Chapter 03 – The Flow of Information

Chapter 03 of Bare Bones Ecology will describe how the ecosystem “thinks.”

WAIT — that is a metaphor! I said there would be NO metaphors. The ecosystem does not think (so far as anyone knows), nor does it have a localized brain to think with.

But it is true that the ecosystem must have some way to control the flow of energy that we discussed in chapter one, and the recycling of materials (nutrients) that we talked about in chapter two. All living things control their own responses to their environment. Little individual cells on the forest floor responding to hormones, come together to make the multi-cellular body of a slime mold. The spider plant that you hang in your window reaches its leaves toward the outdoor light. The human body knows when and how to digest food that we eat. And the ecosystem also responds to conditions inside and outside of itself.

Responding appropriately to conditions is how living things stay alive. We can’t respond to something if we don’t know it is there, so we need information about the conditions, and a way to respond to them. Most of the science of physiology is about how humans recognize and respond to information. (They call it stimuli; a stimulus is something that our bodies can recognize; it is information the body can respond to.) We use sense organs and the nervous system to recognize stimuli; we use hormones and the nervous system to respond to them.

In the case of the ecosystem, information is embedded in all the genetic materials (the organic molecules of DNA and RNA and proteins) that are in all the cells, tissues, organs and organisms of all the interacting levels of organization of the entire ecosystem. It would not be too much like a metaphor to say that genetic information permits the ecosystem to maintain a balance among all its millions of parts. And because the cell is the basic (smallest and least complicated) unit of life in the ecosystem, therefore we will first describe how genetic communication functions in cells. Then we will move to organisms, and then the entire ecosystem.

Today, however, we will finish by mentioning a few of the major functions that the ecosystem must keep balanced, by referring back to chapters one and two.

Sustainability
is our overall goal. For the ecosystem, sustainability means the ability to survive. Sustainability is not something that human technology can accomplish for the benefit of the ecosystem, even though that is what technologists and TV announcers would like you to believe. The ecosystem “knows” how to sustain itself or it would not be living here with us inside of it. Human technology is indeed important, but its importance is negative. In the present time, the primary effect of technology is to threaten the sustainability of the ecosystem. As long as we continue to use technology for whatever we think is good, instead of learning what the ecosystem needs to stay alive that is different from what we think is good, our technology will be a danger to the ecosystem.

Resilience is a term that can be applied to one component of sustainability. The earth ecosystem uses all the interacting functions of all the species to sustain itself. It’s like fail-safe backup systems in a space shuttle, only very much more complicated. A system with more parts and redundancies is more resilient, up to a point of confusion. The more species there are doing the various functions that are necessary for the life of the ecosystem, the less likely the system will crash. When one of the sub-systems goes out of balance, the ecosystem can still adapt if it is a minor imbalance. If it is a big problem, or there is not enough fail-safe (for example, destruction of photosynthetic plants or excess burning of energy) then we get climate change, and we also get disruption of the flow of energy through the ecosystem.

Energy flows through every organism in the ecosystem, and all must be retained in balance for the entire network of organisms to do the work of recycling materials and maintaining the conditions necessary for life.

So – all the cells and organisms of the whole earth ecosystem spontaneously and collaboratively work together to create and maintain life. Most of them don’t know they are doing this, but that is how the system is maintained biologically. This could not happen without some kind of information that ties the parts together in their behaviors now, and especially over long periods of time, so that whatever works today continues in the same way tomorrow, and whatever is not working today causes changes for tomorrow. In the ecosystem as a whole, this information (as far as we know scientifically) is mostly genetic, and probably also climatic.

In the human organism, communications are partly via the nervous system, partly via the hormonal system, and all controlled by genetics. In the single cell, the communications are mostly genetic, and that is where we will begin, with a teeny bit more of biological chemistry next Sunday.

For Studs Terkel, the pony above, RIP