The whole point of a representative democracy, like the one that governs the United States, is to remove bias and human error from the policymaking process that shapes the country–or to at least ensure that whatever biases leak into policy reflect the majority opinion. With Congress increasingly deadlocked and do-nothing, and with Donald Trump issuing executive orders as readily as free T-shirts at a sporting event, faith in representative democracy and the power of human decision-making has faltered.
Watching this, it’s easy to despair. But the experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats prefers to think around the issue to an unconventional, but surprisingly effective, alternative: What instead of our elected officials, we looked to slime molds to offer policy advice?
It’s not as strange an idea as it sounds. Slime molds–jelly-like, mutable organisms that can spread and move across surfaces–are highly advanced organisms that have withstood the Ice Age and the passage of centuries. Most importantly, the species Physarum polycephalum, in particular, is surprisingly adept at self-organizing around very human issues.
Specifically, their transportation planning powers may equal those of people hired to do that job. When scientists at the University of the West of England modeled the maps of Belgium, Canada, China, and the U.S. using clusters of oats to represent cities—with larger cities like New York receiving a larger dab of oats–and placed slime molds in the center, the organism spread out in vein-like patterns astonishingly similar to the countries’ respective interstate systems. “Slime molds can operate as superorganisms able to spread out and feed on multiple sources in ways that are optimized for where those sources are,” Keats tells Fast Company. (Slime molds grow at around 1 cm per hour, and sped up, it’s quite remarkable to watch: Here’s a video of slime molds successfully mapping the Iberian motorway system.)
“You see slime molds working out these complex systems in a matter of days,” Keats says. “It’s been said that they’re good civil engineers, which is kind of a flippant way of putting it, but there’s really something much deeper going on here, and potentially, slime molds could solve much deeper problems that humanity itself seems to be very challenged in solving.” Problems like, Keats figured, those currently plaguing our country: Should we build a border wall with Mexico? Should we legalize recreational drugs like marijuana? Are our resource-intensive ways of mining the planet for material wealth worth it in the long run?
Of course, it would take someone like Keats to conceive of this way of problem-solving. As an experimental philosopher, Keats tackles big questions from a bit of a slant–which leads to proposals and projects that often illuminate unseen ethical dimensions of the issues. Most recently, he developed a concept for a self-driving car that functions as an extension of ourselves, making us excited as it moves faster and hungrier as it eats through fuel. And his “cosmic welcome mat” project, in which he developed a series of rugs designed to invite extraterrestrial life to earth, also made a statement about the need for greater inclusivity on the level of national boundaries.
To bring his thoughts about slime molds’ problem-solving abilities to bear, Keats took the idea to Hampshire College, where biology professor Megan Dobro immediately understood his line of thinking, and installed a group of slime molds in a lab to form a new policy research institute. Called the Plasmodium Consortium, it is, in Keats’s words, “the first in the world to feature policy analysis by non-human scholars”; Dobro oversees the unit, and a group of students serve as research assistants. The Plasmodium Consortium will be publicizing the results of their first analyses in an exhibit at the Hampshire College Art Gallery.
Slime molds, Keats says, excel at making decisions that benefit the whole superorganism. Humanity–or the population of the United States–is its own type of superorganism, Keats says, although we don’t often think of ourselves that way. “The implications of our actions ripple through the entire society,” he says, “and the individual interest is connected in a deep and essential way to the collective interest. Under those terms, setting slime molds the task of problem-solving for us makes a strange kind of sense. It’s just a matter of transcribing our issues into terms that slime molds can understand and organize around.
Take the issue of immigration, and Trump’s Mexican border wall proposal. Keats and Dobro laid out two scenarios in different Petri dishes. Each dish was divided in half, with a slime mold on either side, and half was coated with glucose and the other half with protein–two favorite nutrients of slime molds. An impenetrable barrier divided one dish, and the other featured an open border. After several days, the slime molds in the open dish had joined together and begun thriving in the open border zone, benefitting from the diversity of nutrients and shared resources, while the separated molds did not grow as quickly. “Borders are built on the principle that it’s better to protect what you have than allow for the free flow of resources,” Keats says. The slime molds seem to have disproved that theory.
Similarly, they disproved the idea that it’s worthwhile to pursue material wealth at the expense of harming our natural environment. Keats and Dobro modeled this scenario by giving a slime mold the choice between a half of a Petri dish laden with more nutrients, but also more chemical repellent (to represent a materially wealthy, environmentally damaged environment) and a half with fewer nutrients but also less repellent (to represent a less affluent but healthier environment). Slime molds consistently chose the latter.
And regarding drug use, the Plasmodium Consortium determined that drugs like marijuana are not, in fact, gateways to harder stuff, and should not be penalized as such. When placed on a continuum of Valerian root (which is highly addictive for slime molds), Keats and Dobro found that the slime molds, when placed near the highest concentration of Valerian, tend to gravitate away from it and toward a lesser concentration, but when placed amid a lesser concentration, they don’t gravitate toward the bigger pile of the substance. “This is suggestive of a gradient phenomenon that is telling in terms of saying that marijuana in a society might play the equivalent role of drawing people away from hard drugs,” Keats says.
Keats is not allowing this policy advice to remain idle. On behalf of the Plasmodium Consortium, he’s drafted letters to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen regarding immigration, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt regarding resource consumption, and Attorney General Jeff Session regarding marijuana legalization. While he has yet to hear back, he’s hopeful that the slime molds’ astute reasoning can point to the importance of building policies around what is objectively best for our superorganism of a population.
However, Keats does emphasize that the findings are preliminary, that the Consortium will be doing further research and analyses around these topics, and many others. And when I suggested that slime molds may have a greater claim to the term “unbiased” than our politicians, due to the fact that they can’t accept money from corporate lobbyists, Keats disagrees. “Actually, there is a lot of bacteria that they’d like to eat on money,” he says. “But if you keep your money clean, it wouldn’t be an issue.”