Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Thoughts on biology - We aren't the first

Western civilization is not the first to alter a bioscape. Though we are the latest.

American Indian -
Though we like to romanticize the American Indian, their migration to North America had a big effect on the wild life. Shortly after they arrived the population of large mammals in the continent dropped steadily and caused the extinction of many species.

Of course, Indians didn't affect the whole planet. This is true, but western civilization isn't the first in even that respect. When plants first came about there were many different kinds of microbes floating around in the carbon dioxide rich atmosphere. When the plants started pumping out oxygen many of them couldn't cope and left us forever extinct.

This is what I have gathered from the scientific community. My suspicion is that every time a new species climbs to the top of the food chain there is a shift in the network beneath it. Like the sand on a dune as you climb.

There is a moral in noting that not all kings of the hill firmly established their presence on the planet. Most notably the dinosaurs. Another suspicion tells me there are still others who left us due to their own vices. Sometimes standing on top of the dune changes it in such a way that you can no longer stand on top of it.


As it has been often noted in a geological frame humans haven't been on Earth very long. This seems to raise great pride that we managed to rise to such esteem so quickly.

I'm not so sure there was another choice. Well, other than extinction.

There was some novelty, perhaps the opposable thumb, perhaps a neurological reconfiguration, that caused us to outgrow our biological niche. From there we would have been looking for another niche; another place to secure a livelihood and with it our presence. But we didn't find it. We kept innovating and looking, and innovating and looking but eventually we ran out of places to look and we had to make our home at the top of the food chain.

As we are finding this can be a very tenuous place to hang your hat. The sand is shifting beneath our feet and we don't know what it will look like when it stops. Equilibrium will be restored. That is what nature does. It will stop eventually, perhaps with us still on top and perhaps not.

Perhaps unfortunately that is not the end of the story. Assuming we are still on the dune when it stops moving we will be but another grain of sand. We will have established practices, cultures, relationships with places, things and other species. We will eventually stop innovating. There will be no more reason to, and we will be another grain of sand on the dune.

There will be another late comer to the planet, probably terrestrial, perhaps extra-. They will try to position themselves on top of the dune and find it shift beneath their feet. Our established relationships will be stressed, our innovative muscle will be weak, and we may be fed upon.

We may then, for the first time, be depended upon on this planet.

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