Systems, General Systems, Systems Dynamics, and the Earth 2

Good artists copy, great artists steal. I just leech. Once again, Vandana Singh has come up with an excellent essay over on Strange Horizons. There, she talks about the importance of not just preserving biodiversity, but restoring it. This is important, because an ecosystem is a tightly woven mesh, pulled taut over an uneven, spikey, even, fitness surface. Cut one thread and the mesh twists and distorts.

I remember reading an article in Science, some thirty years ago, about Corotu trees in Costa Rica. SF author David Brin likely read it also, because the idea surfaces in one of his Uplift books. Here’s a more recent article. What’s the idea, you ask? Well, it seems that the Corotu tree has a large seed, with a tough shell. The seed is heavy, so it falls, and remains, in the shade of the parent tree. The tough skin prevents the seedling from breaking free. The Corotu has trouble surviving, let alone extending its range. This is what comes from trying to do things on your own.

You see, back in the Pleistocene, which ended about 12,000 years ago, there were big, ugly tusked and trunked animals called Gomphotheres, that looked like an elephant built someone who’d had one described to them while drunk.

Wikipedia picture of gomphotere skeleton
Gomphothere, from Wikipedia.

They would eat the Corotu seeds, and the seeds from over thirty other species, and by the time the seed had passed through their gut, it was (a) well abraded, (b) many kilometers away from the grove, and (c) buried in an excellent growth medium. The Gomphotheres died out, the groves died back. You ended up with a savannah instead of a forest.

This is a dirt-simple example of a system — two things interacting to produce an outcome that is not inherent in either of them alone. Take one element away and the emergent behavior changes. Costa Rica without the Gomphotheres is still a beautiful place, or so Google Earth tells me, but it’s quite different from what it would be if it had been left untouched.

The point being, that rebuilding an ecosystem is an amazingly difficult task, given that you may not be aware of all the interactions that have been lost. But that’s no reason not to do it. If you can’t find more Gomphotheres, maybe you can find functional equivalents. In Costa Rica, it turns out that horses, and other medium-sized herbivores, are helping the Corotu keep going.



2 Responses to “Systems, General Systems, Systems Dynamics, and the Earth 2”

  1. vsinghsblog Says:

    Hi Steve, thanks for this enlightening post and glad you enjoyed the article. I will from now on pick your brains next time I write something related to systems science (i.e. you have been warned!). Am currently reading about fractal cities. Interesting stuff. I imagine fractals show up fairly often in systems science?

    • FoundOnWeb Says:

      Vandana, glad you liked it. I’m just happy you keep coming up with neat ideas for me to attach to. Since Systems Science is about nested-things-that-are-also-nested-things (it’s turtles all the way down), there’s an affinity with fractal studies. SySc has a pretty big toolbox. I don’t spend a lot of time over on the fractal side, but they do make cool t-shirts.

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