A SyndWich of #TPOC, & more…

by Prof. Bernd Heinrich, The University of Vermont, Burlington

Coexistence is a broad concept and one that conjures up many pictures in my mind. I think of my daughter, Lena, when still very young, trotting down our driveway with the two just-hatched Canada goslings trying frantically to keep up with her. I think of her and them on the lawn next to the baby swimming pool along with our Jack Russell terrier and yellow Labrador retriever all at peace and contended and happy. And then I think of her on Star Island where we were in a virtual gull colony, where she picked up a fuzzy little baby gull and I have a picture of her holding it up to her face, showing absolute bliss, and then I think of her now a biologist, in love with nature, and back at Star Island, doing conservation work in a colony of nesting terns, protecting them from the predation of herons and black-backed gulls, who feed baby terns to their own chicks. The gull population had exploded due to their feeding on our dumps and the cast-off prey from fishermen’s boats which they follow in cloud-like groups. We have invested ourselves as a sometimes-overwhelming presence into the web of nature. We would be oblivious to it, or not caring, without our binding to it too, by our sense of its beauty and majesty, which comes from knowledge and direct experience in it through intimate contact. It comes also with a fear, that such contact is ever-more denied us by misguided notions that we must not touch nature but experience it only vicariously from a distance, to not harm it, when in fact it’s the only way to know intimately, to care.

As an example, close to me is a boy who was sent to a nature program where, on a guided nature walk in the woods, he found a beetle that had ignited his imagination. On wanting to, of course, keep it, the instructor chided him to instil a ‘lesson’. “Don’t mess with nature.” “Leave it.” Understandably the boy was upset. The instructor should have gone on, instead, to encourage him. But no, she killed his instinct and he lost his interest – there had been no understanding of ecology, nor of psychology, by the instructor. A chance lost. The same happened to me; angry letters for ‘messing with nature’, for my involvement with touching it too intimately, including collecting and eating it. My plucking a crow out of the nest and raising it by catching and killing frogs and bugs to sustain it, and having it as a friend, will have infinitely less negative ecosystem impact than a person living in an apartment in NYC.

The astounding diversity and abundance of the natural life in any one place or time is coexistence in action. It fascinates and excites since from the common-sense notion of selfishness life evolved by natural selection where one type should prevail as the others fade. Instead, from the perspective of evolutionary time, coexistence has produced ever-greater biodiversity and abundance since the first forms of life appeared on Earth as single cells. Thus, although focusing on individual selfishness makes a point, it also misses the greater point. Diversity, with its concomitant coexistence, is a matter of perspective. For example, a pack of wolves tearing down an elk, choking it and ripping it open to kill and consume it could be seen to be competition to the death, not coexisting. However, from another perspective, elk and other herbivores, in the absence of predators (as we now know from a large number of experiments) overpopulate and then die in large numbers, by the lingering death of starvation. All this while simultaneously ruining the homes and habitat not only for themselves but also for innumerable species of mammals, birds, insects, and plants. Coexistence can seem blurred, or even disappear, on too close a focus, but emerges from the perspective of time and distance.

Coexistence has been evolving since, perhaps, the first blue-green algal cells, likely invaded other, perhaps, fungal-like cells to become lichens, and ultimately the process produced mosses, cabbages, and primitive trees, until finally flowering plants in ever-greater diversity. Animals evolved to feed on them, multiplying that diversity by competition and specialization, and still others evolved to scavenge on both plants and animals when they died. The first bacteria that invaded other cells likely killed them, but some parasitized cells tolerated the invasion and used it for their own advantage, becoming mitochondria, the power houses of cells in multicellular air-breathing animals. This union eventually led, through evolution, to us humans. The process is hardly different with an evolving culture, with one culture invading another leading to greater diversity. What proximally can be perceived as failure is an opportunity for change leading to new options for growth and reproduction. However, only very recently have we, the only clearly self-conscious and dominant species on Earth, come to understand this process.

There has been no previous opportunity for intervention, leaving the process of coexistence in the blind hand of evolution where it works by competition, predation, parasitism, and scavenging. We are the recipients of that often bloody battle waged for some two or three billion years. But we are now the beneficiary of it. The world is now, by our human, evolved power, at our use for disposal, for destruction, or nurturing, or supreme enjoyment, and our love of life. At least with respect to ourselves, the current occupants of this Spaceship Earth, one of a billion, billion in the universe, we do not need to continue to exert our power to dominate all Life on Earth, as some not long ago held up as though it were the human mission, and one that most of us now, inadvertently, still practice. We are all evolved within the same sets of genes to be doing that overpowering, as long as we remain perhaps often unknowing or uncaring enough of what we are doing.

Knowledge of what we are doing is not enough to maintain the biodiversity of life. We also need the will. To save the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the barn swallow, or the wolf, we need to want to save them. We now know that each of them lives in an ecosystem, not in a cage. To preserve them we need first of all to preserve the ecosystem. A functioning ecosystem will take care of the parts – the thousands, millions of species in it. We need to do nothing for most of them individually, except save the ecosystem, recognizing the necessity of it for each species in it, and thereby preserving (or honoring) the mechanisms for co-existence.

