It’s one of those ideas deeply embedded in evolutionary theory, or at least some versions of it, that random genetic change that happens to work in a given environment is what underlies the whole show, from the first coming together of organic molecules in the primordial soup to the elaborately beautiful bodies (beautiful because we randomly have evolved to find them beautiful, except for the ugly ones) of well camouflaged insects.
It is incredibly difficult to not suggest intent in evolution when teaching it. I’ve yet to ever watch any natural history program or even materials produced for education that don’t suggest it, over and over again, the reasoning for why a given species has a given trait, what it promotes, or what it defends against, the elegance of interaction between organism and environment, the near perfect fit between organism and ecological niche.
Evolution is not perfect. Perfection is a human construct.
This morning in discussion with a guy about, well, sentience, I suggested that all living organisms possess it, and yes, even plants and bacteria and fungi, all are aware, and self aware, and aware of environment, and all respond to environment, it’s a fundamental characteristic of life. They do it all biochemically, at least inside the body, much of the sensation of stimuli is of different electromagnetic character, but that maintenance of relatively stable conditions that all living things must use energy to do, that’s how we define life, it varies not all that much from organism to organism.
Certainly if we compare how you and I do it to how a pig does it, we will see much more similarity than if we compare ourselves to how a bacterium does it, but when it comes down to it, it’s not all that different. And if we compare how the human brain works to the communications networks present in soils, it’s not very different, not biochemically, not functionally, at all.
It’s all about sensing the environment and responding to it. Bacteria have been doing it for close to 4 billion years; they’re really good at it. Plants have been doing it for hundreds of millions. We’re just learning, relatively speaking.
But being the incredibly arrogant organisms we tend to be, we have decided that only we can make conscious decisions, only we can drive our own evolution (lots of folks hold that to be true, have invested lots of themselves in the idea), that all of life that came before us, all several billion years worth, were the hapless victims of chance.
That carnivorous plants such as the Venus Flytrap developed 1) highly modified leaves with 2) sensitive trichomes that detect insect presence so that 3) hormonal responses could trigger rapid movement of water that would 4) bring those modified leaves together and 5)trap the insects in 6) enzymes that would break down their bodies 7) and provide nutrients like N which are lacking in those 8) waterlogged and swampy soils is all a matter of random chance seems to me just so over the top ridiculous, well, perhaps I just don’t get statistics, or I haven't seen all of those transitional forms in between, and all of the enzymes, which mostly we just imagine must have existed based on the underlying assumptions we've made.
I suppose it could happen, I suppose someone has done the math, so perhaps the underlying assumption of complete random chance is true. It doesn’t change the sentience of the plant, at all, nor the reality of the biochemical workings of the soil, a living entity in itself. It does not change the fact of the Earth, or Gaia, as a living entity in itself.
As for the world of science, such a young world it is, one that fought tooth and nail against a religious establishment through much of its infancy, the degree to which it refuses to even consider ideas outside its own dogmatic way of viewing the world is sad, that it almost never questions some underlying assumptions, is tragic.
Mainstream science, like mainstream education, in our world today, is quite broken.
So one of my life goals, something I never much set before, but have, as a senior, what the heck, it’s really the most practical of times to set life goals, the time when there’s not all that much of it left, is to get some of my former colleagues in the world of science to look at some of the ideas that are out there, in the world, but not in there, in their world, that world of science.
And I’ve been successful a time or two, mostly through recommending books, those that were recommended to me, books that made me rethink a lot of biology, and evolution, and science, and spirituality, and all sorts of “paranormal” phenomena that I’d experienced but written off to, well, whatever it is we write things off to when we can’t explain them.
Stephen Buhner’s work, or at least that of his which I’ve read, is one bit that blew my mind, completely, and assuming I can trust the review I got from one friend who read it, it blew his, too. When I first read a question presented by someone who’d read it, specifically why botanists don’t recognize the neural networks that plants have, my typical response of “oh pulease” came to mind, and probably fingertips, not lips, it was online, but I likely said something to to effect that it’s because plants don’t have nerves, nor have they been engineered the way man made “neural networks” have, and even if one wanted to consider mycorrhizal networks, which I knew were used in communication, still, they weren’t nerves.
Not very bright, that response, particularly not after reading Buhner.
