Posts Tagged ‘Steely ideas germination’

Species, Niches, Cultures

December 9, 2011


 The diversity of species is much greater in the tropics. How come? The main reason is obvious: species get periodically vacuumed in the high latitude regions, by ice and cold. This has various notable consequences. Especially in the cultural domain.

 One has to remember how speciation happens. Speciation is a discovery that Darwin made explicit in the Galapagos archipelago, far from the South American continent. Species of the local birds had evolved from a common ancestor, a kind of South American finch. More than a generation before, Lamarck has studied various invertebrates (a word he coined), and their fossils, to show that the species had evolved over the eons, and thus that the Earth was immensely old (something that made a huge scandal at the times, at it was more in tune with Indian than Christian thinking). 

 (The theory of evolution itself, and especially evolution by natural selection was old, and its original authors were Maupertuis, of the Least Action Principle, writing 120 years before Darwin, and Lamarck, who, as a research professor in biology, another word that he also coined, could lay it thick; Darwin’s refining observations were decisive in the Anglo-American empire, though. Just as French physicists developed Newtonian mechanics in the 18 C, English evolutionists, especially Wallace and Darwin, developed the French breakthrough work of the preceding generations in biological evolution!)

 The following became clear: once introduced to a new ecological niche, a species will evolve anew. Biological species tend to be optimal for their inheritance in symbiosis with the environment they also inherited. That is why species such as oysters, sharks, turtles or crocodiles, did not change much in more than 100 million years: they were optimal, and their environment did not change. Crocodilians are the picture of perfection: not only they munched on the last dinosaurs, but recent discoveries have shown that, in some dinosaurian environments, crocs were already the top predators.

 Change the environment they are made for, and by, and suddenly species are not optimal anymore. They are forced into the survival mode. Then naturally occurring variations present an advantage or disadvantage relative to the new environment, and evolution happens again. And it happens all the faster, the greater the difference with the previous environment is. 

 Hence environments with many new ecological niches will create many new species. So the question becomes: why are there more niches in the tropics than in the cold regions? Well, one has to realize that the question is asked in space-time. History matters. When a niche changes, a species can resist through mini adaptation, while, simultaneously, the throttle of evolution is open to the max. But nothing can force all individuals of the suddenly inadequate species to evolve fast and far. Some will just make do. Thus outright new species can evolve, while versions of the old still cling around.

 In Australia, a lone, extremely ancient eucalyptus was found in the mountains. Some suggested it was the oldest individual plant in the world. That plant was, and it is, the oldest, and unique, representative of its species. The species had evolved when the climate was much colder (during or before the last glaciation). Somewhere else in Australia, in an isolated, secret canyon, in the Blue Mountains another species of pine trees, long disappeared elsewhere in the world, was also found (now they are for sale worldwide). Those plants survived to the disappearance of the niches in which they evolved long ago, through luck or happenstance (a particular canyon with special circumstances throughout history).

 Australia did not have a very cold climate, even during the worst glaciations, due to its overall location (and it drifted there from the polar region while Earth climate was much warmer). If Australia were a subpolar island, all its trees and animals would have been wiped out during great glaciations (as they were in Antarctica, which used to be joined to Australia). Under milder conditions, Australia would have been recolonized by distant trees from tropical areas: genuine Australian trees would have disappeared during a cold episode.

 Another example: trees grow again in Greenland. Trees have grown in Greenland for dozens of millions of years, but all the species of Greenland trees were eliminated when Greenland was covered by ice. If Greenland had been located next to New Guinea, it would have maybe even more species than the land of Birds of Paradise (I say “maybe” because, although Greenland is bigger, New Guinea, the wrinkled forefront of the Australian plate, has higher and larger highlands, which creates a lot more environmental niches than one would expect from a place of that size; there are isolated sky islands in New Guinea, surrounded by steaming jungle, with, of course, their own species).

 So it is in all regions that icecaps and glaciers could trample in the last four million years: cold hostile to life wiped biological evolution out clean, periodically. For example sequoias were eliminated from Europe: the slow moving trees (trees move as a species), got blocked by glaciers, and destroyed. This because mountain ranges are mostly east-west barriers in Europe. In California, they survived because the ranges are mostly north-south.

