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Martin Brasier

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Is Efficiency Fatal?

Posted: 06/29/2012 11:19 pm

Are Golden Ages to be welcomed? Or are they disasters in waiting? Should we yearn for stability? Or relish changes when they come? Could prolonged periods of stability always prove fatal to heirarchies, such as economies and ecosystems? Or should we carry on regardless?

How can ever hope to find answers here? Historical records barely go back far enough to give us the rules. So might two billion years of fossil record speak out about strange happenings in the past? Or about great dangers that lie ahead? My hunch is that fossils are now speaking out to us loud and clear. And that microscopic fossils have the very darkest stories to tell. The ways of the world can be read within a grain of sand.

The 18th century poet William Blake once teased about seeing 'a world in a grain of sand. He was not alone, of course. Indeed, you may well share some skepticism about such a dream. How could one hope to divine the laws of the universe, or the deeper meaning of life, just by squinting through a glass lens at tiny fossils? One hunch is that Blake was sneering in part at country parsons, who had gleefully followed the example of old Robert Hooke. The latter had the ill luck of working and writing at the time of the Great Plague in London in 1665. And it is with such a scene that my arguments within my new book Secret Chambers begin.

When Hooke sat down to look through his new microscope, what he saw and reported then truly astonished the world. He revealed that a humble flea -- grand vector of bubonic plague -- was truly dressed to kill, provided with armour plates and quills. He then turned aside to make the first ever report of 'cells' within living tissue -- from a wine bottle cork -- estimating some twelve hundred million box-like cells in the microscopic scene before him. But best of all, he dredged miniscule shells from the muds of the River Thames, each no bigger than a grain of sand. His drawings were so carefully rendered that we can even identify the species -- it was a tiny protozoan shell called Ammonia beccarii that now thrives in estuaries across the world, from Port Said to the Potomac. That is fascinating because such tiny shells -- which I have studied all my life -- seem to hold valuable clues to the manner in which complex cells of plants and animals first evolved from bacterial slime. Hooke had stumbled on the clues to life's biggest mystery. Perhaps the most curious and difficult transition in the whole history of evolution -- the formation of the complex modern cell.

All manner of fascinating people have played their part in this great quest, including a spy for the Emperor Augustus who reported the first symbiotic fossils -- akin to Ammonia -- while travelling through war-torn Egypt. Charles Darwin later stumbled on a puzzle in coral polyps while climbing high in the Andes. Then his wife Emma helped to bring clues together during a dinner party in London. We then meet with a precocious Chicagoan girl called Lynn Margulis who wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. She was to revolutionize our thinking, battling for evolution's most beautiful idea... And we bump into a humble Minnesota geologist who kept pestering an esteemed Harvard Professor. Lastly, we meet with an Apollo Missionary who couldn't quite stop talking about the Australian outback.

When woven together, something rather strange emerges from these stories. Over the last 400 million years, we find that reef ecosystems have flirted dangerously with algae, at first cultivating them like house plants, then like arable farmers, and then like symbioholics. But when we inspect the fossil record, we find that every 20-30 million years or so, these complex and highly efficient ecosystems have collapsed completely, taking symbioses down to the bottom again.

But when we travel back in time to between one and two billion years ago, within the interval that I once foolishly dubbed 'the Boring Billion', nothing like this seems to have happened. In fact, we see the reverse. Bacterial guests got so entwined with tprotozoan hosts that they fused into a single, new kind of cell -- the eukaryote cell. Both mitochondria and chloroplasts are vestiges of this great marriage.

Nothing so big has happened in the last 400 million years or so. Symbioses have either stayed rather loose, or they have formed and then dissolved again completely, in the so-called mass extinction events.

My suggestion is that symbioses were able to go much further in the distant past because there were no major collapses of ecosystem. Yes, there were huge meteorite impacts. But nothing quite like the end of the dinosaurs. Just a billion years of networking.

This reveals the alarming nature of our current predicament. In a world like ours, carrying animals locked into complex food chains, symbioses have been obliged to operate within a hierarchical system prone to specialisation, and to boom and bust. So symbiotic associations have been unable to rise again to great heights. Yes, symbioses have explored huge efficiencies, leading to giant, algae-cultivating factories of the kind that now comprise the famous Sphinx. But those symbioses always proved fatal whenever the system flipped to a new state of equilibrium. Which it always did. And maybe always will.

It seems that efficiencies within a system typically prove fatal in the longer term. Redundancy can be a boon. Without slack in the system, any complex structure will always be destined for collapse.

Have we humans seen all this before? Well, yes, I think we have: in the collapse of civilizations around the Mediterranean about 1190 BC. And in the collapse of the Classical world in c. 410 AD. And to a lesser extent, in the collapse of 1929. And in the collapse of our modern banking system too.

Those little fossils are crying out that our bankers have been taking efficiency too far. If so, let this be a warning. Stop such short-term behaviour at once!

 
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