Our place in the web of life

140-4032_IMGThe seven billion human beings who live on this planet weigh in about 300 million tonnes in total and if you add in our domesticated animals then the scales would hit about 700 million tonnes. Whereas if you weighed all of the animals left in the wild then their total weight would be less than 100 million tonnes, according to Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Sapiens: a brief history of mankind’. This explains why many of our landscapes appear empty and barren – they are, at least at the level of large mammals. That’s why you are unlikely to be chased by a tiger or any other predator, see last week’s post entitled ‘Running away from tigers’.

These landscapes are not really barren. We just can’t see what is there. Bacteria are too small for us to see but they have dominated the landscape for most of evolutionary time. They ‘invented’ all of life’s essential biotechnologies including fermentation, photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, respiration and devices for rapid motion plus probably a few we have haven’t discovered yet. Bacteria exchange up to 15% of their genetic material on a daily basis across all strains so that they could be considered to form a single microscopic web of life.

This web of bacterial life is all around us as well as inside us. If you like to learn more than you probably ever want to know about the bacteria inside us then read Giulia Enders’book ‘Gut: The inside story of our bodies most underrated organ’. We are not alone in being immersed in this web of bacterial life; so is every other living thing which implies we are all intimately connected in a vast ecological network. This microbial web of life in which we are embedded is self-organising – there are no leaders, presidents, generals or CEOs – instead bacteria empower one another. It appears to be one of the secrets of their success.

In an interconnected world, power and control over others in a hierarchy is less appropriate than empowering one another in the network. Many people would find this approach difficult because they identify themselves with their position of power and, hence would tend to resist any attempt to empower the network. To them it begins to sound like anarchy, particularly in the narrow context of human society, but others might suggest it offers a better prospect for addressing the challenges posed by global climate change than world leaders have so far proposed. Well-informed individuals intimately connected in a network are likely to take decisions that support the network, and hence themselves. But, now we are straying into game theory…


Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A brief history of mankind. London: Vintage (Penguin, Random House), 2014.

Capri F. & Luisi, P.L., The systems view of life: a unifying vision. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Enders, G, Gut: the inside story of our bodies most underrated organ. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2013.

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