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Natural Extravagance and the Dynamic Vulnerability of Life

Natural Extravagance and the Dynamic Vulnerability of Life

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Natural Extravagance and the Dynamic Vulnerability of Life

118 pagine
1 ora
Jul 8, 2020


This work offers new metaphors to understand our biological world, one in accord with the scientific evidence, and more in harmony with preserving our planet and leading humans to live a more full life. Firstly, it recognizes the "natural extravagance" of life, that life often exceeds our expectations in terms of number, variety and capacity for change. Our ability to understand and even categorize life's many manifestations is also often beyond our reach. Such extravance is accompanied by an important second dimension,the dynamic vulnerabiltiy of life. Life needs to take in outside energy and to be acutely sensitive to its environment which presents many vagaries. This vulnerability is paradoxically linked to a dynamism which leads to evolutonary novelty. Rather than emphasizing the end state of evolution in terms of "fitness," this work focuses on the vulnerable processes of evolution itself. In re-envisioning biology, more accurate to the onrush of discoveries, we offer a vision that better protects and preserves our world. The issue at hand is nothing less than our own evolutionary future.

Jul 8, 2020

Informazioni sull'autore

Having grown up in the deep South with woods behind his home, the author enjoys the wilderness. He has a special interest in spirituality and landscape photography and how the two merge. In his travels, the beauty of Yosemite stands out for him and becomes the basis for a vision quest.

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Natural Extravagance and the Dynamic Vulnerability of Life - Michael A. Susko



This work seeks to reenvision our central biological metaphor, one that emphasizes life’s natural extravagance and how it is mixed with dynamic vulnerability. In the main two concepts are brought together. The first is natural extravagance, the tendency for life to have more number, variety, ability to merge and connect, and make for more novelty than we can readily imagine. The second is dynamic vulnerability. Life has an inherent vulnerability, and this vulnerability is paradoxically linked to life’s dynamic capacity to change.

Consider the example of a plant organ, the roots. Plants send out root tendrils, each having a multitude of root hairs, which routinely join with fungus in mycorrhizal symbiosis. Roots hairs expand the ability of roots to find and absorb moisture and minerals in exponential fashion. A single rye plant has 13 million lateral roots which make 200 square meters of coverage.[1] This reach is multiplied exponentially once again when they connect to the fungal symbiosis. All this is extravagant in capacity, number and expansion.

But it also reflects vulnerability, not only with fine root hairs entering harsh environments, but in the symbiosis, where plants accept an invasion by a fungus. The merging is not necessarily easy. With lichen, a well-known symbiosis, the fungal and algae partners do not accept the arrangement, unless both are in a thoroughly debilitated condition.[2] Once established, however, thousands of lichen types have evolved, which can survive in the most extreme environments. In short, life’s vulnerability to an invasion by a symbiotic partner leads to dynamic change and a resultant extravagance.

This work originally arose from a need to update The Fragility of Evolution, published in World Futures in 2003. This two-part work reenvisioned biology through the lens of fragility. The basic theme was to focus on the actual time of evolutionary change, which is a fragile and vulnerable process, rather than the end process which has been termed fitness.

Some do not think another paradigm is possible. A professor from my graduate school told me, ANatural Selection is like gravity. It’s all around us. Yet to me, an alternative emphasis is a better fit for the rush of evidence that’s presenting, and one that makes more sense on various levels, including the survival of our planet and human race.

Creating a new synthetic vision presents a high level of difficulty. Yet a synthetic vision, which is more consistent with emerging evidence and leads us in a responsible direction, is of utmost importance if humanity and our planet.

In The Fragility of Evolution articles, an important sub-theme emerged. Fragile processes can subsist due to measures of protection. Life leans on life constantly, in its intertwining, mergings and associations. In this interdependency, an extravagance in number, alternate morphologies, developmental states, and behavioral strategies arise to survive the array of stressors the environment presents.

