The Architecture of Life: Seeing the Forest for the Trees

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

(Second of three related posts. Start at the beginning here.)

Human beings - like all living things - are utterly enmeshed in relationships with their environment.

In our living and evolving world, those relationships are the bricks and mortar from which the world's eco-systems are built.

Over millions of years, these relationships have diversified and become overwhelmingly complex interdependent systems that in many cases adapt to their surroundings like living organisms.

All habitats on our planet - including the cities and other environments built by human beings - are forged from these complex systems of relationship. All known biological organisms are participants in them, often playing roles in several different systems at the same time.

Most living things on our planet exist because they play some role in processing the energy of the sun. Photosynthetic plants and micro-organisms use the sun's energy for their own purposes, but in the process, a complex adaptive system of relationships passes that same energy down the food chain.

Many scientists believe this same global system regulates the planet's the temperature, the carbon-dioxide content of our atmosphere, the salinity of the oceans, and even impacts weather across the globe...thus creating the conditions needed for the rest of life on our planet to exist.

The diverse species that form these interdependent systems often appear unrelated on the surface, but when closely examined, the behavior of one is found to be critical to the survival or well-being of others.

These forms of subtle interdependence not only underlie life in the oceans and rain forests, but also our day to day lives in our homes, businesses and social institutions.

Scientists, social researchers and others have explored this fertile view of our world with increasing focus since the middle of the last century.

Entire academic disciplines - ecology, environmental psychology, sociology, anthropology and others - are looking at the same phenomena from different directions. Many brilliant minds have turned their attention to understand the behavior of these systems, studying the "forests" of our world rather than the "trees" that form them.

This approach to studying the world is often called "environmental" or "systems" science. We are only beginning to understand living systems, but the stakes in the quest are very high.

There are reasons to believe that a great underlying order might exist behind the immeasurably complex web of life.

If we can uncover that order - laws that govern biological systems similar to the immutable laws of physics - it would have world-shaking results. We might be able to predict the behavior of living systems more effectively - including human behavior - which could change everything.

Some of the "laws" that govern life are already understood, at least in part. Almost all scientists accept that the inexorable process of natural selection refines life on earth to fit the circumstances that exist in the habitat from which each organism springs.

That "selecting" is done by the intimate aspects of our environment.

Predator and prey share a very close relationship.Threats to our survival are always profoundly intimate, whether the attack comes from ebola viruses, charging lions, enemy soldiers, hardening of the arteries, or lightning strikes.

Driven by hunger and thirst, consumed with periodic lust, fighting for survival…life on our planet is no cakewalk.

All organisms must compete for survival and survive the vagaries of an uncertain and sometimes violent climate. At the top of the food chain, we humans intuitively accept this carnage as part of our everyday lives.

Most of us think little of it. Each day, a new and riotous profusion of life springs into being, most of which is consumed by larger organisms in short order…but few of us take notice. Deep in our hearts, we have learned to accept the inevitability of pain and death.

Entropy, the universal law of thermodynamics that says everything in nature wears down, degrades, and seeks a lower, more stable state assures us that we will never know anything else.

Human lives are temporary…but few of us enjoy contemplating that fact as we are trying to fall asleep in our beds at night. We would rather improve on the story, creating grand tales about the power and heroism of the individual, while ignoring our utter dependence upon - and immersion in - the world around us.

Our only comfort comes from aggrandizing ourselves.

This dialectic - between the individual and the greater system from which it evolves - may be a fundamental characteristic of life.

“Individuality” may be a necessary component of complex living systems, and complex systems may be required to sustain individual organisms. Life on our planet may be social at its core.

Whatever the big picture, human beings are wired cognitively to see themselves as individuals. We assume we are making independent choices, each living lonely, independent lives. As infants, we learn to distinguish our independent perception and experience from the rest of the world.

We learn to differentiate "I" from "you," and "it."

But this natural, "common sense" view of our life experience gives us a blind side. The very nature of our gift of self-consciousness makes it hard to see the profound interdependence that underlies our existence.

The tools we use to maintain our complex societies - even the parts of our brains that make it possible - were inherited from other animals.

Our world is teeming with highly social organisms. They, like us, are direct descendents of ancient single-celled organisms that first began to experiment with cooperation and social organization in the "primordial soup" in order to improve their chances of surviving a hostile environment.

Over the eons, this successful adaptive strategy has appeared again and again in a wide variety of forms. Every social adaptation on the planet - from elephant herds on the Serengeti Plain to the symbiotic bacteria in our intestines that help digest our food - is an expression of this ancient adaptive strategy.

Human social systems - families, neighborhoods, religious organizations, political parties, cities and towns, regional and national governments, and corporations - are but diverse expressions of this same hoary tradition. In many ways, these living social "organisms" respond to their environments the same way an animal responds to the eco-system it inhabits.

Human history is a complex system of relationships that evolves over time, an interactive adaptive amalgam of our combined experience.

Since no single person can hold our combined experience in his or her head, we have learned to imbed what we find valuable in the fabric of our societies.

We store this hard-won wisdom in the form of language, artifacts, architecture, laws, governments, traditions, rituals, religions and other cultural agreements. In this way, the living systems of human civilization maintain their structure over time and evolve.

The inventor of the wheel is long forgotten, but the human world still turns on his idea. Our individual actions and ideas survive our mayfly existence only when they find a place in these over-arching systems of cultural agreement.

Ultimately, it is impossible to be human and truly be alone.

The experience of "being human" is a social phenomenon. The two major goals of our development as we grow older are individuation and socialization.

Whether we realize it or not, everything we think and feel is a result of our relationships with one another and the environments we share. Those relationships are imbedded in our genes, refined by our developmental experience, and expressed by our individual behavior, our family systems and our societies.

Each tree impacts the nature of the forest. The forest impacts the nature of each individual tree.

Both are impacted by the global climate and other conditions in the environment in which they exist.

Everything living is constantly engaged in this vibrant, life-and-death negotiation. Our behavior as individuals and societies in the "real world" is dominated - perhaps even fully determined - by this process.

The reality we see around us, including the way we interpret our perceptions of that reality, is the result.

A tree may not understand that it is a component of the forest, that its life is utterly dependent on the light of the sun, the water it seeks with its roots, and the other living and non-living systems from which it emerged.

It may not be aware that its body was molded by that same environment…but that lack of understanding does not make those relationships any less critical to its nature and survival.

The tree and the forest are components of one living system.

It is the same for us.

Read more here.