To Natural History, Re: Population Ecology

Cheers to Katharine Milton (“Something to Howl About,” 10/03) for illuminating the importance of two critical facts about population ecology — that “prudent” parasites do not kill their hosts, and that population size fluctuates in response to the availability of food.

Jeers to Marc J. Cohen (“Crop Circles”, 10/03) and Laurence A. Marschall (Review, “Space, the Final Frontier?”, 10/03), who, in the very same issue as Milton’s piece, both overlook those important ideas and whose book reviews suffer as a result. Had they been aware of these ecological facts, surely they would have cut to the chase on their respective topics:

GM food may remain ethically ambiguous, but the simple fact is that, GM or organic or anywhere in between, it is the very act of increasing the volume of food production that increases the human population. Combined with the inegalitarian social structures that pervade our global society (and that are themselves related in part to population growth), this ensures that hunger will continue. GM food may not be the ultimate evil some make it out to be, but it can never solve hunger.

Technology for space travel may evolve, but, even if perfected, the simple fact is that colonizing space would require people en route to live in ecological balance within their spacecraft. If such knowledge were available, then it could instead be applied on Earth itself. Thus, space would not need to be used as a “safety valve for a planet threatened by pollution and overpopulation” — and thus the trip would not be necessary.

2 comments for “To Natural History, Re: Population Ecology

  1. September 20, 2007 at 4:17 am

    Hi Mark,
    I love your work. Your comments may explain why we do not see space filled with a multitude of ‘intelligent’ alien species searching for new colonies. Alien species that survive do so by understanding that their population is regulated by their food supply (and vice versa – their population regulates their food supply) so maintain a stable population on their home planet and thus do not need the space ‘escape valve’. Those that do not work according to this and try to grow without limit must die.
    Great stuff mate!

  2. September 20, 2007 at 8:24 am

    Thanks for the compliments! And you bring up great points. I have long thought about these things, and there is much else worth saying about this:

    The principles of evolution and self-organization make it very likely that the universe is teeming with life.

    Particular of these principles make “intelligent” life just as inevitable if more rare — It’s worth taking a look at Stephen Jay Gould’s book “Full House” on this subject, or, for how these particular ideas connect broadly to our population and sustainability issues, my own masters thesis, The Unsustainability and Origins of Socioeconomic Increase, in particular the section entitled Biology, Culture and Evolution.

    The kind of technology that allows for interstellar communication is likely to be extraordinarily rare — Those who usually play with the Drake equation are likely to be ignorant about the kinds of principles that reveal civilization to be unsustainable, and so as solid as they may get about all the other factors in the equation, they are likely to severely overestimate two variables — f-sub-c, i.e., the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space, and L, the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space. If our own case is a good example, the few hundreds or even thousands of years that we may be putting such signals out into space, compared with the complete history of life on our planet from now until it’s all gone, is likely to be pretty low — much lower than would be thought be people who imagine we’ve entered the “Star Trek” phase and imagine that life will be characterized by our current and even more advanced technologies for eons to come. The odds of there being other intelligences out there who hit this very same point at just the right time to allow their signals to be picked up by other intelligences who at just the right time have the ability to receive those signals, well, perhaps with the sheer volume of the universe, maybe there could be such communication, but it’s undoubtedly far less likely than any SETI fans would really like it to be.

    Finally, you bring up a very key point, one that Garrett Hardin and others have spelled out very well — the fallacy of the “escape valve.” Not only is your basic statement about this true, but there’s are several catches that come up even if one imagines the escape valve worth considering. To send representatives out on a spaceship to populate another planet requires knowledge of how a population can live sustainably in a finite ecosystem, i.e., the spaceship, for some extended period of time. If the culture that made the spaceship had that knowledge, it could apply it at home, not needing to use the escape valve at all. Worse, if it didn’t realize this, the people it would select to go on the mission would be those few people who somehow could manage it, and so they’d be sending away the very people they need most to teach everyone else how to live sustainably on their own planet. The situation becomes yet worse when one considers that target alternative planets may not already be suited for our kinds of life forms, in which case one needs to consider terraforming, a wonderfully evocative and inspiring idea, but one that is exceeding impractical and, in fact, downright absurd for one very simple reason: once again, you’re back to requiring profound knowledge of how to evolve sustainable ecosystems, and once again, if you really had that knowledge, you’d be able to apply it at home and would not need to leave at all.

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