 This is nothing new: many dinosaur species evolved in very high latitudes, where their adaptation allowed them to enjoy the polar night. That was when what are now subpolar regions enjoyed a tropical climate (when crocodilians thrived in Greenland). The distant ancestors of mammals, the mammalian reptiles, evolved in very cold climate, so they evolved strong thermoregulation. This came in handy when drastic changes occurred 65 million years ago. Said change has long been viewed as an asteroid strike. But it is unlikely that an asteroid strike would have struck all dinosaurs, and all dinosaur-like sea reptiles, while leaving mysteriously mammalian and bird alone.

 Whereas, obviously, episodes of intense cold and heat could have had that effect. Dinosaurs had poor thermal regulation, but also high metabolism (differently from birds, which evolved from them; birds have higher temperatures than mammals). Crocodilians, turtles and sea snakes could survive, as they have lower metabolism: when it gets cold, they just stop moving, a luxury dinosaurs did not have. Of course, the colossal Dekkan Traps eruptions, by covering entirely the planet with clouds, while poisoning air and seas with CO2, fit the crime perfectly.

 So what I propose is simply that, as glaciations fluctuated dramatically, conditions in the tropics also fluctuated dramatically: for example the Amazon suffered droughts. This created niches (however transient, they were long enough for species to evolve). However the conditions never fluctuated so much as to lead to complete extinctions, in the tropics. As conditions changed, species tended to adapt, and new ones evolved, thus leaving a patchwork of diversity behind… At least in species which can exist in great numbers, such as insects.

 Not so in subpolar regions. In subpolar regions, intense cold periods happen, and during intense cold episodes, all species get killed (at least among plants and insects). When conditions become mild again, the regions are reconquered by survivors from the tropics (much of which became a temperate zone during glacial maxima). A similar mechanism could have demographically flood Neanderthals in suddenly warm interglacials.



 If an extinction occurs, it is probably because all the ecological niches were changed at once. So all species are not optimally adapted anymore. Some will resist in micro niches (as crocodilians, turtles, etc. did), some will evolve drastically (as birds and mammals did after the Cretaceous). In the end more species will be created, and they will compete with the old ones, so, in a sense, in the average, they will be improved, or at least the adaptability of the entire ecosystem will be greater (some of the old will be around, some of the new too).

 It is not excluded that the dinosaurs disappeared through such complicated mechanism: after an initial ecological shift, the competitivity of small mammals, or birds, may have been improved (as their personal dinosaur predators went away, say), and they may have been free to eat larger dinosaurs’ eggs, etc.



Europe is assuredly the largest expanse of greatly interconnected peninsulas, islands, mountain ranges, lakes and seas in the world. An enormous set of potential ecological niches. Some could brandish the Arctic archipelago of Northern Canada, but first, well, it’s frozen, and was completely covered by an ice cap for most of the last three million years, not a situation conducive to any sort of biology.

 Indeed, European geography is at mid-latitude, with an oceanic climate rendered mild by the Gulf Stream (which has transported tropical water towards Europe, for millions of years, since the Americas became one, and the currents changed). During the worst glacial maxima, Southern Europe was still ice-free. With mountain ranges and flowing waters everywhere, this labyrinth of ecological niches was excellent for evolving many species.

 And so it was with evolving many cultures later. The many environments in Europe allowed for evolving many cultural species. That was helped by trade, of goods or ideas, using the ubiquitous waterways. Some of the old stuff survived and transmogrified. For example, many ideas of Zoroastrianism have become part of the mental skeleton of the Enlightenment. The ideas went west by 3,500 kilometers, and in time by 3,500 years.

