Levels

Hi Folks,

(Oh, maybe I should stop saying that, some folks on the west coast think I’m trying to be folksy, talking down, but that’s not really it. I’ll tell you what it is, even though that’s not what I started out to talk about. What it is is “levels of organization.” Everybody knows the entire universe is made up of levels of how things are organized together. Otherwise, the whole thing wouldn’t work. There is us, to begin. We are made of tissues that come together in a miraculous way; the tissues are made of living cells that come together in a miraculous way; the cells are made of molecules that come together in a really miraculous way to perpetuate life; the molecules are made of atoms that etc., etc. But we are not the top of the miraculous heap. Above us are populations, above that are ecosystems and I don’t care very much about the rest, but there are more. God maybe. The point is, the rules are different for every different level, so the discussions and explanations area different at different levels, and usually what I talk about is populations or ecosystems. But then there is us folks. So if I say “Hi Folks” I’m talking about people and not ecosystems.)

So I started out to tell you folks a true, people-level story.

Day before yesterday I was playing with the neighbor dog that had previously been playing with a (now deceased) skunk. The dog’s tooth scratched my finger. Skunks in this neighborhood often carry rabies.

First I went to talk to the neighbor to find out if the dog had its rabies shots. The neighbor was concerned about the dog.

Then I went to my vet to find out how long after a dog is bit by a skunk does the dog survive if it has rabies. The vet was concerned about the regulations that had been violated by not reporting the skunk.

Then I went to the doctor to find out if I have to go and disrupt the entire county — health service, animal control, medical reports — over a tiny scratch on my finger that happened 30 days after the skunk incident. The DOCTOR said: “Don’t worry about it the dog would have been dead in ten days if it had rabies.” So I stopped worrying about it.

And it’s really nice to know someone who can tell the difference between MY big picture and everyone else’s little pictures.

Of course, we still don’t know if I will die of rabies. Or swine flu. Or something else.
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Photo by Mary Ann

The Ecosystem Defends Itself

You may be aware that the homeland security (or someone) has been prepping us for an epidemic (wash your hands, stay home if you are ill, etc.). As a biologist with no connection to Homeland Security, except possibly as a suspect, I want to say this is a real concern. We have severely challenged the ecosystem. First I’ll tell you how, and then I’ll tell you what ecosystems do when they are challenged. Nothing personal; it’s just how ecosystems are designed — cause and effect. If we acknowledge and accept the laws of nature (that were presumably created by God or some other superhuman power, whatever we call it doesn’t change how the ecosystem functions), then we can exist nurtured within the ecosystem. Otherwise, here is what biology knows about the consequences.

The ecosystem has built in “limiting factors.” As in any web of cause and effect, the limiting factors change all the time depending upon what’s available in the system, but their practical value is to prevent any one species from overtaxing the entire web of life. These limiting factors will depend upon the circumstances, and they include: starvation; war and other abnormal behaviors; lack of water; changing characteristics of the ecosystem caused by us (that would seem to be climate change); and disease epidemics. The important point here is the more the population increases beyond the natural limits of the ecosystem, the more likely and more devastating will be the result.

In the last few hundred years, people are so clever, we have worked our way past a large number of limiting factors. The result is we are at the limit of the earth’s productivity, (even though we are killing each other almost as fast as we can) and the climate is changing, which means many organisms will be less healthy than normal, and we have set up a situation where it is easy for viruses to mutate and to find victims because there are so many people and animals all crowded together. So apparently (based on news accounts, and you know how that is) this new swine flu consists of an old swine flu that has added a piece of human flu virus among its genes. What that means? It means it’s a new disease for humans. Our immune system hasn’t met it before, so will be slow to respond.

And just a note to the unwise. It’s time to stop our reverence for technology as our Savior in this war against the ecosystem. Technology is human — God created the ecosystem. Technology can move us beyond one or more limiting factors, temporarily, and that is what we have been doing — but technology can NOT change how the ecosystem functions. It is time for us to heed the 9-1-1 call of the earth ecosystem and find ways to conform, because there is ALWAYS another limiting factor. The final limiting factor is the one biologists fear most. If we push beyond the fail-safe limits, the system itself could crash like a broken economy, or a broken egg that no longer contains what it needs to survive.

And don’t be fooled by time. It conceivably could happen almost overnight. Or it could be a few generations, but that is not a reason to ignore the reality of how the ecosystem works, because we do know how it works. The bottom line to remember is: Whatever it was like when you were born is NOT normal, and nobody wants to leave a legacy of destruction, even if it was well meant destruction.