March 30, 2004 | Peter

Natural Catastrophe

I’ve been enjoying the current ABC nature series on Sunday nights. They show the amazing special effects available to even documentary makers now and highlight the growing understanding of natural relationships. The name – “Wolf (or ‘Shark’ etc) Battleground” – which no doubt the marketeers thought would appeal to our violence-saturated audience, is misleading because in reality the series has emphasised the way animals cooperate, both within and between species.
The more science understands nature the more incredibly complex they find it to be. Animals often turn out to be much more intelligent than previously thought, and live as parts of highly complex natural systems. One of the realisations is that the relationship between prey and predator is much more complex than previously thought. Not only do predators keep prey species healthy through selecting out the weaker individuals, there is a very intimate knowledge of each other by different species.
So it’s a shame that just as we are finding out about the impressive complexity of interrelated natural systems and the intelligence of various species, we are rapidly destroying these life forms. Some scientists have argued that we are in the middle of the sixth great extinction, this one caused by humans. Our record here in Oz is particularly bad, in large part due to introduced species that actively kill or out-compete native animals. (The last time I took a walk in the hills outside Perth I saw a feral cat – it was at least twice the size of your city moggy, and full of attitude – and wild pig scat was common. Along with the rabbits and foxes, these creatures have made encounters with any marsupials smaller than wallabies rare.)
Yet another recent scientific investigation, this time of species decline in the UK by the Natural Environment Research Council, has mooted the possibility of mass extinction of life on Earth due to human activity. The underlying problem is the interdependence of all biota, including us humans.
Einstein famously said that if bees went, we would soon follow (because they pollinate most of the food we rely on). As we proceed with out mass experiments in GM plants and cover the world with mono-crops, we only make ourselves more and more vulnerable to such a catastrophe.
Good wildlife programs always make me think how close we humans are to other species. In a real way, they are our past. It thrills me to think I am the product of such a long, persistent process as nature has run this incredibly long and complex experiment in generating new and diverse forms of life. This planet is, after all, an island of life in a hard, cold universe. I do have trouble feeling that sense of solidarity with mosquitoes and smallpox, but they too fit into the mix. Our highly evolved intelligence enables us to change that mix, but it would be the greatest tragedy imaginable if we were the ultimate cause of the whole strange and wonderful trip coming to an end.

Posted by Peter at 11:17 am | Comments Off on Natural Catastrophe |
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