Survival

A few days ago I said I doubt if the human species will survive. Probably that sounds to you like the typical propaganda ploy of the modern sort — trying to scare people so I can “save” them — for a price. But it is not. First, I would not pick such a difficult problem to cure. Second, I have not asked you for money. And third, I spent the last ten years trying to believe that I am wrong.

I looked at the wonderful humanitarians who are working around the world today. For the most part I saw they don’t understand the biology of the world they are trying to save, and what is more disturbing they think they do understand.

I looked at our energized youth and saw that they believe, if you try hard enough, you can have whatever you want. Not surprising – they are youth – but they carry the huge power of the Western economic/political world view. Therefore some of their compassionate efforts are doing great harm to the ecosystem.

I looked at all my biological training and recalled the amazing ability of the ecosystem to respond to change. I looked with all my bias, trying to find an easy way out of the situation we face today, and I listened to all the easy outs promoted by other people who also want to say it isn’t so. I’m sorry. In my informed opinion, it is so.

What do you do when you know something that might cause harm to other people?

I am sitting here in my living room telling you this, instead of outside riding a horse, because I believe the human brain has the ability to conquer the problems we face today. Nothing is inevitable until it happens. But we won’t succeed if we continue trying to cure the problem by doing the same things that caused the problem. And we won’t succeed until we understand that the ecosystem is not human and has some needs that are different from ours. We must learn to appreciate that we can not survive without the ecosystem, any more than we could have survived without the womb of our mothers.

Almost everyone believes they know what the ecosystem needs to survive. Almost everyone doesn’t. Americans have been educated (if at all) by metaphor and nature study. The bottom line measurable facts have not been made available to us. You can’t learn them in school and you can’t learn them on PBS. The purpose of this project is to describe, as succinctly as possible, the basic survival needs of the ecosystem.

Most of us believe that all of life must be governed by the same ethic that governs us humans, our human ideal of how life should be. The true fact is that all of life is a balancing act between what is good for you and what is good for me and what is good for them. Between what is good for people, and what is good for the ecosystem. Once we understand this balance, we can stop trying harder and ever harder to impose human (actually Western) standards and ethics to solve a problem that is no longer basically political or social, but at its roots now is biological.

The overview of this problem boils down to three basic realities. These realities are not controversial and they are not hard to understand. The difficult part is juggling the balance among them. To be healthy, each living thing, including the ecosystem, requires that all its parts and processes be maintained in balance.

1. The ecosystem is a living thing, and all living things are networks. Now we can mathematically understand networks of all sorts (see Linked by Barabasi) but ecologists have been studying the ecosystem as a biological network for at least a century. It is not a new idea; good factual information is available.

2. The ecosystem consists of levels of organization. Everyone also understands levels of organization, for example in politics. There is the President, the Secretaries of various things, their secretaries, and eventually at the bottom there is us. We usually don’t use the term “levels of organization,” but we know what they are.

3. For a living thing to stay alive it requires a constant flow of energy into the system, a constant flow of the information of life through the system (that’s genetics we will talk about later) and a constant cycling of the basic materials such as oxygen, carbon dioxide and food (we will also talk about later). We already know we can’t change these things and still be alive. The reflect unchangeable laws of nature. For example, we know what happens if you stop breathing. Or eating.

So if we already know all these things — why am I trying to tell us about them? Why am I worried, with all the effort that is going into saving us?

I’m worried because we humans are behaving as though we could use our technology to change these three requirements of life. These are the basic laws of life. They are not laws like running a stop sign and paying a fine. They are laws like if you jump off a really high building.

So let’s discuss the three realities of life on earth:

1. The ecosystem is a living thing, and all living things are networks.

Of course we know the ecosystem is the largest network of life; it is much too complicated for any person or group of persons to understand all the details. And the details change, because of the way networks (all networks) function by interactions among all their “nodes.” Nodes is the term used in Barabasi’s book about how networks function. For example, your computer might be a node in the internet. My computer is only a tiny node, but it can connect with any other node and it does connect with quite a few nodes that are necessary to do my work. Google is a very big and important node. There are also intermediate sorts of nodes. We can compare the connectedness of the internet to the way in which an ecosystem stays alive. There are very important nodes, such as the plains ecosystem, or the arctic ecosystem that interact to keep the whole earth ecosystem alive. Then there are all the millions of species of organisms that interact to keep the plains ecosystem or the arctic ecosystem alive. I am a human organism. And then there are all the cells that interact to keep me alive. And each cell is also a living network composed of molecules.

The point is that each node within the ecosystem has a function (a task or job) that contributes in some way to the requirements of the ecosystem being alive. We have said the basic task of keeping a living thing alive requires energy flow, information flow, and recycling of materials. Each of these three requirements in the ecosystem or in ourselves is done by millions of nodes each of which does one little bit of the big process. And there are fail safe nodes — more than one node doing similar jobs. If a node fails, another might be able to do the job. Thus, if enough diversity exists in the network, it can survive when a node is lost.

