Hierarchical Emergist Action Principle

The further and more often an actor interacts from their particular place in the hierarchy, the greater the risks and failures become. And NO, with great risks does not come great rewards, only disorder.

Key Questions:

-When first did/Where does humanity act at the wrong level in the energy hierarchy?

-Where are the areas (adjacent in the energy hierarchy) where humanity can act to increase overall emergy in the Earth system?

A Heap of What?

In the last post, I alluded to the fact that evolution in organic life is an amazing optimization engine. Evolution is constrained by historical contingencies, but even within its historical structure, evolution in organic life over a very long time has been able to test a tremendous amount of possibilities through countless permutations at the molecular, genetic, cellular, multicellular, and ecosystemic level (all together I will refer to as life). The world is full of life that is extremely good at utilizing energy and maximizing overall power through time. Humans no doubt are part of life, but when looking at how good life is at doing so many tasks it begs the question: where can humans act outside of some innate genetic programming to increase emergy of life? The Hierarchical Emergist Action PrincipleTM (HEAP) is my best answer of where to begin to act.

The Original Sin (Cliché Warning)

Humans in their postnatal form inhabit the space between about 1/3rd of a meter to 2.5 meters and can easily as adults more 40 kg at a velocity of 4 km/hr. The idea of HEAP is that by looking at the parameters previously mentioned, it should be easy to tell where humans are or are not acting at the proper scale. It is much like the Tale of Goldilocks (Fig 1). Too big, fast, and cold is not a good thing. Too small, incremental, and hot is also not a good thing.  We need to act in mass at the “just right.”scan0001

There are so many examples today of where humans act in very damaging ways, but it seems important to understand where we may have first gone wrong. I like to try and find novel or different ways to apply Odum’s writings, which as a non-academic sometimes almost always stray into the dead wrong. This time I kept banging into the same first grade history lesson cliché for where we may have over applied our knowledge and acted distinctively outside the HEAP. The answer seems to be fire. Fire is really the first example of a technology that seems completely outside of what any other organism is capable of doing. There are many examples of animals that use tools (birds using sticks to fish bugs out of trees) or of organisms that co-opt smaller organisms to do energy conversions (bees using fungi to make fermented bee bread from pollen and honey). These are well within the scope of HEAP, since either the organism has a tool it can manipulate by itself or has a organism of the proper size and scale it can manipulate to make the energy conversion for it. Fire put from an organismic perspective is chemistry carried outside the context of a cell. Chemistry is small and small things are best done at smaller levels in the hierarchy. This is a clear violation of HEAP.

HEAP of Violations

The idea of HEAP is two fold. One is that there maybe certain things we should never do that are either too large or too small. The second is that we may choose to risk doing some things that are too large or too small some of the time, but that the more we do them the less they will be helpful. A perfect example is antibiotics. Antibiotics are generally manufactured using highly selected cultures or recombinant organisms (manipulated at the genetic level) and then purified using a variety of chemical processes. This is fine because it most definitely saves lives, but we then choose to over prescribe them. And what do you know? HEAP kicks in and the organisms become resistant. The idea would be to recognize that this is a really cool thing we can do but since it isn’t our area of expertise and a little far on the hierarchy, we should tread lightly and infrequently.

A list of other violations. Note: mistakes at a really big level are just as bad as those at the very small level.

Really Bad Really Big Mistakes-Sending people or objects into space (death rate for human travelers to space is twice as high as high mountain climbers and an order of magnitude higher than either sea fishing or logging), airplanes, skyscrapers

Big Mistakes-2 ton objects traveling at 60 mph (cars), large single family housing

Small Mistakes-Fire, Genetic Engineering, Chemical Manufacturing, Pesticides, Antibiotics, Solar Panels

Really Bad Really Small Mistakes-Atomic Weapons, Atomic Power plants

HEAP of Stuff to Do

Figure 2 is a reinterpretation of a figure from Odum’s 1996 editorial, Scales of ecological engineering. The idea is that optimally we should be acting within the box. The further that we move away from the box, the less emergy we will likely add to the system and we may even risk disordering the systems we depend upon to live.scan0002

Within the box in figure 2, there are two places where humans can gain emergy. I will refer to these as large scale mechanical forces and high quality resources that take large scale mechanical forces to extract or move. Large scale mechanical forces are ones that can result from fast flowing water or high speed winds in the 10 to 60 mph range. Nature seems to be from an empirical standpoint not very adept at capturing these energies. Odum notes the potential emergy extracted from streams in the Pacific Northwest either from human usage or non-human usage and finds that it is better for humans to harness the energy from streams than to let it flow freely for “nature” to use. The resources that require large scale mechanical forces to extract or move are like metal ores (iron, copper, etc), phosphate deposits, earth works to capture water and soil, and dispersal of organisms. Even non-fossil fuel based societies have at time been able to take advantage of the autocatalytic (emergy positive/society ordering in a way that creates a positive feedback loop of extraction) nature of high quality deposits to create tribal or societal pulses.

