Academics in Amherst, Massachusetts, have jumped on an unusual source of scientific -- and existential -- investigation: a brainless amoeba known as slime mold.
This fall, Hampshire College launched what it calls the first "institute for non-human scholars," and the organizers insist it's more than a gimmick.
The academic invitation that went out to the single-cell species known as Plasmodium polycephalum -- or slime mold -- came initially from one man: Jonathon Keats.
He calls himself an "experimental philosopher," though he readily admits, "I don’t really entirely know myself what that entails.”
Here's what I could figure out.
Keats was a somewhat disillusioned philosophy major in college who gravitated towards big conundrums in science, politics, human behavior -- things you could actually test, not just ruminate over.
Through public "thought experiments," he uses absurdity to make a point.
For instance, he once opened a restaurant for plants where they could enjoy gourmet sunlight. He attempted to genetically-engineer God in a laboratory. He made urban camouflage clothing for turtles, and choreographed a ballet for honeybees.
"You have to enter into this parallel universe, but it becomes a way in which to reflect on our own world,” Keats said.
One person who finds this approach intriguing is Amy Halliday, who directs the art gallery at Hampshire College.
Last year, Keats came to Halliday with a proposition, as she recalls: "Wouldn’t it be great if we could invite slime mold to be visiting scholars to help us collaboratively solve human problems?”
The visiting slime mold scholars don't get a salary, but they do get their own dank office in the basement of the college's science building.
That turns out to be an appropriate place, given that, in the wild, slime mold lives on the dark, moist forest floor. If food is scarce, two single-cell slime molds will fuse together and break down the membrane between them. That goes on and on until it becomes what's called a superorganism -- a mass of nuclei that all have the same DNA.
"They are at one time many and one, which is to me the evocative property of slime mold," said Megan Dobro, a biologist at Hampshire College who helped oversee the slime mold project.
That property is also what interested Keats. Remember he's a philosopher, not a scientist.
"Their mutual interest and their self interest are one in the same," Keats said. "And we really need to think in those terms ourselves."
Beyond the appealing metaphor, slime mold also offers a great model for experimentation. If you sprinkle oats on a petri dish, the superorganism will seek out the oats, leaving a bright slime that reinforces the most efficient, equitable route from one source of food to the next.
The method has been adopted by a field known as bio-mimicry – when solutions to human problems take their cues from nature. That’s why some Japanese trains are shaped like the beak of a kingfisher. Or how Velcro was inspired by thistles.
Earlier this month, I went to a workshop at Hampshire College, where students and faculty -- in true Hampshire tradition -- were asking deep questions of the slime mold, from the origin of violence to the causes of addiction to the mechanisms of immigration. Depending on the question, they were planning out experiments where slime mold would be let loose among strategically-placed oats in a petri dish.
Already scientists have used slime mold to model human infrastructure. For example, they got the collaborating cells to recreate the Tokyo subway system in a petri dish -- in considerably less time than it took human engineers.
Megan Dobro, who studies the spread of HIV, wondered if slime mold could help governments figure out how to get medical care to rural populations. To simulate rough terrain or long distance, they could put salt or light in the petri dishes – things slime mold don’t like.
"If I took a map of Thailand," Dobro said, "can I map the optimal situation for where public health clinics should be placed, so no one person has to travel more than one hour to get to a health clinic?”
Halliday came up with an experiment that's resonant for a journalist: mapping out the spread of fake news.
"Since we know they eat sugar, could we create or use a synthetic sugar or sweetener, something that masquerades as sugar but isn't the real thing," she mused, "and see if that can offer us a microcosm for how fake news travels?"
To model climate change in a petri dish, they can turn up the heat, introduce pollution, or create overcrowding -- and see how the slime mold adapt and share resources.
Dobro did wonder if this approach would be seen as a gimmick, "but humans have really messed up this planet in a lot of ways," she said, "and slime mold have been around for 500 million years and been very adaptable, and have clearly have figured it out. And I think it's important that we treat them with intellectual respect."
As a science journalist, I love this kind of thing – the symbolism, the potential to teach basic concepts about nature, science, and social policy. But isn’t this the kind of kooky project that Fox News commentators would pounce on as an example of scientific conceit gone awry?
Yeah, maybe, Keats says – but so what?
“It’s going to fail in a lot of cases," he said, "but I think that humor goes a long way towards genuinely engaging people in the underlying thought experiment."
But what about a college like Hampshire – which prides itself on giving students creative outlets but is often under scrutiny for its nontraditional approaches, from no grades….. to removing the American flag from a flagpole last year?
“It wasn’t easy; we had to sell this project,” said Halliday.
She said they had to make the case to the college administration for the rigor of slime mold. “We wanted to make sure this was something that was serious, that followed scientific principles," she said.
They’ve set the bar a lot higher for slime mold than just withstanding public ridicule. If they get any new insights into, say, border policy or food distribution, they plan to show the results to the World Bank, the United Nations and maybe the Springfield City Council.
And even though it's unlikely those institutions will base policy on what the slime mold tells them, Keats insisted the message is more than a metaphor.
"I recognize the absurdity of saying that slime molds should be put into the -- well, put into the White House, I think we can all agree that would be a good idea, given what we currently have," he said. "But I'm not saying they should directly be given that sort of power."
And yet, perhaps a little bit of brainlessness can go a long way.
Note: This story was originally performed on stage at Live Art Magazine in Northampton, Massachusetts, with original music by John Townsend.
Time-lapse video by Joel Penner.