Bare Bones Biology 109 – Communication

In the past two Bare Bones Biologies, that’s 107 and 108, we tackled one of the most complex of human topics, communication. There are people who specialize in this area, and I probably should consult such an expert, because I confuses me. We so seldom use communication to communicate our reality, and then we have to translate, or guess, what people mean by what they say, and I’m not a good guesser. I finally did figure out the reason people don’t listen to what I say – that’s one of my biggest complaints – is because they’re listening instead to what they would have meant if they had said it.

This is not necessary by the way. If we did understand each other it would eliminate a lot of confusion, and it would only require asking a few questions. But now I find a generation or two of people who are offended by questions, because they equate questioning their meaning with – “dissing” them. (To diss = to disrespect.)

I can understand this, because so many people in our culture are addicted to – or afraid of – power. So we often use words as we would money, or expertise, or machismo or whatever we have at hand to reinforce our own sense of dominance or of defence. The result is not very useful.

I remember a time when expertise was envisioned as useful, not because it gave us an individual edge in a world of fearful competition, but because our individual expertise, whatever it is, can be used to contribute to the welfare of the community. There still exist communities, and some new ones growing, in which each person within the community supports the efforts of the other (even if by support we mean pointing out the flaws so together we can grow a better effort).

Every effort has value, and the values among the many can be discussed. They have worth. None is perfect and none is expected to be perfect. But all together, if the information is made available for solving problems, the community is in a position to deal with the real problems as a group, and so the community has more power than the individual to build a better future for the whole.

Generally, in our culture, we tend to view these communities a primitive, but let’s face it, primitive peoples lived sustainably for thousands of years until we came along with the so-called advanced cultures that are not sustainable within the factual reality of the earth ecosystem. Loving the ecosystem will not change this fact. Neither will technology. Until the spiritualists and the technologists are willing to learn about limiting factors, our advanced human cultures are on a fast track to destruction. Because we do have responsibilities to the earth itself, and unless we know what they are, and fulfill them, well, then our spiritual and technological good intentions are, and I quote St Bernard of Clairveux: “the road to hell, paved with good intentions.”

In a society of competition, where everyone is afraid of everyone else, we cannot use our expertise compassionately to benefit the whole, because the whole is composed of other people, most of whom are more concerned with their own physical or emotional survival.

The result is useless and fruitless power struggles rather than a compassionate intention to address real problems. And in a society where people are hooked on feeling good, or aspiring to feel good, there can be very little compassion, because in a crisis situation, compassion most often does not feel good. Doing what’s best to benefit the whole, often does not feel good. But that is what compassion is – doing what is best for the long-term interests of the other and the whole.

When a solution to a problem is well documented in fact, then it is the responsibility of compassion to study these facts and use them to promote the overall welfare, that is the least suffering, of the whole. For that, we must learn to listen and to discuss. Without listening and discussion of the impact of the facts on all the levels of life, from the individual through the ecosystem, there can be no deep, sustainable, compassion.

Bare Bones Biology 108 – Communication
KEOS 89.1 FM
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Bare Bones Biology 035 – Limiting Factors

Last time we did a flash review of the information we’ve covered in this series, and it’s pretty much what we need if we decide we really want to save our ecosystem for future generations, except for one thing I haven’t yet put on the radio, the blog, or the book, and that is the concept of limiting factors. Because it’s so difficult to explain without a blackboard. But it’s also very important.

Limiting factors are those conditions that prevent any population from growing beyond the ability of the ecosystem to support it, and they come in levels, or layers, so the first limiting factor that a population might face – every organism is somewhat different, and that’s why we have so many organisms. They all live in different niches of the ecosystem that have different requirements for staying alive. Anyhow, let’s make one up. Suppose it’s a mouse living in Texas and the first limiting factor is water. I mean a species of mouse, not one individual mouse. So this mouse species can not live in areas where there is not as much water as it requires. Also, as global warming increases, the amount of water will be less and there are fluctuations year by year. The mouse population is responsive to all these changes, mostly in terms of how many babies they can raise in any given area and year. The mouse can’t raise babies in areas that have not enough water. For humans, up to now, we have taken care of the water problem by building dams and water pipes.

But back to the mouse, supposing there is enough water, but the temperature limits the number of mice in any area. We humans make heaters and air conditioners.

So maybe all the conditions were great for the mouse one year and they raised a skizzilion babies, until they are so crowded that a disease spreads through the whole population and wipes out half of them. Humans invented flu shots.

Mouse populations are constantly balanced against the predator populations. If there are five different species that eat mice, then there is a constant balance of both the predators and the prey so that the predators never eat all the mice and there are always enough mice to eat. Unless something changes, and then the numbers of predators will be affected. Or the numbers of mice will be affected, or more likely both. All these things are limiting factors. People have learned to grow their own food. Cattle. And corn. And the like.

