Ascidae - colour enhanced and slightly distorted.

SymbiosisDeFined: The Trials and Tribulations of Symbiotic Organisms.


Most people think of Symbiosis as some sort of vague cooperative existence. That is not really accurate. It scrapes the surface of a complex subject.

Symbiosis is from the Greek word συμβίωσις, symbíōsis, "living together". All that actually means, to Biologists, is that two, or more, organisms have a close, long term, interacting, relationship. To understand and express what kind of Symbiosis two organisms have, Biologists go beyond the term Symbiosis to a detailed language for describing Symbionts - organisms in symbiotic relations. Because Symbiosis has been a serious, powerful and significant impact on the Ecology (from the Greek: οἶκος, "house" and -λογία, "study of") of the Global System. Symbionts, literally, drive change and conditions on the Earth. Symbionts are the Housekeepers of the Living Planet.

The first distinction Biologists make in describing symbiosis is to ask the question: is the relationship facultative or obligatory? What this question seeks to discover is if the relationship is optional: could the symbionts get the same benefits out of independent living. If both symbionts can live independently but get a slightly better use of resources, or access to resources, then the relationship is facultative. If both symbionts must be in the relationship to survive then that is obligatory. The difficult task for this part of describing symbiosis is where there is a difference between the two symbionts: where one needs the relationship and the other does not but those needs are not absolute. That gives a lot of work to investigating the actual costs and benefits that the symbionts have in that relationship. The facultative-obligate distinction comes into sharp focus when discussing a very simple cryptocurrency on a blockchain ledger. The Ledger has a facultative relationship to the Cryptocurrency while the Cryptocurrency has an obligatory relationship to the Ledger. Without the Ledger there is no Cryptocurrency but without the Cryptocurrency, the Ledger could be used for some other purpose.

Symbionts are also classified by physical attachment - which might seem to be irrelevant, but be patient. Symbionts that form a single body are in an arrangement called conjunctive symbiosis, while all other arrangements are called disjunctive symbiosis. Notice that this is about the relationship not about the individual organisms. So, for example, a cryptocurrency's transactions are in a conjunctive relationship with the Blockchain Ledger because, quite literally, the Blockchain Ledger records the transactions. In this sense, the strength of the conjugation is the strength of the fungibility of the cryptocurrency. Non Fungible Tokens have a disjunctive symbiosis with a blockchain. While a Non Fungible Token might well be recorded on Blockchain A, there is nothing stopping that Non Fungible Token from being exclusively traded on Blockchain B. This kind of distinction comes into sharp relief when considering Governance Tokens. A Governance Token that has no physical attachment to a particular blockchain has no obligation to that blockchain. A facultative disjunctive symbiont has a lot less to recommend it as a Governance Token than an obligate conjunctive.

The reality of Symbiosis is that the definition was hotly debated for about 130 years.  That debate honed the subtle gradations of meaning that applied to concepts that build into an understanding of what Symbiosis really is. In 1877, Albert Bernhard Frank used the term symbiosis to describe the mutualistic relationship in lichens. Lichens are odd: not quite plants, not quite animals but also a bit of both. Lichen are cyanobacteria or algae living among fungal hyphae. Putting them into the Plant or Animal Kingdom is a task that raises more questions than answers. But trying to classify them leads to a richer understanding of how organisms interact to survive. Lichens suggest that the idea of Evolution as just raw, violent, competition is naive in the extreme. There are things that Lichen do which really change the environment for all living things - such as making soil from rocks - which promote the longevity of other organisms but not the Lichen. However, the existence of those long lived organisms provides a longer term environment for Lichen to flourish in terms of numbers. Symbiosis is not simple.

The most detailed part of any understanding of symbiosis comes with the classification of interactions. Broadly, Biologists imagine two organisms - Organism A and Organism B - and then describe the relationship between the two organisms. This is broad brushstrokes - although it can generate a hugely detailed body of data. In terms of the described relationship, there is a cost benefit analysis. You add all the costs of participation for Organism A in one column and all the benefits of participation for Organism A in a second Column; then find the difference - the balance - between the two. Repeat for Organism B. Then compare the Balance for Organism A with the Balance for Organism B. Traditionally, Biologists have not done this as a strict accounting exercise on a routine basis, but the addition of Computers into the Discipline has changed that. The Balance between Organism A and Organism B gives a sense of the classification of interactions. This classification of interactions is what has fuelled the debate for a century and a half.

Interaction Types

When you begin to understand how these interactions work then you begin to compare them to how things work in the Cryptosphere. The first, and usually most controversial obseervation is that Competition results in mutual harm. This does makes sense when you consider that competition is a zero sum game: there must be a winner and a loser in every interaction. So, if Organism A harms Organism B by obtaining a resource that is useful to Organism B and Organism B reciprocally harms Organism A by obtaining a resource that is useful to Organism A. The key to understanding why this is mutual harm centres on understanding scarcity. Both Organism A and Organism B make resources more scarce by participation. This reflects in the long term reduction of return on investment. Competition degrades ecology in the larger sense than the single interaction between Organism A and Organism B because both Organisms amplify the general scarcity of resources and hoarding behaviours. What most people believe is Competition is, in fact, Mutualism.