Truth be told, once I finished my mycorrhizal research, like, almost twenty years ago now, I never read another paper on mycorrhizae. I was busy learning about plant water use efficiency and environmental stress physiology, learning climatology, how to program high tech equipment to do what I wanted it to do, learning about urban ecosystems. Once I finished my dissertation work, I won’t say I never read another paper on those things, but I only read what I had to read to help students with what they might be doing.
Once I started teaching general biology and botany and ecology full time, I learned those things to a depth I’d never learned them before. It was what I needed to know at the time. I read countless papers, but they were papers picked by students, papers associated with reading and writing assignments I’d given students. I learned a lot about diverse topics, mostly animal biology and ecology, some medical, although those papers are often such a chore to read, the students rejected them quite quickly.
So I like to get feedback from other biologists about Buhner’s work. Ren, my friend who taught human physiology and microbiology to nursing students for years, loved it. Of course he did is master’s degree in theology, so his mind is open to much more than just biology. Those who’ve earned terminal degrees in the sciences often “learn” to close their minds to anything not “hard science”.
Thing is, the response I got from another friend, a Ph.D. biologist who teaches comparative mammalian physiology, and human physiology, before she even read Buhner, totally thrilled me. We were “discussing” that idea of below ground “neural networks”, not in plants, no, but in forests, in plant communities, and really, to call them plant communities is silly, because they are communities of plants, and fungi, and bacteria, and yes, even animals adding input, to a system of communication and feedback just as complex and integrated an functional as an animal brain.
What she said is that she’d read some of the work, and that “it makes perfect mechanistic sense”.
In science, really, there is no other kind of sense to make. And indeed, Buhner’s work makes perfect mechanistic sense. What it disturbs is not the mechanistic sensibilities of science, no. I think what it disturbs is science’s dogmatic, almost religious beliefs. My friend told me she’s not quite sure what to make of Buhner.
I wish all biologists would read his stuff.
Evolutionary Arms Races
It’s one of the standard topics in an ecology class, or an evolution class, or really, these days, even general biology. It’s an idea there on your favorite natural history program on TV, the idea that over the course of evolutionary history, predators and prey (which includes herbivores and plants) have developed characteristics to help them eat and/or not be eaten.
I recall the first time I saw something online that was expressing incredible shock at the idea that plants knew when they were being eaten, and I thought, well of course they do, how else would they know they need to produce those inducible defense mechanisms? Some plants only produce their defense mechanisms when an herbivore is present, and feeding, and to do that, they must sense that they are being eaten.
It’s not exactly the same type of sensation that we have, but then we often use human analogies to try and understand the way non-human species function, and really, it’s not unreasonable to do so. Comparative anatomy and physiology, particularly within the framework of physical adaptations to diverse environments, is foundational to understanding evolutionary biology.
Arms race is very much a human way of thinking, but again, it is useful.
What occurred to me the other day is that inserting a bacterial gene into a plant so that it can kill its potential herbivores, which we do with plants genetically modified to produce the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, disrupts that evolutionary arms race in ways unpredictable.
Giving corn and cotton the ability to kill caterpillars (and ergo butterflies), beetles and various other flying insects, nematodes, etc. is about like supplying the latest and greatest in military technology to one group, let’s say the Rohingya in Myanmar, and with it they can wipe out the Buddhists who are trying to wipe them out, and then all the rest of the Buddhists in the world, too, just because they can.
They’re armed for it.
The problem with that analogy, of course, is that I’m talking about the same species, humans, and we can wipe each other out all day and it won’t impact the earth’s ecosystems in a terribly bad way, at all, unless we kill lots of other stuff along with us. If, on the other hand, those Bt toxin producing plants are killing caterpillars, and beetles, and various flies and nematodes, so many target species, and non-target species, too, it might very well throw entire ecosystems into a cascade of local species extinctions, starting with the vertebrate species that feed on those target species.
Perhaps I'm being an optimist, but I think that the Rohingya likely would not kill all Buddhists, they are, after all, human beings, and they can make the choice not to. The corn and cotton armed with Bt toxin cannot decide they’ll spare their herbivores, they’re going to kill the vast majority of them, because they can.
Those they don’t kill will be those which are resistant to the toxin. New super pests, not directly genetically engineered by humans, but just as surely the result of our interference with nature as are antibiotic resistant bacteria, another lesson we’ve not yet learned.
So let’s plant Bt corn and Bt cotton (snark), thousands and thousand of hectares of them, let’s arm those poor plants against those pesky herbivorous insects, wipe them all out. Let’s wipe us all out.
That’s what arms races are most useful for.