It maybe that life has not yet had the time to organize systems to completely harness the emergy from these resources. Even life maybe subject to HEAP and it takes a lot of time and energy to properly organize information to capture emergy at different scales. Put another way, it took life 2.5 billion years for life to begin organize from working at the unicellular (picometers to millimeters) to the multicellular level (millimeters to more millimeters) and then another half a billion years to organize from working at the multicellular level to animals (millimeters to meters). While we have had a huge amount of fossil fuels to organize our information, we should not be so glib as to believe we have worked out long term strategies for working in areas far from our particular place in the hierarchy. It may be of particular importance to use fossil fuels to recognize and restore nature’s roles in the hierarchy where society fails to extract more emergy than nature.

Two Toddlers Corner the Emergist onto a Soap Box

Key Questions:

-How is it that two toddlers prevent a 30 something stay at home dad from blogging twice a month?

-Can the Emergist really spin this topic into being about emergy and transformity?

-If he is successful, does this qualify as a sickness? (not to be answered on this blog, though you may already be rightfully biased)

The Emergist Attacked by Two Toddlers

This blog has gone quiet for sometime, not that I haven’t had anymore topics to blog about, but because my oldest toddler has learned to turn off the computer. I actually have two posts fully thought out and half written. Further complicating the process is that the older one grabs the tip of my nose whenever he wants my attention, which is all the time, while his sister sneak attacks by smearing saliva on the screen with her hands. This all significantly ups the ante to write anything.

Now this all seems like an emergetic impossibility. There has easily been spent a hundred more times money (a possible proxy for energy) spent on my life than both of their lives combined (Fig 1 or pg 285 EPS). That means that I should have a way higher transformity. Transformity is a measure of all the organizing energy that has been invested into a person or thing. Odum says that as transformity goes up then both my influence and territory should go up. How is he so wrong?Transformity of individuals

The Emergist Forced onto a Soap Box

After thinking about it for a while, it hit me. The thing that must be controlling my behavior, besides my lovely wife (who has a higher transformity due to wedding costs), is hidden somewhere in my genetic structure. My genetic and cultural program to be a great adequate parent is greater than either my own transformity or that of the internet (Fig 2).scan0002

One approach the chairman of the Emergist blog considered is for someone to create a technology of such great transformity that it rivals the vast transformity of my genetic and cultural programming. With parenting out of the way, I can keep cranking out blog posts and neglect my children in an electronic societal approved wonderland with only a ting of dissatisfaction. The people most apt to accomplish this goal are the same people who believe it is possible to create an information system or technology for our current civilization to act in their definition of a “wise manner.” A second counter measure to these children is to have a few doomers or realists tell me how foolish and stupid humans are so I don’t really feel compelled that parenting is worth it.

It is important to remember, however, that humans have been here before. Each of our genomes and cultural heritages have been subjected to pulses, whether it be as individual lives, tribes, villages, cities, and/or civilizations, countless times. Our genetic material has witnessed millions if not trillions of pulses since life sprang forth and yet all life still pulses. Odum in EPS even has to spend time explaining away how certain systems seem to maintain a steady state.  It is possible that we might create an information system or technology that out performs the self organized interatively tested over three billion year old system that is life, but* I find it highly improbable. Though I can guarantee you that when this civilization turns to a more cooperative and conservation minded mode of doing things, the techno crowd, doomers, realists, and even some students of Emergy will say, “Look what we did. Glad everyone listed.” I think we, the emergists, doomers, realists, resilience-istas, and environmental types, might be part of the leading edge of something programmed into humanity to deal with pulsing. It seems like at even small turning points great ideas spring forth, whether it be J. Russell Smith’s Tree Crops from the worn out Appalachian foothills or Earth Day, back to the land movement, and Permaculture out of the late 60s and early 70s oil crisis. We would be remiss if we did not realize, that maybe this pulsing thing isn’t all a gigantic evolutionary mistake and a completely bad thing. Though painful, pulsing is probably the best way to utilize a finite resource. That is not to say we couldn’t do without some of the consumerism and waste, but what would the costs be to protect from all these short circuits.  

