investigating all the dead ends before settling on the shortest path to a food source. Other scientists have used a diet of oats and a map of Japan to coax slime mold into creating an accurate version of the Tokyo regional rail network that, on various measures, functioned roughly as effectively as the actual Tokyo regional rail network. “Overall,” they concluded, “the Physarum (a.k.a. slime mold) networks showed characteristics similar to those of the rail network in terms of cost, transport efficiency, and fault tolerance. However, the Physarum networks self-organized without centralized control or explicit global information by a process of selective reinforcement of preferred routes and simultaneous removal of redundant connections.”

Elsewhere, paid again with oats, slime molds have obliged by recreating the network of the Canadian highway system

But wait, there’s more! Slime molds are also capable of learning from experience. A team of biologists in France has done experiments where they blocked the paths of slime molds with bitter and salty but harmless substances. At first the slime molds didn’t want to cross the foul-tasting coffee stain (or whatever), but once they realized after a few days that it was in fact merely unpleasant rather than dangerous they started going across anyway. In December 2016, the same scientists demonstrated that slime molds can not only learn but also teach naïve slime molds what they have learned. The biologists showed slime molds that crossing a bridge of salt posed no threat, then invited the newly wise slime molds to fuse with naïve slime molds. The newly fused slime molds, it turned out, also knew the trick of crossing salty bridges. Then if the scientists separated the fused slime molds after they had been cozied-up together for three hours (time enough for a vein to form at the point of fusion, as the biologists saw through their microscopes), the slime mold that had previously been the naïve one was now just as smart as the wise one and would happily go across the bridge to oat-land on the other side.

So the moral of the story: not so smug, humans! If slime molds can do all this stuff, without even a single cell division or a smiley face, then we need to get our advanced primate shit together.