Mutualism is the flip side of Competition: both Organism A and Organism B emerge from the interaction with significant resource advantage. The difference is, in general, that these resources are shared not hoarded. The clarity that the structured definitions of interaction types can be immense. Particularly where Organism A and Organism B are digital assets. Take Tokens, for example. Tokens are generally built on top of a Blockchain Ledger. One of the driving design principles of Satoshi's Blockchain Ledger was to postion the Ledger as a Neutralist Symbiote. In terms of Organism A and Organism B being People who simply wish to exchange value without needing to know who the other person is or if they are trustworthy. Neutralism gives the Blockchain Ledger an ideal position for that: the Blockchain Ledger is Neutral. Which is actually a powerful position because it allows the Blockchain to mediate the intentions of Organism A and Organism B. In Bitcoin this is very simple. Indeed it is almost a simple as it can be. Transactions are vouchsafed by a mechanism of Proof of Work and the only real exchange is of value. The Bitcoin Ledger had a balanced, well thought out purpose and rationale. That clarity of intention, communicated to participants, makes Bitcoin, as a digital Organism, difficult to move to any of the other positions.

Bitcoin can be moved from Neutralism to Mutualism or Competition. That movement underpins the movement of Bitcoin Markets from Bull to Bear and makes the behaviour of such Market Actors as Whales into behaviour of interest because such scale of behaviour can become determinative of the future behaviour of all digital Organisms. While there are many, small Market Actors all using small digital assets - single Bitcoins, for example - the underpinning environment can be Mutualistic and foster Mutualism in transactions and digital assets. That kind of perspective, of analysing the Ledger, Cryptocurrency, and Tokens in terms of the strictly ecological interpretation of Symbiosis, gives rise to a powerful analytical tool. One which gives a perspective about different digital assets.

Symbiosis, in its full biological complexity, has the potential to underpin a distributed exchange with some incredibly powerful ways to interact and to analyse interactions. An exchange is, in the terms of Satoshi's original Bitcoin, the weakest link in the ecological web. There are always issues of trust; but, beyond those issues, there are subtle issues of what behaviours does an exchange drive. Exchanges that allow exchange across different Blockchain Ledgers need that transaction to be *maximally trusted*. Which is where Symbiosis as a biological concept gives analytical tools that facilitate an understanding of what can be expected from Symbiosis as a Distributed Exchange concept.

A distributed exchange, potentially, provides a Neutralist position from which Coins or Tokens with different intentions can be exchanged in what amounts to a trust product. Instead of being simply a way to swap one set of numbers for another, Symbiosis has the potential to create a new level of trust between different Cryptocurrencies and - far more critically - between Cryptocurrencies and Non Fungible Tokens. By providing an ecology that brings transparency and openness between disparate Ledgers, Non Fungible Tokens begin to cease being a vehicle for rug pulls and fradulence. Symbiosis provides a model for undertanding what an NFT intends to get out of participation. The analysis of a particular NFT in relation, to, say, Etherium and towards Collectors within the framework of trust, gives a strong movement towards Repuational Economics and away from purely value exchange models of interaction. In other words, it obliges NFTs to be more than simply a permutation of some generative art algorithm. In that respect, Symbiosis is a profoundly interesting way of analysing transactions and how worthwhile they are to Market Actors. It raises the stakes for an Exchange from being a way to cash out to being a way to cash in. To become part of a wider digitially mediated community that both benefits from the ecology created by the presence of the of the Exchange and contributes to the Exchange in terms of such things as Trust and being Trustworthy.

The bottom line for such an approach - Symbiosis - is that Market Actors have a far clearer idea about what they intend to put in and what they intend to take out. Something that benefits such things as NFTs where it can be unclear which parts of the NFT can be trustd to benefit and which parts are just cost. Rather than just being something sold on the Hype Cycle, NFTs become something with an analysable value growth cycle. That ability to analyse in terms of System Components - Block Chain Ledgers, Tokens, Coins, and so on - as interacting Organisms gives a powerful technique for demystifying the various digital assets. Which, in turn, gives a set of conceptual tools for understanding potentially competing coins or ledgers.

An exchange that is both distributed and functionally inter-Ledger builds a powerful basis for understanding both market conditions for the purposes of exchange but also a powerful means for understanding whatever it is that coins embody in terms of value and community. It takes a step closer to connecting the purely virtual with the purely physical domains of economics. With practice, experience of recognising scam coins and high risk use cases can be communicated in a more standard language and that communication backed up with a solid infrastructure that can be, if needed, used to demonstrate intuitions about the value and behaviour of digital assets.

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Hubert Huzzah
Hubert Huzzah

An ongoing manifestation of Thee Surrealerpool Collage of Alchymical, Flâneurial and ’Pataphysical Studies. An Institutuion with membership by invitation, coercion and accident only. Hawkers, Traders and Carlists not welcome except by exception.


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