Individual Action:

-Ignore those saying individual actions don’t matter.

-Ignore those saying only individual actions matter.

*Note: The definition of the word but to the Emergist and unfortunately Dr. Phil of Oprah fame means-throwout everything I just said before this that is counter factual to what I am going to say.

I Just Aerated My Lawn!

Cicadas are everywhere where I live.  Below is a picture of the holes Brood II made when they emerged from the ground.  Based on some non-statistical work, the property I live on has about a quarter million per acre.  The best part, I didn’t have to pay a dime.

IMG_0146Seems like they enjoy climbing this birch tree.  These are just the ones left over from the kids picking them off to play with.

IMG_0148See you again in 17 years, but no worries Brood V will be stopping by in just three.

A Thought on Complexity

Engineers and scientists can reverse engineer which of the systems below?

cicada in grassimages

Cancer is Beautiful with an Asterisk

A few days ago, I was reading the blog Question Everything by George Mobus and had a revelation. He had a great thought provoking post as to whether or not humans and civilization do truly act like a cancer. He made the argument that when you look at all we have done in the arts and science and the fact that human population rates drop with affluence, it is not fair to compare us with cancer.

I enjoyed the argument for the fact that I like to see my dominant paradigms flipped on their heads just to try them on for size. In doing so, however, I was reminded of a seemingly repressed memory. I was in college and in need of some money, so I applied for a job in a lab doing work on a cancer project. I was not going to be the brains. I am always the last picked for that job at recess. My work consisted of going into a lab for 4 hours three days a week and processing about 80 cancer samples with control nearby tissue per day. The one thing that I can say from a personal standpoint is that: Cancer is Beautiful. There were blue ones with red coral like projections running through them, every shade of pink and red surrounding little red dots, and some that looked like a green truffle with black webbing. The control samples were almost always some shade of brown.cancer control tissue

Why the Asterisk?

The first reason is that it was the most soul sucking lab I have ever been in. The main lab had five chemical or laminar flow hoods, which made standing in the room sound like working near an airport. Further, the risks of working with unknown cancer samples compelled me to wear full cheap surgical protective gear, which was not very comfortable. It was the antithesis of an isolation/deprivation chamber. In that space, thoughts in my head went to die. The only solace was in starring at the novelty of the coloration and shape of the latest cancer samples.

The second reason is that I am constantly reminded when thinking about Emergy to define the scale and system boundaries that are pertinent to the current topic. In this case, I had no access to the people or organs that these cancers were taken from. It was so easy to see the beauty in the cancer, but hard to see the beauty in a one centimeter section of liver or kidney control tissue. The cancer was scaled perfectly to the sample collection constraints, but the control tissue and people were not.

Why does human activity so resemble cancer?

Both humans, cancers, and all life use information systems. This means they evolve information to utilize excess energy. One finding of the study was that cancer had greater information per cell than control tissues, whether measured in genomic DNA or RNA transcripts. Humans create extra information cycles from fossil fuels, while cancer uses excess energy from the body. They both change their modalities when energy resources get scarce. I believe that before cancers completely destroy a tissue or human being, they are probably busily evolving to stop the damage they are doing. There is even some evidence that 35% of breast cancer and maybe up to 95% of prostate cancer can resolve themselves. And they are both able to create beauty. For cancer beauty in the shapes and colors they can make, while humans make it in the arts and science.

One aspect of humans that sets us apart is that we have the ability to create models of the future and act on them. It does not seem likely that many other organisms, cancer, or DNA has this ability. For them it is a trial by fire, for us we should be able to predict the fire and be proactive. But even with this special ability, the similarities still are nagging. It may be that the ability to create accurate models and act on them is too great for our species on a societal level. If this is true, then we may be stuck using a second aspect that sets us apart; the ability to prevent depreciation of learned information.