 (Europe is geographically defined, linguistically, humanly, commercially and physically, as roughly the Western part of Eurasia, west of the Himalayas and the Urals; India is also part of that ensemble, consecutively to conquest and colonization, about 3,500 years ago, and subsequent continual and extensive exchanges. Yes a vast steppe corridor starting in Hungary, goes all the way to Mongolia, and was always there, hence the many visits of various Mongols to Western Europe, all the way to Orleans…) 

 Compare with the entire African coast, North and West, which has only a handful of natural ports, on maybe more than ten thousands kilometers. Whereas the European coast is covered with possible ports, each ready to serve the local ecological and cultural niches with trade. Look at the Croatian coast: from far away, rather short. However, from close by, a length of nearly 6,000 kilometers, and thousands of islands. Similarly Greece or the British isles each have nearly 15,000 kilometers of coastline. And Norway, with all its fjords, more than 100,000 kilometers! This sort of extremely detailed geography and imbrications with water, allowed for extreme diversity and exchanges of very differentiated goods. Compare with the Sahara desert, with a handful of oases on an area greater than the USA (full disclosure: my first memories are from one of them, the amazing Gardahia). 

 Just an example: a small part of the Italian coast, facing the island of Elba, and endowed with natural ports, was rich in extravagant ore deposits. Especially iron. This attracted, among others, the Etruscans.

 Thus, without the wealth of iron, Rome may never have been. Verily, the long standing half joke is that the Roman peasants learned all what they knew from the Etruscans… And, later the Greeks. By the way, that grafting of a higher culture on the more simple minded may explain why Rome evolved down the blind alley of over-exploiting others, instead of developing its own deep ideas… As the Franks did, when they took over in 486 CE. 

 Some will scoff about claims of European superiority and diversity. But little known are the basic facts. For example the Celts had developed technology which was in some ways superior to Rome (and in 399 CE, the Roman republic did not get annihilated, just because the Celts condescended to be paid to go away from the Latin capital that they were occupying; the superiority of the Romans laid in the institutions of that republic). The Celts were probably the first to make fleets of thousands of boats to conduct intense systematic trade, and a polity of sorts, over an ocean (the Atlantic). 

 European diversity was a strength, as long as it did not explode into devastating conflict. After the Celts subdued the Romans in 399 CE, some marched on to present day Anatolia. They refused to submit to Alexander later. Notice that it  would have been a much poorer world if the Celts had destroyed Rome in 399 CE (as they probably could have, had they been meaner). True, the Romans conquered the Celts, but they did not destroy them: in 400 CE, the bishop of Lyon (Lugdunum, capital of the Gauls, just supplanted by the Parisian capital of the Franks), preached in Celtic. Thus a Gallo-Roman mental ecology had established itself, where many of the best ideas of both had thrived, while terrible ones (such as Celtic sacrifices) had been snuffed.

 Europe may want to remember all this, the richness of diversity, as it tries to resist homogenizing plutocracy, be from Russia (where filthy rich strongman plutocrat Putin accused Hillary Clinton to have caused the arrest of thousands of Russians, by giving a mysterious “signal” which made thousands of Russians whine in unisson), or with the so called market (intent on berating France and Germany, while lauding financially much worse, Greece like Great Britain, because the latter’s government is plutophile, thus a friend of the slave market).



 Thus one will acquire a mind endowed with more, and superior ideas by varying one’s environment: the more mental niches, the more ideas can adapt to them, the greater the chance to develop superior ones.

 I guess that is the idea behind having scientists travel all over the world to conferences where they meet each other. Although, of course, this may lead to homogenization, not speciation! To have speciation, one needs time to evolve separately, otherwise one will be thrown back with the blob, as one more undifferentiated piece of the blob.

 Speciation in the realm of ideas is why greatly original thinkers go to the desert, to avoid too much mental entanglement with the commons. That is why Montaigne called attention to the necessity of the Ivory Tower, to think deeply, quietly, and from above. Great minds cannot blossom, if they mix too much with the stupidity of what was long viewed as true by common invertebrates.

 Thus, in these times of budgetary restrictions, and considering the existence of the Internet, I would suggest that scientific conference budgets be reassigned to the rescue of scientific experiments (which are threatened, especially in astronomy, the part of physics which has brought most of the spectacular experimental results of the last 50 years). In general, the requirements of scientific careers are little conducive to originality, and groupthink is to be feared. 

 To pursue the analogy further, if ideas evolve in mental niches, what would be the equivalent of life killing cold? Well, intellectual fascism, glacially crushing all in the way. 

