ranking biological success
cummins at possum.murdoch.edu.au
Wed Jan 5 22:34:34 EST 1994
I think it was Haldane who put it in a nutshell when asked what, if
anything he could deduce about God from his creation and said that
(s)he must be inordinately fond of beetles!
The question of measuring "success" (and its difficulty) is covered in
Edward Wilson's wonderful recent book "Biodiversity" and also
"Complexity" by Roger Lewin. The average tropical rainforest has about
four times the biomass of ants as large vertebrate predators, and yet
we tend to see the latter as the main rationale for preserving
wilderness areas ("Save the Tiger"). We are relentlessly
mammalo-anthropocentric in our view of the living universe, and also
still imbued with Victorian notions of "Progress" (relentlessly
demolished by SJ Gould in his book on the Burgess Shale fossils -
forget the name). IMHOP the winners are undoubtedly bacteria: Wilson
reviews evidence (from Norway, I think) that a single gram of soil
taken at random has about 5000 different species. Another gram of soil
also had 5000 species: but different!
The only theories of "Progress" that stand up to examination, in my
mind, are those that address consciousness, communication and
computational complexity. I guess to some extent the Internet is the
latest expression of this. However, that same capacity to organise and
dominate other living organisms is probably going to lead to the end of
the human evolutionary experiment through destruction of the
environment: not a very "successful" adaptation in the long term!
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For every complex problem there's a simple solution. And it's wrong!
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