Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Butterfly of Doom: Everything connected?

It is a banality of the ecological sciences to state that everything is connected. That ebullient Scot, and eventual stalwart of the American wilderness movement, John Muir, claimed, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." And if such statements are employed to sponsor a notion that individual organisms cannot be regarded in isolation from those that they consume, and those that can consume them, or furthermore, that as a consequence of the deep intersections of the living and the never-alive, that there can been unforeseen consequences flowing from species additions or removals from ecosystems, then few may argue with this. However, just as the ripples of a stone dropped in a still pond propagate successfully only to its edges (though they may entrain delightful patterns in the finest of its marginal sands), not every ecological event has intolerably large costs to exact. True, if the dominoes line-up and the circumstances are just so, a butterfly’s wing beat over the Pacific may hurl a typhoon against its shores, but more often than not such lepidopterous catastrophes do not come to pass. Ecosystems, energized so that matter cycles and conjoins the living with the dead, have their lines of demarcation, borders defined by their internal interactions being more powerful than their external ones.  They are therefore buffered against many potentially contagious disasters.  This, of course, is the essence of resilience - the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance without disruption to habitual structure and function.  Ecology is as much the science investigating the limits of connections as it is the thought that everything is connected.


  1. Hmm yes but there is no doubt that there are intricate links that only now we are unraveling. The question comes down to what sort of system it is. Since an equilibrium organism is at one with their environment because they are cold and dead, I am not too keen on the term being bandied around to refer to resilient organisms that bounce back after perturbations. But neither are they entirely disequilibrium, because then everything in them would be random. So one is looking for links, and measures of order and complexity, which allow the system to be as Kaufmann describes a stable dynamical disequilibrium system. But not too disequilibrium.

    Therefore the problem you describe of too much emphasis on "web" connections, is part of an overall problem in which we have not clearly characterised the system.

  2. errata: resilient organisms should read "resilient ecosystems that bounce back"