July 8, 2012
Nature’s Brains, Part 6
(Note: I invite you to read Part 5 before you dive into this part.)
It’s time to wrap this up. Have I convinced you that brains are obsolete? Probably not. That’s OK, because I am not perfectly convinced, either. However, I do suspect that they may be.
Let’s reexamine the idea of species survival. Many people—including some biologists—equate survival with competition. In layperson’s lingo survival amounts to “survival of the fittest”. Even those trained in genetics might say that a unique gene (or complex of genes) confers a “survival advantage”, meaning that individuals endowed with this advantage will be more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation than individuals lacking the genetic trait(s).
What this amounts to is that more competitive individuals or species, because of “superior adaptability” will out-reproduce other individuals/species in the race to acquire resources, meet physical needs and produce offspring that also produce offspring. Understood this way, human beings would be judged as the most competitive species, and largely due to the human brain.
If I stopped there, then you would miss the other crucial half of the picture. The “competitive half-picture” conveys the image of nature as a producer of Olympic gold medalists that can beat out other contenders. However, that is a simple human notion. Nature has been in this business too long to aim so low.
The truth is, I believe, that nature’s brilliance can be summed up in a simple word: harmony.
While it is true that the natural world does create species rivalries, it is of much greater significance that species coexist. It’s not hard to see. Walking in the neighborhood in the summer I notice that every bush is laced with spider webs. The plants don’t simply tolerate these invaders, they make them a comfortable home.
Go into any forest. You are standing within a well-balanced system in which plants, animals, insects, worms and fungi each contribute in species-unique ways to the overall health of the biome. By the way, one reference uses another interesting word: communities. Biomes are notable as communities hosting a diversity of species.
Even in extremes of inter-species competition, nature manages to maintain harmony. For example, swarms of locusts (immense concentrations of juvenile grasshoppers) can consume plant life rapidly in areas of thousands of square kilometers. In their wake locust swarms leave no living thing. This appears to be extreme competition, but it is more than that. Grasshopper populations die off, and plant communities grow anew. Nature restores balance by means of a time-based cycle.
The human brain appears to play by its own rules. As a competitor it is unsurpassed. The problem is that, in achieving its competitive advantage, the human brain has brushed aside nature’s tendencies to create coexistence. Competition may be hard, and Homo sapiens may be the winner. But one thing is certain: winning is easy when measured against nature’s ability to weave communities that maintain harmony among species.
Some people do understand this. Farmers specializing in permaculture strive to create interactive plant, animal and insect communities that produce food, retain water, create shade and sun, grow flowers and constrain pests. Their goal is to grow food in the manner that nature grows forests, with multiple species coexisting. The knowledge of how to emulate nature exists. It is not mainstream knowledge, but it exists.
That knowledge is not enough. The human brain has painted itself into a corner because we are well on our way to nine billion individuals. Most species have constraints that keep their populations in check. Prey have predators, and predators have a limited supply of prey. They are subject to limitations in territory or key resources. The human brain, though, has invented methods to defeat every limitation that governs unbridled growth in other species. Our population goes in one direction only: up.
In the end, I suspect that nature’s way will ultimately triumph. The human brain is on course to exhaust every last resource it can. In doing so, it will end the supremacy of the human species. It will also take down many, many species by disrupting the finely tuned harmony that nature has woven. Because of the human brain’s competitive and simplistic behavior, the world will undergo yet another massive extinction event.
Like the crops that were devastated by locusts, nature will re-emerge. It will continue its process of creating species that both compete and coexist in balanced communities. And it will never again produce a species with an over-competitive, non-harmonizing brain like the one encased in the skulls of Homo sapiens.