After some 15 years, evidence is converging toward the thesis that the change process needs to be emphasized. This is a good sign, for we want our theories to be congruent with ongoing evidence and even be ahead of the evidence. When new evidence keeps diverging from our traditional models, and we keep having to make or improvise ever more elaborate and complex explanations for a theory to stay afloat, then it’s time to consider changing the theory. This has repeatedly happened with Natural Selection, which continually undergoes adjustments, such as inclusive fitness to account for the pervasiveness of cooperation. I believe the time has come to recast our central metaphor for envisioning life and its evolution. If biological bodies can evolve in surprising directions, so can our concepts. This is happening. Biologists are now proposing an Extended Synthesis, which would place  natural selection as one of many factors that make for evolutionary change.[3]

To the credit of the profession, there has been increased focus on the capacity to change. Professional articles and specialized books feature traits such as evolvability and plasticity.[4] Sometimes botanists lead the way, as with the book Plant Evolutionary Developmental Biology: The Evolvability of the Phenotype.[5] It can also be featured in theories that seek to explain the arrival of the fittest, rather than their survival.

The words we use are important, for they serve as guiding metaphors to orient us to the evidence and reality before us. It is like deciding what is the best lens that we put on our camera.  Perhaps we should, if we have to pick one, select an all-purpose lens that would fit a wide range of evidence. This lens would be good enough to view things whether close up, at intermediate range and at a distance.

Metaphors of Life

The concept I originally used to explore life and its evolution was fragility, which focused on the change process. Sometimes this word has been applied to other biological domains, such as fragile ecosystems, fragile biological phases, or fragile populations. It resonates with the idea of a cost and risk at the time of evolution and the need for protection in some manner. No one concept is perfect, but fragility suggested the paradox of weakness and risk at the time of evolution itself. With its roots of breaking it hints at the potential nonlinear dimension of the change, for breaking itself conjures radical, sudden change.

This being said, no one concept is complete, and there is an important counterpoint to fragility and change states. Life cannot remain long in any fragile state and survive. It must come to some resilience to survive––thus fitness returns. The literature is also giving attention to this quality of life in terms of robustness, its ability to survive perturbations in the environment. A paradox arises when such resiliency and robustness are interwoven with the organism’s plasticity.[6] The two can be readily linked. A certain fragility or changeability can even be viewed as part of the robustness of an organism.

As I was reworking this theme, I added a positive, paradoxical adjective to fragility, a word carrying connotations of weakness and easily falling apart. Thus, I considered for a title of this work, Dynamic Fragility. A Reenvisioning of Biology. Again, rather than emphasizing life’s resiliency and stability in the face of various forces, the idea would be to focus on dynamic periods of change when things are not optimal. In emphasizing this neglected dimension, I hoped that we would come to a more complete awareness and more holistic view of life, one not only necessary for our survival, but one that would help open doors to a richer evolutionary future.

I opted to change the title once more, to Natural Extravagance: The Dynamic Vulnerability of Life. The change process is still emphasized, but the result of life’s extravagance is highlighted. Rather than fitness conjuring elimination of the less fit as the path forward, this central metaphor embraces variety and interactive arrangements. A type of unexpected fitness arrives, in the form of an extravagance which presents so much variety of form and behavior. And as this presents before our very eyes, we may say that it is natural and can serve well as a central metaphor for describing the biological reality of our world.

It is worth pausing over the meaning of the words extravagance and vulnerability. Extravagance comes from the Latin meaning to diverge greatly. In a sense this highlights a logarithmic, over the top, or surprising result. More precisely, such excess or log expansion occurs in at least four ways: (1) Number, often in the form of doubling, (2) Mergings between organisms in unexpected and varied ways, (3) Creating an array of variety in terms of end types, and variety in temporal stages for one type, and (4) Novelty or qualitative differences emerging in terms of structure, functions, mobility with degrees of freedom and sensations/consciousness. Perhaps our first and even most important observation, is that when we encounter life, we are confronted with this fountain of expansion and novelty, which we are just beginning to describe.

A second key word is vulnerability, a concept for which I had formerly used fragility. As might already be gathered, metaphors are critical for our entry into a body of knowledge and for understanding the world we encounter. As I delved deeper and had conversation with a friend who was writing a book on love, I came to adjust my metaphor for the final time. He

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