Revell Science | Independent Science Consultant
Have you heard of the statement that “nature abhors a vacuum”? It’s been attributed to at least six different people, including Aristotle, which probably indicates that it’s a useful statement.
There are, by the way, three stages in scientific discovery: first people deny it is true, second they deny it is important, and finally they credit the wrong person. For the record, and to avoid wrongly claiming credit, Baron Alexander von Humboldt made this statement about 200 years ago. Charles Darwin described Alexander von Humboldt as “the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived”.
Anyway, back to the statement that “nature abhors a vacuum”: it seems to have application in so any areas, from power struggles where the removal of one power leads to the rise of another, through to the invasion of open spaces by weeds. Fred Provenza, an Emeritus Professor from the USA, has re-stated it rather nicely by saying “nature abhors sameness”.
Let’s explore this idea, and why sameness can be a fatal flaw.
In a simple system, a single organism takes in matter in one form and transforms it into another. We call that waste. Food in, poo out. Now, just imagine if things stayed this simple. The products, or poo, from an organism actually make its own environment less and less hospitable for itself. To survive and prosper, an individual must either receive inputs from outside sources, or become part of something more complex, where the waste of one organism is the food of another.
In agricultural systems, we can start to see that in an attempt ‘to keep things simple’ we are forced to apply more external inputs to keep the simple system alive. The more we need these inputs, the more expensive they become, and the more difficult to keep the system efficient. As Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen says, “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place.”
So, if nature abhors sameness, what does it do instead? It encourages interactions and diversity.
Diversity can be at the species level, but it can also occur between individuals because no two individuals are the same. Even single cell organisms in a Petri dish show individual behaviours.
Here is an excerpt from a 1964 paper that reported on the behaviour – yes, the behaviour – of carrot cells under the microscope. The authors refer to patches in a Petri dish as ‘units’:“In some units, there was a progressive increase in cell number; in others, after a few divisions, growth ceased; in still other units, cells enlarged without dividing... In general, growth started after an ‘induction period’ of about 5 days, but some cells remained apparently unchanged considerably longer... before they started to grow.”
So simple cells in the simple, artificial environment of a Petri dish still express individuality. Were the individual cells different, or were there subtle variations in the agar across the Petri dish. Almost certainly both. Imagine the range of individuality outside a Petri dish, in the real world, where the number of interactions and chance events are enormous. Can we ever expect to fully understand, or predict the direction a system will take, given this variability? The only thing we can be sure of is that things will change and emerge. As one individual or population declines, others step up. The vacuum is filled, but not with sameness.
In the face of this uncertainty, biological systems can give us a clue on how we can respond. We have three options:
The first is to throw up our hands and declare it best to get out of the game; to no longer try to be involved. In natural systems, this is extinction.
The second is to try and stage-manage everything, to apply control and reduce variability. This is like termites building a nest to reduce the variation in ambient conditions and protect the colony from outside forces. This can appear to work for a period of time, and sometimes for a long period of time. But when the future holds a different scenario than the past, the nest may crumble. The termites will have to build again. In natural systems, this is adaptation. Adapt or die.
The third option is to be flexible and participate in the system as it unfolds, not after it’s unfolded. Keep moving, but don’t keep doing the same thing over and over. The Red Queen who was running faster and faster to stay in the one spot should have changed direction. A change in direction may even have allowed her to slow down.
How can individuals in biological systems be flexible? Don’t the genes of individuals make them who they are, and set their fate? No, because the experiences of individuals – especially early in life – can change the expression of genes in the body and alter the activity and networks of neurons in the brain. It’s sometimes called programming or, in the case of genes, epigenetics. ‘Epi’ is Greek for ‘around’, and events during life can change the molecules that are ‘around’ the chain of DNA and alter the very way that genes work.
This phenomenon explains how experiences can alter the way individuals respond to challenges; nature with nurture. It’s the interplay between genes and experiences that can help an individual participate in the future.
Even in the 1964 paper on carrot cells in a Petri dish, the authors stressed “the importance of epigenetic factors, or external controls, that determine the growth of cells in the plant.” It took another 40 years before this area of science really took off.
When it comes to managing landscapes, the point is that some things will come and go, some will do so quickly and some will take a lot longer, and the experiences of the individuals within the landscape shape the future.
If we place ourselves in the game, we can be part of the transformations that arise. I like the concept of ‘creative influences’ rather than relying on ‘adaptations’. Adaptation has, to me, the connotation of being reactionary. But creativity is something more. It’s active, it’s participatory, and it can be based on experiences or out-of-box thinking, and preferably both.
How we use experience and creative thinking is up to us. When Alice in Wonderland asks the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”, the Cheshire Cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”