Research in British Columbia has found evidence of nitrogen from fish in tree rings. The salmon that swim in the local rivers provide food for predators, such as bears and eagles, who leave the remains of the salmon lying around on the floor of the forest where it decomposes allowing the trees to absorb the nitrogen embedded in the bones of the salmon. In some cases, up to three-quarters of a tree’s nitrogen is from salmon. This implies that interfering in the life cycle of the salmon, for instance by commercial fishing, will impact on its predators, the forest and everything that is dependent on or interacts with the trees. The complex nature of these interconnections have been apparent to the aboriginal peoples of the world for a very long time [see ‘Blinded by reductionism‘ on August 24th, 2022]. To quote Suzanne Simard, ‘Mistreatment of one species is mistreatment of all. The rest of the planet has been waiting patiently for us to figure that out’.
I wrote about the weakness of reductionism about 18 months ago [see ‘Reduction in usefulness of reductionism‘ on February 17th, 2021]. Reductionism is the concept that everything about a complex system can be understood by reducing it to the smallest constituent part. The concept is flawed because complex systems exhibit emergent properties [see ‘Emergent properties‘ on September 16th, 2015] that appear at a certain level of complexity but do not exist at lower levels. Life is an emergent property so when you reduce an organism to its constituent parts, for instance by dissection, you kill it and are unable to observe its normal behaviour. Reductionism is widespread in Western science and has been blinding us to what is often well-known to aboriginal people, i.e., the interconnectedness of nature. One example is forest ecosystems that Suzanne Simard, amongst others, has shown are complex synergistic, multi-scale organisations of species. Complexity is only hard for those who have not thought about it – it is obvious to many peoples whose lives are integrated in nature’s ecosystem but it is really difficult for those of us educated in the reductionist tradition.
Competition has become a characteristic of many activities in life, whether it is teams vying to win a trophy, universities attempting to be top of a league table, retailers trying to persuade you to buy from them, or politicians seeking power. Natural selection is often cited to demonstrate that competition is ubiquitous in nature and therefore something to be embraced and celebrated as a route to success. However, Suzanne Simard has highlighted that competition is only part of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It was popularised following the publication of his book ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859; however, Darwin also wrote about the ways in which plants co-operate and collaborate and Simard believes that collaboration is ‘as important, if not more important’ than competition in the development of ecosystems. Trees may have a better chance of adapting to climate change because they are adapting faster than us. A number of mass movements of plants are in progress – the fastest appears to be the northwards migration of white spruce trees in the eastern US which have moved 100 km every decade for the last thirty years. Perhaps it is time to apply some more comprehensive biomimetics to the organisation of society at all levels and consider how greater levels of collaboration rather than competition would help us tackle the challenges facing civilisation.
Yes, it is April Fools Day but I am serious. Trees are made of air. Think about it. What happens when they are burned? You are left with a small pile of ash. So where did the rest of the tree go? When the tree ‘is burned, in the flaming heat is released the flaming heat of the sun which was bound in to convert air into the tree’. These words are from Richard Feynman, who explains it much better than me. Watch him on Youtube.