But the bottom line is that every living cell and organism and ecosystem requires food energy to stay alive. Therefore, bottom line limiting factor is food energy. Food energy is made by photosynthesis in plants and green bacteria. If the major food of mice is a particular kind of grass seed, and if the mice become too populous, so that they eat up all the seeds, then all the mice will starve, and so will the predators. Human technologies can increase efficiency, but there is nothing humans can do to change the bottom line fact, and that is the limiting factor we now face. Or actually we are not facing it, because we’ve gotten a bit big-headed. We’ve used technology to get around all our limiting factors for all these millennia up to now, and we’ve forgotten that the only reason we could do that is because the earth was making more food than we needed to feed ourselves and our machines and now our corposystem.

But we have now reached the point where we and our machines and our corposystem are all competing with the ecosystem for food energy. Another thing we sometimes forget is that the ecosystem is not growing that food just for us; the ecosystem needs food for all its populations of millions of organisms because they do the work that the whole ecosystem needs to stay alive. So we need to pay attention to the fact that we have hit the bottom-line limiting factor for human beings on this earth. What we decide to do about this situation will determine whether or not we survive as a species, and how many people must suffer for our big-headedness. My point in doing all this work is not to change or control anything about reality, but to honor the humane imperative that tells me less suffering is better than more suffering.

Whatever happens, our populations will not grow beyond this final limiting factor because no technology can change the second law of thermodynamics.

Whatever happens, our populations will not grow beyond this final limiting factor because no technology can change the second law of thermodynamics.

Bare Bones Biology 035
KEOS 89.1, Bryan, TX

Limiting Factors

We have shown that the most important requirement for life of a cell or of an organism or of an ecosystem is to maintain a balance among all the conditions necessary for life, most of which involve energy, materials and communication.

We have shown that the behaviors of the different species of organisms are responsible for distributing energy throughout the whole ecosystem.

We have shown that the behaviors of the different species of organisms are responsible for distribution the materials of life, atoms and molecules, throughout the ecosystem.

We have shown that the behaviors of the different species are responsible for the ability of the ecosystem to react to conditions inside and outside that might be a threat to her life.

We have said that the more species an ecosystem is supporting, the more balanced and resilient that ecosystem is, because every different species has a slightly different behavior. So any little problems that happen with one or another species will have only a minor impact on the balance of the ecosystem. Other species will be able to do the same job in a slightly different way, and the more such species are available the more likely the ecosystem is to survive.

Now let’s talk about how the ecosystem protects herself in the case of some species over-running the ecosystem, like a cancer over-runs an individual organism, and so threatening the lives of the other species hat are required for balance and resilience and life of the ecosystem. For the most part, this function is performed day by day and year by year by limiting factors that are a part of the balance of the whole.

Let’s take for example a species that lives in the desert. The usual limiting factor in a desert is water. If there are too many individuals, then the whole community is likely to run short of water, and most of the individuals will die. So then there are not too many. Those that remain are the individuals who are best able to live without water, and these will pass on their genomes to the next generation. The result is that deserts are filled with organisms that have evolved intricate adaptations to the desert climate.

Water is the limiting factor in this environment that drives both balanced populations and evolution.

Suppose for one year there is more than enough water, then the population of desert mice, for example, will bloom, and the mice will begin to eat up all their food supply, until it is gone, and many will starve. In that year, food is the limiting factor.

If food is not limiting, then predators are likely to take the surplus mice in the next following breeding season. After a bloom of mice, there is likely to be a bloom of foxes, as the ecosystem uses her innate behaviors to maintain the balance that is necessary for her life.

If this fails, then the overcrowded conditions of the mice is likely to provide excellent conditions for the evolution of viral or bacterial diseases.

Notice that these limiting factors are not enemies of our species or of the ecosystem. They create the perfect conditions for any species to survive over long periods of time in an earthly ecosystem. If we really do want to survive, then we will need to understand limiting factors as friends and allies, and manage them accordingly.

The next limiting factor, if a species manages to work its way past all the previous, will be that the population becomes so large and begins to use so much energy that the waste products begin to threaten the balance between the source of energy (plants) and the using up of energy (food) until the waste products begin to affect the environment (as in global warming).

Experiments have been done, using rats or mice that are provided with all the food and water they could possibly need. When populations become so great that they are crawling all over each other, then their behaviors become “nutsy:” infanticide, murder and war increase.

At this point, the species is probably doomed to extinction by destruction of all the things it needs to stay alive.

The only difference between us and the other species is that we understand what we are doing to God’s Garden of Eden — or we can understand if we want to, because the information is available. And because of our brain — we get to choose whether or not we want to continue trashing the ecosystem. If we decide we want to provide a reasonable life style for a reasonable number of humans on the face of this earth, we must begin passing out the birth control to everyone who wants it IMMEDIATELY.

In this way our technology might save some of us.

No human technology can change the basic laws of nature that keep the ecosystem alive. No human technology can remove the limiting factors or safely unbalance the ecosystem.

Our human environment now is the whole earth ecosystem, and we are now using more resources than the ecosystem can consistently produce. I have seen what happens to mice that overpopulate their environments. Those pictures are in my mind as I see the choices we are now making.

But we are the only species in history that has been given the freedom to choose.

We can help to balance the ecosystem — the flow of energy, the recycling of materials and the balance of species.

Or —


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.