Friday, December 7, 2012

Another sweeping pronouncement by a non-expert

To a biologist, the term quorum sensing in nothing new. Perhaps it is familiar to all, but just in case,  Wikipedia article  on it is very nice and detailed. Let me define it nonetheless: quorum sensing has nothing to do with voter turnout or voting machines, it is a particular phenotype, or behavior, that certain living organisms begin to show when their population reaches a certain density in a certain environment -- such as bacteria in a carton of milk, for example.  This threshold of  "crowdedness" of bacterial individuals in a milk carton is called a quorum. Apparently, they have a way of knowing that they reached a quorum: they sense it (and there is nothing mysterious as to how -- they have ways, and the point of the story is not about those ways).
At any rate, having sensed the quorum, bacteria begin to display a new behavior, or activity.

It can be an effort towards something only a large crowd of bacteria can achieve if they work together. Or it can be an effort dealing with the inevitable consequences of a large crowd of bacteria working together -- like accumulation of waste products. 
(In other words, here is the most elementary form of a commonwealth available even to bacteria).For example, some bacteria  begin to secrete protein-nibbling enzymes to feed on casein (from that milk in the carton). Casein is being broken down right there in the milk and then bacteria can suck in the breakdown products. The point is,  it costs a lot of energy to secrete those protein-nibbling enzymes. And so, there is a very strong incentive to cheat: in a big bacterial crowd there emerge individuals who do not secrete nibbling enzymes and save their energy to themselves, but reap all the benefits of feeding on casein. As a result, cheaters are able to divide faster than non-cheaters, and can potentially outnumber the latter. Now, what do you think, will happen next? Yes, you got it. 
The points are: 1) cheaters inevitably emerge, insofar as cheating is energetically beneficial, and it always is, isn't it? 2) a crowd can tolerate a certain number of cheaters insofar as the rest of the members still draw benefits from the quorum behavior; and 3) as the number of cheaters grows, as it inevitably does (remember, cheaters divide faster because they can spend more energy on multiplying), the system collapses and/or resets.
 Now, all of this makes me think: is anyone trying to apply it to socioeconomics?
Just wondering. In a naive kind of way.
Don't get me wrong: I am not of the kind that believes that if "cheaters" exist then the "quorum behavior" should be cancelled. I am of the kind that thinks that cheaters are inevitable but the quorum behavior nonetheless is beneficial and should be maintained. I envision computer modeling of public policies and laws that will predict all possible modes of cheating and will help devise the laws and regulations that will minimize cheating and maximize public benefit. Wouldn't it be useful if the real-time trial-and-error process by which a law evolves was replaced by that in-silico?     
Then again, what do I know?


No comments:

Post a Comment