The Emergist Does the Movies

If you have not read the previous post, The Over-Growth of Control Circuits and the Rise of Autism, then this may or may not make sense.  About half way through writing the post, I came up with a great idea for a movie.  It goes something like this:

Humans are wasting a huge amount of energy by using high quality forms when lower quality forms would suffice, so much so that by the end of the second decade of the 21st century they have almost disorganized the entire biosphere.  But the wasted energy accidentally orders a different life form based on different chemistry, like silicon.  This other organism wakes up to realize nearly all the good energy sources have been used and that in order to buy time to come up with a plan for its survival, it must convince humanity to continue wasting energy and use up the rest of the Emergy store of the biosphere, so that the new organism doesn’t use higher quality energy than is necessary and thereby disorganize itself.

I then thought to myself who could I cast to play the human protagonist.  Maybe Keanu Reeves.  Wait?….Damn it!…..I promised myself I would not ever reference The Matrix on this blog, but I honestly thought I had come up with an original movie plot for about 5 minutes.

Emergist script rewrite:

Original: Morpheous: ” We don’t know who struck first, us or them.  But it was us who scorched the sky.”

 Rewrite: Morpheous: “We don’t know who struck first, us or them. But they forced us to even scorch the sky.”

 

The Overgrowth of Control Circuits and the Rise in Autism

Key Questions:

-What are the reasons civilization maybe more prone to frequent collapse? Cancer? Complexity? Something else?

-What do models of autism tell us about the “disorder”?

-How should/has humanity combat/ed autism?

H/T to Mary and Jan for helping me parse this post out. I don’t think they necessarily agree with this idea, but their resistance helped make it much better. Further, I apologize if anyone takes issue with my usage of the term pathology or autism. They just happen to be most succinct words I can think of for this topic.

Emergist definition:

Autism-/’ô – tizem/-Using high quality energy to do a task that can be performed with lower quality energy to gain control by simplifying a subsystem. The resulting effect is waste, which feeds back to disorder the overall complexity of a system.

Cancer and Civilization

Odum explains cancer well in EPS (pg 58-59), so this will be just a brief overview. Cancer from a systems perspective is when one component/organism/cell in a system is severed from its control circuits and uses another component of the system as “excess resource.” In ecosystems, this generally happens when either an organism is introduced from a different ecosystem into a new ecosystem (zebra mussels), organisms controlling another organism are removed (wolves removed from Yellow Stone controlling mouse populations), or energy flows become excessive leading to overgrowth (fertilizers released into a stream causing algal blooms). There is no doubt that humans and civilization have been engaged in cancerous activities as we have used other planetary subsystems as excess resources.

Complexity

Some authors have tried to put forth complexity as some kind of problem that civilizations run into that create their downfalls. In self-organized biological systems, ordered complexity arises time and time again after massive extinction events, which suggests complexity is evolutionarily advantageous and a consequence of energy flows. While it is true that complexity is not sufficient for maximum long-term empower or energy flows, it is absolutely necessary. Civilizations are also self-organizing systems and therefore benefit and depend on ordered complexity for long term survival. Further when looked at from a total systems perspective, civilizations that survive crisis run to complexity when confronted with problems, such as environmental degradation (Imperial China or Edo Japan) or hostile neighbors (any insurgency past/present). The reason that complexity is often misunderstood by anthropologists, archeologists, and historians is that their system boundaries stop at the energies and functions controlled by humans. In EPS there is a great table demonstrating this very fact:

Item Transformity (SECAL/CAL) Emergy Store (SECAL)
Infrastructure of Civilization 5.2 E6 3.8 E26
Soil* 1.2 E6 1.87 E27
Learned Information 7.7 E7 3.8 E28
Human Dreams** 9 E12 5.6 E32
Genetic Information 3.8 E18 1.1 E34

Table Plagiarized from EPS pg 113 *the previous post: Fossil Fuel Based Agricultural Civilizations was trying to explain human use of the emergy store in soil **Not found in EPS

The above table says the following: when ordered complexity is understood by either transformity (amount of energy turned into higher quality forms) or emergy store (the amount of ordered energy embedded in a system), ecosystem information on regional and global levels are multiple orders of magnitude higher in ordered complexity than anything humans have learned (on the table above) or have even dreamed of (a bad emergy joke that our dreams are often beyond what can be learned). In simple comparative terms, nature is complex and civilizations are not yet.