That’s number one. Clearly the earth ecosystem is a network, and just as clearly we don’t understand the details of all the millions of jobs that are done by large and small nodes/species/ecosystems. We should be careful about destroying things we don’t understand. Whatever their job, it has something to do with survival of the ecosystem. If a node is not contributing to the welfare of the whole living thing, then that node (or the living thing) becomes extinct. All living nodes are contributing to something.

Point number two is about levels of organization. We referred to them above as being part of the ecosystem. Actually, levels of organization more than that. They are basic to all of everything we know, from atoms to the whole universe. But the living levels that we have discussed are: prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells and multicellular organisms, ecosystems made of multiple different kinds of organisms, the whole earth ecosystem that consists of smaller ecosystems. Organisms are a middle level of life. We are organisms.

So, point number two is that we can not survive without cells (because we are made of cells) and we can not survive without the ecosystem, because it provides food, materials, energy and information — the requirements for all of life. Our technology will not save us from “them” because they are us.

Point number three is the thing that most people have not been told: The requirements for staying alive are not the same at each level.

For example, we humans are made of multiple cells, — therefore we need a system to communicate among these cells. That system includes our brain. The brain — our fine thinking — is an emergent property of our multicellular level of organizaton. Emergent properties are capabilities of higher levels of organization that are not shared by their subunits. For example we can think in ways that other creatures can not. We can think as we do because of our brain. Our brain is an intricately complicated organization of specialized cells. Organisms at lower levels of organization are not as complicated and therefore can not do some of the things we can do. For example, a bacterium can not think as we do, even though it is an organism, because bacteria are only one cell and therefore can not have brains that are made of a zillion cells all organized to be able to think. We humans are made of multiple cells, — therefore we need a system to communicate among these cells. That system includes our brain. The brain — our fine thinking — is an emergent property of our multicellular level of organization.

Because humans have emergent properties that cells don’t have, we also have requirements to stay alive that are beyond what a cell requires to stay alive. We have organs (such as the brain) that are made of cells, and then we need a heart and blood to carry nourishment to all the cells of the brain, and then we need lungs to capture the oxygen to send to the heart for transport to the brain — and so on and on. A single cell is not so complicated. All it’s requirements — energy, food, information, materials — all come directly from the environment.

But we humans are only in the middle of the levels of complexity. The ecosystem is much more complicated than we are. Therefore, the ecosystem also has emergent properties that are even more complicated than ours, and it also has requirements for survival that are grander than ours.

We are not the rulers of the ecosystem — we are only nodes in the ecosystem, just as our brain is a node in us — and a single cell is a node in the interacting information flow of our brain.

If these nodes are unable to work together in the network of life, then they are eliminated. If the network is a healthy one, with sufficient diversity, a bad node will be replaced by a fail-safe node that can do a better job. The network is sustainable without the offending node. If the network is not healthy, if it is not sufficiently diverse for example, or if one node takes over as in cancer, then life dies.

Point number four, then, is the same as point number three. If we want to stay alive as a human species — our children and their children — we must not kill the ecosystem, or ourselves within it.

I am not worried about the crooks — not very much. There are always crooks, and we need to deal with them, but everyone knows that. I am worried because all of the beautiful, wonderful humanitarians I have met are sacrificing themselves to promote human values at the expense of ecosystem values. They are sacrificially promoting our Western human ethic, assuming that will also save the ecosystem. It will not. The ecosystem is much more complicated than we are, and therefore has some needs that are different from ours.

Here are some examples of fine, ethical world views that I believe are causing harm to the ecosystem — and before I give you examples I want to say that I have been studying these different groups for ten years in hopes of finding a major world view that is healthy for the ecosystem. The goals of all these groups is to help save the ecosystem. However, none of these world views, as a generalization, incorporates the needs of the ecosystem as imperative to the welfare of human kind. Therefore, by omission, I believe their efforts are doing more harm than good.

And here we need a disclaimer, because generalizations have received a bad name in our culture and I am about to proclaim some massive generalizations. Generalizations can be harmful, but on the other hand, if we can not see the overview picture what we are doing, we will be lost in a forest of details, trying to evaluate the whole forest based on the one tree that happens to be nearby. Or as I often say, we will continue to run off in all directions at the same time, the work of each canceling out the efforts of the other. We need generalizations if we are to establish goals. We can’t get anywhere until we know where we want to go. Evolution itself is based in generalizations — population norms — not primarily individual performance. As is politics. Think of all the fake (sometimes real) polls we use to guide our ship of state. Good generalizations are hard to come by, but they are necessary for good problem solving.

Following are generalizations about the world views I have studied. I hope we can use them as a guide to our individual thinking, as we work to develop a world view that will do more good than harm to ourselves:

Social networking/new age belief system understands the need for networking positive values, but they are networking human values and my experience is that they do not want to hear about the bottom-line needs of the ecosystem. In fact are often offended by them.

