June 4, 2023


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Natural History, Not Technology, Will Dictate Our Destiny

When we humans imagine the future, it is common to picture ourselves nested within an...

When we humans imagine the future, it is common to picture ourselves nested within an ecosystem populated by robots, devices, and virtual realities. The future is shining and technological. The future is digital, ones and zeros, electricity and invisible connections. The dangers of the future—automation and artificial intelligence—are of our own invention. Nature is an afterthought in our contemplation of what comes next, a transgenic potted plant behind a window that does not open. Most depictions of the future do not even include nonhuman life, except on distant farms (tended by robots) or in indoor gardens. We put up a levee between our civilizations and the rest of life, and that’s a mistake—both because it is not possible to hold life at bay and because in trying to achieve such a scenario, we do so at our own expense. Not only does this defy our place in nature, but also what we know about the rules of nature.

In school, we learn about some of these laws—gravity, inertia, and entropy, to name a few. But there are also laws of the motions of cells, bodies, ecosystems, and even minds. These are the biological laws that we need to have in the front of our mind if we are to make any sense of the years ahead.

Some of the laws of biological nature are laws of ecology. The most useful of these are universal. These biological laws of nature, like the laws of physics, allow us to make predictions. However, as physicists have pointed out, they are more limited than the laws of physics because they only apply to the tiny corner of the universe in which life is known to exist. Still, given that any story that involves us also involves life, they are universal relative to any world we might experience. Knowing about these laws helps us understand the future into which we are—arms flailing, coal burning, and full speed ahead—hurling ourselves.

Most of the laws of nature are well known to ecologists. Though many were first studied more than a hundred years ago, they have been elaborated and refined in recent decades with advances in statistics, modeling, experiments, and genetics. These laws predict which species are likely to move around the Earth in response to climate change, how species will evolve in response to our ever-growing cities, the sorts of behaviors that will allow species to thrive in an ever more variable world, and much more. They govern the response of life to each of our individual or collective actions. Because these laws are known and even intuitive to ecologists, they often don’t mention them: “Of course that is true. Everyone knows. Why talk about it even?” But these laws are often not intuitive if you haven’t spent recent decades thinking and talking about them. Those that are aware of them ignore them out of the belief in humanity’s own power, the hubris of thinking we are fully in control. As a result, their consequences have a tendency to surprise ecologists and non-ecologists alike, to catch us with our collective guard down and punish us, whether with global pandemics, resistant weeds, or persistent changes in the ecosystems on which we depend.

Charles Darwin’s elegant revelation of the way life evolves, natural selection, is one such law. Darwin imagined this to be a slow process, but we now know that it can happen very quickly. Evolution by natural selection has been observed in real time in many species, which is not surprising. What is surprising is the river-like inevitability with which the consequences of this simple law flow into our daily lives each time we, for example, try to kill a species.

We do this in our homes, hospitals, backyards, farm fields, and even, in some cases, forests when we use antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, and any other “-cide.” And the effects are always predictable.

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