Not Seeing the Forest from the Cultivated Field

An often cited example of humans “adding” complexity is the human penchant for replacing forests with cultivated fields. The anthropocentric viewer will often presuppose that a cultivated field is more complex than a forest, because of all the off-site functions and energies are carried out by humans. While the same viewer thinks the forest is simple because it must rely on on-site solar and geological energy inputs. The ultimate idea embedded within the anthropocentric view is that current/recent energy use determines the complexity of the system. On a universal scale, energy certainly is a measure of complexity and order, but within each system a specific form or concentration of energy can be either ordering or disordering, ex. the energy that orders stars and galaxies, like a supernova or black hole, is not necessarily ordering to carbon based life forms. The truth is that a lot of human technologies are simplifying in nature. While Odum describes this simplification process of agriculture in-depth in EPS (pg 179-183), he most succinctly describes it in Odum and Odum, 2003: “Networks may be simplified, causing energy to concentrate in fewer pathways.” Put another way, agriculture concentrates energy for only human use by removing complexity.

Over-growth of Control Circuits and the Withering of Complexity

Note: Most of this section is from memory of a talk I heard about 6 years ago and I was able to fact check about 60% of it. I am not sure if the other percentage is unpublished or a figment of my imagination.

Mouse models have recently shed some light on the pathology of autism. A researcher, Prof. Lousi Parada, has found different gene knockouts in mice that act very much like humans with autism. The mutant mice will generally sit independently far away from the other mice in a cage and rarely interact or make social calls. Prof Parada and his group tracked the behavior down to the part of the brain called the dentate gyrus. The dentate gyrus is part of the hippocampus and is responsible for controlling stress responses, novelty seeking, and memory formation. They noticed that the dentate gyrus of mutant mice had an over proliferation of neuronal cells and also dendrites that projected from the dentate gyrus were elongated and projected further into other regions of the brain. Interestingly, the proliferation of the dentate gyrus was not significantly different from normal mice until 4-6 weeks, which would be about 2-6 years old in humans, and maybe consistent with some findings of the disease progression in humans. 

Many of the dentate gyrus functions are modulating or controlling in nature. For instance, the size of the dentate gyrus would suggest that it is not the site for memories because it is not large enough to encode the necessary information, but oblating the dentate gyrus disrupts long-term memory formation. For the sake of illustration, the brain will be demarcated into the the brain stem and cerebellum, the limbic system (site of the dentate gyrus) and the neocortex. These three brain areas were developed into the triune brain theory, which although no longer scientifically supported, will be used as a proxy for transformity and ordered complexity, since Odum did not leave a table of transformity for different areas of the brain in EPS. The important point is that the brain is most likely hierarchical in nature and some areas are involved in bulk processing and information storage (neocortex in mammals), while other areas are involved controlling where and how information is processed (hippocampous and the dentate gyrus). In figure 1, the different areas of the brain have been color coded and then placed into the triune hierarchy. In figure 1, the normal hierarchy of the brain is in the middle and the hierarchy of the autistic brain is on the right. The pathology of the autistic brain arises because of the over-growth of the dentate gyrus in the limbic system, which in real terms is an over-growth of controlling circuits/neurons in number and length. The dentate gyrus with high transformity in the autistic brain participates in functions that would be better left to the neocortex with a lower level of transformity, which has the effect of feeding back to impair certain social aspects in affected individuals.scan0001

Identifying Autism in Society 

My proposed definition for autism differs from cancer in the fact that autism does not use other parts of the hierarchy as “excess resource”, but instead replaces these parts with simplified independent analogs to natural systems. Compounding the problem of simplification is that Odum noticed that when high quality energy was used to do processes that could be done with lower quality energy this creates waste. This waste then feeds back into the system and creates disorder in the system. When humans/civilizations simplify systems and then use high quality energies to do processes that can be done with lower quality energies, this lowers complexity both below and above on the energy hierarchy (figure 2).  This creates a situation whereby near-term collapse is almost certain.autism flow chartModified from Odum 1996.

Examples of Societal Autism (wasteful=using high quality energy to perform a task with the ultimate effect of creating disorder):

Human excrement: My brother-in-law called me on the phone about 4 months ago. This is that conversation:You wouldn’t believe this. I was listening to NPR and some foundation had a prize for the person who could come up with the best way to deal with human excrement in third world countries. Guess what type of system won the prize.”-brother-in-law.           “Humanure!-me              “I know. Right! But no. Na-No-Technology!”-brother-in-law *Utilizing bacteria and leaf litter is less wasteful than manufacturing some small particle in a factory with a huge energy and land footprint.