The new American economic belief system is the world view most likely to destroy us, because it is a Ponzi scheme based in infinite growth. We know (and it is discussed in Barabasi’s book on networking) what happens to Ponzi schemes. They do not go quietly; they crash. Our economy is based on a myth of unlimited resources and unlimited growth, both of which are impossible. That myth is also energizing the major charitable organizations such as CARE and Bill Gates’ projects and the nation-building that I have peripherally observed. I am not saying these goals are in any way bad; I’m just saying the goals area impossible to reach using Ponzi thinking, and the result is predictable both mathematically and by decades of biological studies of population dynamics. We can wish it were not so; it is so because it unbalances the ecosystem.

The religious world view can not be lumped into a single category. However I will try. Does your religious world view believe that God would make a human species and give us a unique brain that can understand all these things — and place it in the middle of the levels of organization of living things — for no reason? Might God want us to not to destroy this wondrous creation? For any reason? If we want to save it, we must inform our ethics and philosophy and the messages of our religious documents, using the measurable factual reality of The Creation itself.

Political world view mostly has to do with winning and losing. Tony Hillerman (Seldom Disappointed) suggests that some people may think all of nature is based in predator/prey relationships. This dichotomous viewpoint is naïve and self-serving and can not possibly explain the magnificence of the living earth ecosystem, which — we know this — is a network. Not an argument. Imagine that only winners survive. What would they survive in? No, the network would be destroyed and us with it. If we really want to build a future for human kind we will have to find a way to provide all the nodes with at least the basics of what they require for survival. It’s more complicated by far to provide for the species than to provide for me alone, but we do have that God-given brain and we are capable of looking at the whole system if we choose to do so.

And on that subject, we have people who believe in survival of the fittest without stopping to think that they/we do not get to define what is fitness. Fitness has nothing to do with one human being “better” than another, or with whatever Darwin thought a couple hundred years ago. Fitness, we now know, is a population phenomenon. And even with regard to populations — genocide has been tried. It didn’t work very well. Fitness has to do with (as always) balance. Balance between reproductive effectiveness (an extremely complex subject) and the available resources of the ecosystem network. Underpopulation or overpopulation are both less fit than ideal population levels, relative to the environment we live in.

Bottom line! If we want our children’s children to have any kind of reasonably tolerable life style we will have to give this living network what it needs in order to survive. None of our current Western world views can accomplish this goal unless we add a strong dollop of factual information about the real needs of the ecosystem. And then begin a goal oriented discussion among all the world views and all the charitable organizations, beginning with these questions:

“As I try to help human kind, am I causing harm to the ecosystem?” The answer to this is inevitably yes, because there is always give and take when seeking a balance. Therefore we must ask the next question:

“How can I change my operation so that I will cause less harm to the ecosystem while I continue to help human kind?”

If we want to survive we must evolve a new world view that is based in balance. In this respect the social/new age world view is on the right track ethically, if it were willing to recognize the factual needs of the ecosystem where it differs from human wants. But unfortunately social change/new age seems not to recognize that there is a difference between measurable facts and opinions and therefore treats them functionally as equal. Unless this view can be focused and informed, social change/new age is more responsive to passing whim than to a positive long-term goal.

Oh yes, in fairness I should try to include the scientist’s world view, with which I am somewhat familiar. In my experience, real basic science is nearly dead and most of the survivors are living in the ivory towers of their well developed brains, where life is (believe me) a lot more fun than solving real problems.

Except for the occasional conceptual breakthrough (Isaac Newton, Einstein) we are a group with no power to accomplish any goal. Technology, of course, is extremely powerful, but technology is not basic science and most technologists are not trained in basic science. So if you think of yourself as a scientist, consider whether your work is about inquiry or application. In the latter case I would classify you in the economic world view or the political world view, neither of which can succeed in the long term unless they begin to incorporate into their thinking the needs of the ecosystem.

In fact, so few basic scientists remain that we have essentially no voice in the outcome. Unless you choose to listen.
And why should you if we have no control over the laws of nature or the way in which the ecosystem balances itself and gets rid of pesky irritants such as ourselves? I’ll tell you exactly why.

The more your behavior and our politics unbalance the ecosystem the more human suffering will ensue and that kind of human suffering is unnecessary and avoidable. There is a direct relationship between our growth ethic, our behavior, the challenges to the ecosystem, and the number of other people who must live in conditions of starvation, war, disease, genocide. You and I make decisions regarding the growth ethic every day of our lives, from believing the ill-considered propaganda of the chamber of commerce or the oil companies to our holiday orgies to our shopping choices.

Everything is connected. Your choice in the voting booth in the USA – your hand on the shopping cart – does reach out and touch the hand of a child starving in Bangladesh. Most of the human problems that we activists and politicians and religious folk are trying to cure are caused by the growth ethic — and none of them will improve until we face that fact and decide to give the ecosystem what she needs — not what we think she should need.

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2 Responses

  1. [...] food all through the entire ecosystem so that all of its parts can stay alive. We discussed last time why an internet requires all its parts to continue [...]

  2. [...] is distribution of the energy so that all the parts of the ecosystem can stay alive. We discussed last time why an internet requires all its parts if it is to maintain resilience and [...]

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