 Intellectual fascism could be the Roman attitude to slavery (the foundation of the economy, with the large slave enterprises of the empire, such as agribusinesses). Or it could be the social and economical devastating Christian philosophy (for example Roman Catholic Christians believed it was wrong to kill highway men, so highway robbery, being unpunished, exploded to the point that Roman roads could not be used anymore, and public order collapsed). Mao and company made the point that Confucianism was a form of intellectual fascism which had paralyzed China for millennia. And indeed they introduced communist forms of thinking which had evolved in the French niche. The French communist, not to say Communard niche. 

 The most famous intellectual fascism is Islam, a superstition which has the arrogance to claim the entire public sphere for itself (which is what Christian bishops did in the West around 400 CE; however, as Christ had very loudly ordered to separate Caesar from God, and thus soon the bishops, after trying their hand at dictatorship for a while, decided to outsource government to the Roman army, by then reduced to Imperator Clovis’ Franks). 

 Groupthink was not our ancestors’ forte. After all, our very distant ancestors were lizards who colonized subpolar areas: they were not held back by the prospect of a career among the multitudes, quite the opposite. To be different, and go where no lizard had been before, urged them on.

 And so it did, even before that, for the first fishes which followed plants on land. We live on a planet where life itself is teleonomic: it looks forward, at a distance (tele) and finds out what can be changed, or, at least, managed (nomos), to invade further. This goes against the philosophical grain of Jacques Monod’s “Chance and Necessity”, which makes a big deal that life is not teleonomic. But, just as in physics there is something called “Effective Quantum Field Theory”, so should it be in philosophy: if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, flies like a duck… It should be a duck. Life is an adaptation machine. 

 That is why probes to Mars are carefully sterilized; experiences have shown that some bacteria can survive in space. Of course, space is not a niche where bacteria evolved, but some can survive there. So it is with ecological diversity (bacteria may find harder to survive a glaciation than interplanetary space). Evolved in a particular niche, a species can survive independently, as long as a big bad glacier does not come its way, crushing all in the way.



Minds and lives were made by wasting the environment, and make it more complicated, make it at their service ever more. 

 Life changed the atmosphere of the planet by replacing its reducing atmosphere into oxygen laden air. Many suspect that this biological change brought “Snowball Earth” episodes, by knocking off greenhouse gases and replacing them by a nitrogen and oxygen mix (around 700 to 600 million years ago). The fist evidence for Snowball Earth were traces of glaciers in the tropics, at sea level. Later life adjusted itself to provide itself with a more comfortable environment (yes, adjustment does not necessitate consciousness). 

 Biological complexity has inertia. And biological complexity represents immense riches, because life forms have evolved many systems to handle the environment, countless environments, past and present. As the plutocrats ravage the planet, and biological diversity, we thus see that riches is not what they are truly after, whatever they claim. 

 What Pluto, the Dark Side of man, is after, is the illusion of the domineering self, because it has not embraced diversity. So it is with those who rule according to him, and his principles. When I speak about the illusion, I know what I mean: John Corzine, past head of Goldman-Sachs, past Senator of the USA, past governor of one of the richest states in the USA, New Jersey, has lost one billion, two hundred miilion dollars: Corzine went in front of Congress, to “apologize, I simply do not know where the money is”. He was playing with Italian debt. 700 trillions of credit swaps out there. Or maybe more, or maybe less. It’s all about illusions. Except for the Italians or American farmers whose money Corzine and his accomplices have devoured.

 The USA is under the illusion of energy independence, because frantic fracking is quickly augmenting the fossil fuel and gas production of the country. Damn the water table. Damn the CO2. Full fuel ahead! The oil crats of the USA are in heavens. So the USA has been blocking progress towards an effort to mitigate climate change (in a disingenuous ping pong with China, for the third climate conference in a row, one more illustration of the collaboration of the American and Chinese plutocracies). Hey, once again, never mind that the EPA has found what everybody knew, that fracking devastates the “vital groundwater” (with CH4 at saturation, benzene at 50 times maximum, and the Ph of bleach). OK, that’s in Wyoming, who cares?

 We may not want to indulge in near extinction, as during the Snowball Earth, before we can adjust to our new found powers (some of them powers of illusion). After all, some of us are conscious, endowed with our own personalities, even our own ideas, and we may be teleonomic enough to manage at a distance what is ahead without getting crushed by it…


Patrice Ayme