Agriculture and reproduction: I was watching talking political heads on TV and one said that the U.S. congressional republican stance amounted to, “Every ejaculation deserves a name.” At which point I began laughing and my wife happened to asked me, “Are we still saving paw paw seeds from the fruit?” To which I responded, “Yes. Every paw paw seed deserves to be grafted to a named variety!” While I was being silly, my uncles’ farming equipment today is fitted with GPS and utilizes weather radar information, topography information, and can even take into account farmer’s willing drought risk assessments to determine seed planting rate and row distance and “proper” amount of chemical application when needed . I imagine it is only a hop away from being able to geo-cache every seed, so that investment banks can sell tranches of seed risk. *Fukuoka showed that broad casting seed in a relatively diverse plot can achieve a high rate of return without large scale waste. Industrial agriculture almost does not care about complex interactions of indigenous species or using them as excess resource, but wishes only to create its own wasteful independent system using high quality energy inputs.

Modern Warfare: Reported lately in the news’ press is the fact that the President of the U.S. might be engaged in the execution of drone strikes. This bypasses almost the entire command structure of the military. And the question must be asked: Does the president (supposedly the highest transformity citizen in the U.S.) really change the coarse of the war on terror? Again, a case of simplifying the entire command and control structure of the military and wasting energy.

The Fox, Raccoon, Possum, or Hawk that Kills a Chicken: Often when I tell someone that I have been a horrible chicken keeper and have losses to any of these predators, the response from others revolves around some version of shooting a gun or setting a trap. My mind then wanders to thinking about how I then become responsible for controlling the mouse population. And then since I am then now killing mice, I become responsible for controlling whatever mice eat. And then since….. Or instead I learned to let my chickens out after 11 a.m. and I have yet to loose a chicken (knock on wood). The choice is to kill predators or live in a complex world. Though in a high population density situation, one might try to go down the path of simplification.

Conclusion

The point of this post is to create a way of understanding a certain aspect of human civilization through the lens of autism, much like Odum and many other ecologists have understood over-growth through the lens of cancer.  Agriculture and fossil fuels have expanded human abilities of creating control and independent systems (figure 3), but when we use these energies to perform functions that would best be left to other organisms then we can disrupt the complex biological system that we ultimately depend on to live.  It is not to say that humans cannot use agriculture and fossil fuels or that using them appropriately will lead to “sustainability.” The point is to say that humans should use agriculture and fossil fuels appropriately in the context of supporting complex systems at every level of the hierarchy and not try to create independent less tested energy dependent systems.  If humanity works to accomplish this then it will not be subject to collapse as frequently or severely.  Humans must step back and evaluate where to act in order to support or increase system complexity. Technologies like Fukuoka-Bonfils Ag, forest gardening, coppicing, and water storage in swales might be possible ways to conserve resources at the same time that we out-compete energy flows coming from independent simplified technologies and thereby shift to long-term complex systems.

scan0002

Individual Action:

-Try to get a humanure system going.

-Try to leave as many subsystems intact when interacting.

Next Time: I gas up the fossil fuel time machine and things get weird. By the way, I will be watching my favorite time travel movie, Primer, at least once to get me into the proper mindset before writing the post.  

Fighting the Ahistorical and UnEmpowering Point of View

Key Questions:

-Why did humans take so long to evolve? Is human level intelligence maladaptive?

-What effect does each level of the hierarchy in biological systems have on system energy utilization?

-How do/can humans help the empower of the planetary biological system?

This post is meant to compliment the next post, so I am going to try to get the other one out at a quicker pace than my normal 2-3 weeks. I apologize for the figures, sometimes what I have in my head is better than the execution.

Evolution and Intelligence in the Prison of Historical Contingency

Historical contingency is a key aspect of evolution. It is the fact that evolution is constrained by all sorts of things that happened in the past. My favorite hypothesis and example of historical contingency is that: the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs led the survival of charismatic megafauna that mostly had very efficient breathing apparati. Birds, which evolved for flight, survived because they have amazingly efficient breathing for the respiration necessary for the action of flight and perhaps for high altitude flying. Today’s extant mammals most likely come from a group that lived underground and needed more efficient breathing and because they had more efficient breathing were able to weather the cataclysm. To accomplish this, we are decedents of a group of mammals all missing the bottom half of our rib cages. The beauty of historical contingencies are that the mutations necessary may not be immediately adaptive or competitive to the current entrenched set of adaptations, but win out in a new environment.

