I’m a little obsessed with slime molds.
Slime molds are collective organisms that are nearly uncategorizable. Cellular slime molds are individual micro-organisms, something like amoebas. They live on detritus: decaying plant matter. When food is scarce, something amazing happens. They seek each other out and join together into a macro-organism. In their initial stage as a macro-organism, the plasmoid stage, they are capable of movement, and moreover of “hunting”. The collective organism moves through bifurcation, it branches towards where it wants to go and then retracts from where it has been. As a macro-organism, it searches for a large food source (usually decaying plant matter) and devours it. After the macro-organism has discovered and consumed the food source, it forms fruiting bodies to propagate its spores. The spores scatter throughout the forest, and where they land they will develop into individual micro-organisms.
The individual micro-organisms may never develop into the macro-organism. As long food is plentiful, they won’t join together. Are the micro-organisms separate creatures? Are they individual cells of the master organism? These questions can be philosophically unsettling for a species that fundamentally depends on categorization. We deny inclusion in the animal kingdom, we are not intelligent animals, we are “apart.” We inhabit our own class, and are unlike anything else living. Similarities between our species and others can be conveniently obfuscated by this barrier. We have made death invisible in human culture in order to rigidly classify it. We are among the living, and the dead are of another class. They are hidden, they instantly disappear.
To truly study and strive to comprehend the slime mold is an assault on our ability to classify. They seem permeable, moving between states of life and death, animal and plant, individual and colony. If we allow ourselves to truly understand, we begin to empathize. We start to imagine our minds and bodies existing in the slime mold flow state. Do they exhibit intelligence? Bizarrely, the answer is yes.
When a slime mold plasmoid (in hunter mode) is placed in a simple maze, we can see it easily navigating the maze to find its food. If you search for “slime mold maze” on youtube you will find many examples. Find one of the larger ones and you will see the branching tendrils sensing the obstacles, shifting position, hesitating and finally choosing the right direction. I found one where the slime mold found a gap in the maze wall and was able to take a shortcut. The impulses of the micro-organism add up to complex behavior in the macro-organism. It is an atomized, multiform intelligence that directs a multiform body.
The terror of the slime mold, only slightly ameliorated by its small size, is the concept of permeability: of consciousness, of states of being. The power of all of our movie monsters, (Vampires, Zombies, Werewolves, etc.) comes from the concept of permeability. Vampires and Zombies exist in permeable states between life and death. Werewolves in permeable states between human and animal. What differentiates the fears we have written from the real permeability of the slime mold? We must carefully separate the two. Vampires and their ilk are silly concepts, and we like them that way. We watch horror movies to experience a catharsis that we don’t really have to take seriously. But the deeper, difficult questions are present in these ideas. Our fears are true. There is no separation between life and death, no curtain to disappear behind. Instead there is a permeable transition between the two, one we will all eventually experience.
Like everything else in human life we work hard to classify the mind. We insist on the category of a separate, invisible body which we somehow possess and utilize. Our mind is an object that we own. It isn’t our being, but a tool we use for interpreting and further classifying and categorizing the world. Ontologically, this model is extremely reductive: being is reduced to nothing more than a possessing instrument, an “owner” of various functional tools. We own our bodies, and use them to for a purpose. We own our senses, our minds. Existence is nothing more than the deed of ownership to this collection of “objects.” But what is at the center? What would you be without your mind, senses, and body? Is that thin remainder the soul? It seems a ragged thing indeed.
A model of permeable consciousness, like the slime mold, destroys these object-based classifications. We are not components, nor are we an itinerary of tools. We are rarified, sensitized neural networks. We are the distinct combination of body, mind, senses and emotions. Environment impacts experience and shapes being. Through empathy we are capable of merging consciousness and emotions with others. The mind is not a tool, but a space.
The students in Donna Tartt’s book, The Secret History, studying ancient Greek literature, wonder why sex and death are always the subjects of epic poetry. Why contemplate terror? Why didn’t the ancients write about beautiful flowers, or lovely sunsets, instead of creating ravishing descriptions of lovers committing mutual suicide? Their answer was that beauty is terror.
This sharp edge. Where our very being unravels, something we all desire. Transcendence, the destruction of our boundaries, the collapse of categories. The great beauty and terrible fear we all have is that our consciousness is permeable. We fight it by categorizing it, by separating ourselves from each other. By separating our minds and bodies from our beings. But there is always an undeniable longing; the self, longing for wholeness. The walls longing to fall. We all know the truth, that we are permeable and whole. Is not the apex experience of sex merely an assertion of that truth? The core of being is not “ownership” but generosity. Being is a space that unfolds to greater and greater extent, searching the maze of life.