An ecosystem is an abstract thing. How can a human love it enough to want to preserve something like that? How does the vast majority, who never experience even one ecosystem, care while living lives where entertainment is centered on electronics inside cages of sterile walls? We have evolved to care most strongly for our kin. But a feeling of kinship can expand over a spectrum, from close lover, to family, to friends, to a group identity, and finally to species identity, and to ecosystem. For some humans, their dog or cat too can be included, but not strangers, not those they do not know. But for most of us the vast majority of other life is, at least practically, non-existent.

Coexistence among cognizant beings requires understanding, not only of one’s own viewpoint, way of life, needs and aspirations, but also the Other’s. But no empathy is possible without knowledge that leads to understanding the other beings. Deer and elephants don’t care for our welfare, but given our dominance on the planet, we should care for their species’ welfare, and for individuals if we get to know them. In this case, though, we may have to deal with the population more and with individuals less. It may, at times, be necessary to deliberately reduce a population that is destroying a habitat, due to our prior errors of eliminating key predators; as other animal species cannot be expected to know about voluntary population control.

Our kinship with other animals is ever-more recognized, and it is being felt, as knowledge of our world increases. We now know that some birds have self-knowledge, and can not only feel pain and have strong emotions, but also think, and solve problems in their heads (without trial and error) to figure a puzzle out. Some can intuit and anticipate other individual’s intentions from their previous behavior and react accordingly, powered by sophisticated emotions much like us. And if birds can be kin, how great can the gulf be between us and many other mammals? What more might we need to know before we act to grant them the right to residency on our planet, that is increasingly affected principally by us, beyond recognizing that our needs are theirs because we are all connected into the same web of coexistence?

Our ‘knowing’ has inadvertently acquired a great and potentially far-reaching significance. It has become a part of a revolution of how we as human beings are kin to the animal kingdom and how we must change our relations to coexist with them. Coexistence with other organisms can involve predation, parasitism, or mutualism. How we react as individuals depends very much on our feelings of kinship. We have no qualms about killing tapeworms, disease-spreading mosquitoes, etc. and for a long time we had no qualms about killing off wolves either. All were considered too different from us to be considered in terms of kinship, an instinct our leaders exploit to whip up sentiments against competitors by labeling them as different. This tendency is in our ancient inherited toolkit of millions of years, which we had once applied blindly to annihilate other species of hominids. It persisted and persists in us now, with respect to races, nationalities, political parties, religions and even home localities. It’s too bad that people don’t recognize this and, instead of celebrating differences, fear them.

It was with great pleasure therefore that, thanks to the Internet, I was able to listen to #TPOC (The Poetry Of Coexistence) with a small group discussing this topic in India. It was a thrill to see consensus, one amplified with examples other than those that I had chosen.

The discussion of parasites and their hosts by Swati Patankar was illuminating and enlightening. Many parasites have co-evolved with their hosts, each altering the other to evolve behavior of their hosts in striking ways that aid not just the parasite itself but also the host, their resource. The same applies to the example discussed of lions hunting prey. A single lion is a poor hunter, but if it teams up with another, they can acquire a resource that is unavailable to either alone. The same argument was made for other situations, such as human societies that are not limited by predation or disease, where resources are limiting (as they almost always are, given that we multiply up to the limit). Only in this case, the help is technology, which provides access to resources, and creates arms races in technology for the access and production of resources, rather than (for example) morphology, physiology and behavior between organisms. In society, coexistence involves production of different products, which are traded, presumably according to the Adam Smith model of the ‘invisible hand’ of markets.

Selfishness in the Darwinian sense seems blind and inevitable, and extends from societies to siblings. I loved the example given by K. N. Ganeshaiah of the similarity in sibling rivalry between oranges and eagles. Oranges can have multiple seeds per fruit, as eagles have perhaps three chicks per clutch. In oranges one of the seeds may become large by incorporating resources away from the others, which allows the tree a better chance of producing an offspring from that fruit. The same thing happens in a clutch of some eagles, where under limiting resources all the chicks would die, but when the dominant chick kills and eats the others, then one will be fledged.

The consensus near the end was that ‘Darwinian Space’ or selfishness is here to stay. It is the driving force that moves the world of biological nature. However, there was debate concerning humans, triggered by Rajan Gurukkal, towards the end of the episode. We are the only animal in existence where consciousness can play a role in our, and the world’s fate. Darwinian Space will continue, but I felt that important factors are omitted in this equation, mainly our unprecedented (over the entire span of Earth’s biological evolution) knowledge, and our consciousness of the Creation. Only we know now what causes babies. Only we now know what causes resources to decline. Only we now know the costs and consequences of having none, just one, or having three babies in the nest. Only We.

Only we know how to escape the cruel clutch of blind evolution otherwise guiding our actions. We can change the world, and I believe that the odds of our doing so are better than even…

(Prof. Bernd Heinrich is a biologist, naturalist, and a nature writer. He is currently Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biology at The University of Vermont, Burlington. He has also been an accomplished competitive long-distance runner (marathon, ultramarathon). Prof. Heinrich also owns 600 acres of Maine forestland where he lives, works, and thinks for a large part of the year. We have not had the opportunity of hosting Prof. Heinrich on a SynTalk episode yet, but hope that such an opportunity would arise sometime in the future. ‘Coexistence’ was written on/around January 25, 2020)