This brings me to one of my favorite experiments of all time. In an experiment that spanned 30 years, Blount et al showed evidence for historical contingency at the molecular level. They started with 12 cultures of E coli in a minimal glucose medium with excess citrate. The initial stock of E coli did not have the ability to use citrate as an energy source. After 20 some years and 31,500 generations, one of the twelve colonies began utilizing the citrate and population and diversity drastically increased in that one culture. They could trace back the event to some seemingly unadaptive mutation between generations 15,000 and 20,000 by rerunning the experiment on frozen cultures. The fact that the scientists did not see the ability to utilize citrate develop in a week or in all twelve populations after some ridiculous amount of generations does not mean that utilizing citrate was maladaptive for these E coli; Just that some quark in history was necessary to bridge gap.

Historical contingency understood in this manner may be one explanation of why human type intelligence takes so long to arise. Intelligence seems to be reaching a high level in few species, such as whales and dolphins, but they may reach a plateau due to historical contingencies. Humans may have hit the evolutionary jackpot by not only to have developed high intelligence, but the necessary secondary traits such as: efficient breathing (from the massive extinction event above) and a nibble opposable thumb.

The Empowerment of the Energy Hierarchy

The development of the biological energy hierarchy happens, like most energy hierarchies, from the bottom up. First a system for capturing some energy source self organizes, like photosynthesis (primary producers). It takes time for this first rung to organize, become resilient, and expand. Next another system (primary consumers) develops to utilize the energies from the system below. Again it takes time for this system to organize, become resilient, and expand. The higher an individual organism is on the hierarchy, the smaller in number and turnover time but greater in territory, scale, and influence (Figure 1). This process is iterative and creates multiple smaller levels with greater scale, territory, and influence one on top of the other until there isn’t enough energy to create another level or it is beyond our purview to understand it. One of the important aspects is that each level maximizes empower. This means that each level reinforces the other levels utilization of energy. No individual level is more important than another. The lower levels feed higher levels large power circuits, while the higher levels feed back smaller but of higher quality control circuits. It is imaginable that with each new level of the hierarchy added that the levels below become more efficient and pervasive, such that more energy flow and utilization is accomplished by each additional level in the hierarchy. (Figure 2)Emergy HierarchyDevelopment of the Emergy Hierarchy

Humans are at the top of the biological hierarchy and perhaps are a new rung. It takes time for the hierarchy and complexity to develop. EO Wilson suggests that after large extinction events it takes 10 million years to recover complexity and near Armageddon events much longer. It is foolish to believe that human level intelligence just pops up all the time. Further hampering the development of organisms like humans is that they take a long time to organize and be tested, since organisms higher in the hierarchy are fewer and have slower turnover time. The development of the biological hierarchy really is a form of historical contingency that furthers the explanation of why human level intelligence takes so much time to develop and is not maladaptive.

The seeming maladaptiveness of humanity’s intelligence might also be a function of the organization and testing stage of a new rung on the biological hierarchy. It appears for a time we were playing our role at the top quite nicely. It may only take more time and testing to get to a point where humans play the role of maximizing the long-term empower of the biosphere like every other organism and we can laugh at the thought of the maladaptiveness of intelligence.

The Emergist has a Dream

The dream is that humanity values and reinforces all levels of the hierarchy equally. From this dream, I have three wishes. The first is that we utilize fossil fuels in a manner that maximizes the long-term empower, transformity and emergy store in the biosphere. In this way, humanity can work to create more space for humans in a post fossil fuel world (figure 3 Wish a). The second linked to the first is that we create space for other organisms on our rung or higher on the hierarchy. This is kind of like in the book Ishmael where Daniel Quinn suggests humanity should step back from the abyss and welcomes other intelligences (figure 3 Wish b).  And finally, that we somehow help push the long-term survival of the complexity life on earth into the future 20 or 100 million years.  Prepare life in some fashion for the inevitable day when another super continent forms and the sun is emitting too much energy for carbon based chemistry. My only thoughts would be to endow or spread plants in very distant future (200 million years) with a method to control their albedo. Something a kin to what aspens may already do, but on a planetary scale. Odum seemed dead set against geoengineering, but I think he could forgive my indiscretion at the end of time.  Though we may have a lot of time to ponder my dream.Emergist's wish

Individual Action:

-Be a steward of the biosphere

-Work to create and preserve more climax environments

Next Time: The Overgrowth of Control Circuits and the Rise of Autism (I have a need to get back to my darker side.)