Prions are twisted proteins that teach other proteins to twist like them, and the ones we study have a twist not found in a protein of identical amino acid sequence found in healthy lifeforms. Newly twisted proteins go out and proselytize the proteins they literally bump into, enabling a chain reaction to spread. The most famous prion causes BSE, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, known popularly as Mad Cow disease. A similar prion causes Jacob-Kreutzfeld (the human equivalent), another causes a disease spread by cannibalizing human brains. All biological proteins are folded (enzymes are proteins folded in such a way that their surface is a shape useful in speeding or slowing chemical reactions, and this is the organism’s main way to self-regulate), but prions are folded in a way that produces a different shape that fucks up the organism. Prions are one of the risks of genetically modified foods, since the mechanisms that help proteins to fold properly are not transferred along with the genes that encode for the protein. Prions are not considered alive even by those who consider viruses to be forms of proto-life.
See Barry Commoner’s article in the Feb02002 issue of Harper’s Magazine, reprinted here without the excellent illustrations: http://www.commondreams.org/views02/0209-01.htm
and implications including http://www.mercola.com/2002/feb/23/ge_food2.htm
I am sure you see the parallel to fundamentalisms including Libertarianism; to explicate:
1. Prions, like Libertarians, were once healthy individuals. Theoretically, they could be again.
2. Prions, like Libertarians, may become dysfunctionally twisted through remarkably short contact with infected individuals (loan an Ayn Rand paperback?). Bump. Oh, excuse me.
3. A prion, like Libertarianism, is destructive to the whole, be it a whole organism or a whole culture or a whole economy or a whole ecosystem.
4. Neither prions nor Libertarians intend harm to the whole.
5. Both transformations involve a mistake of scale, a too-narrow focus on diminutive components without a balancing cybernetic view of the overall system. Both permit components to damage the system to which they belong, while taking advantage of the same system.
6. In both cases, the transformation requires no adding or removal of material.
7. Because the material substrate remains identical, it is difficult to filter, and the risk of harming healthy specimens is too great. Again with this basic police-state civil-liberties dilemma.
8. Both transformations involve multiple iterations of local processes that may look harmless enough, viewed one at a time or “in principle.” Their harm is scalar, invisible at the smaller-scale (more individualistic) levels of magnification. Note that rhetoric used to justify antisocial behavior remains only at the individualistic level. Like the pigmentless iridescence of a Morpho butterfly wing, the color is not visible when looking at the iterated striations that produce it. If you object to an antisocial color, how can you object to uncolored striations?
9. The post-transformation operations of both types of contaminated specimens, while appearing to enjoy complete freedom, display a mechanistic, machinelike, programmed, Libran, robotic activity. Appears autonomous, acts like an automaton. Wind ‘em up and let ‘em go.
10. Both transformations have a clever quality related to what an engineer might call elegance; observing this quality of cleverness even has its satisfying facet, like looking into the well-made mechanical timer of a bomb, or noticing the diabolical intelligence required to plan a deplorable terrorist act, or slowing down like J.G.Ballard to stare at a car accident.
11. Both prionic and Libertarian forms of harm to systems involve emergent properties not predicted or designed at the small scale of component activity. Emergent properties are worth a closer look, yet require a larger scale.
12. Libertarianism, more than most fundamentalist ideologies, has an affinity for internet and undergraduate dialogues [claims for "anarchy", whatever that is, seem to have a similar affinity]. These dialogues are in two places where privileged individuals are allowed and even encouraged to self-explore. In both places, one speaker’s conversion (and proselytizing) cramps another’s exploration.
13. Absence of a guide can result in the misfolding into the ‘fatal flaw’. In the case of prions, genes that encode for a protein are isolated and allow the protein to collapse into a misfold in the absence of the original organism’s folder agents and “chaperone” proteins. In the case of Libertarianism, unprepared individuals who do not yet have critical skills [in a fragmented culture prone to isolation of individuals, families, and subcultures] are allowed to collapse into ideologies in the absence [or insufficient influence] of more well-rounded thinkers and rigorous socratic dialogue.
14. Prions, like fundamentalist ideologies of all stripes, are not alive.
Speaking of solving things at the level of the system: