[Coral-List] Faust, Medea, coral reefs

Charles Birkeland charlesb at hawaii.edu
Mon May 25 11:38:04 EDT 2009

 -  -  -  <!--  /* Font Definitions */  @font-face 	{font-family:"Cambria Math"; 	panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; 	mso-font-charset:0; 	mso-generic-font-family:roman; 	mso-font-pitch:variable; 	mso-font-signature:-1610611985 1107304683 0 0 159 0;} @font-face 	{font-family:Calibri; 	panose-1:2 15 5 2 2 2 4 3 2 4; 	mso-font-charset:0; 	mso-generic-font-family:swiss; 	mso-font-pitch:variable; 	mso-font-signature:-1610611985 1073750139 0 0 159 0;}  /* Style Definitions */  p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal 	{mso-style-unhide:no; 	mso-style-qformat:yes; 	mso-style-parent:""; 	margin-top:0in; 	margin-right:0in; 	margin-bottom:10.0pt; 	margin-left:0in; 	line-height:115%; 	mso-pagination:widow-orphan; 	font-size:11.0pt; 	font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif"; 	mso-fareast-font-family:Calibri; 	mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";} .MsoChpDefault 	{mso-style-type:export-only; 	mso-default-props:yes; 	font-size:10.0pt; 	mso-ansi-font-size:10.0pt; 	mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt; 	mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; 	mso-fareast-font-family:Calibri; 	mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;} @page Section1 	{size:8.5in 11.0in; 	margin:1.0in 1.0in 1.0in 1.0in; 	mso-header-margin:.5in; 	mso-footer-margin:.5in; 	mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 	{page:Section1;} -->   Humanity is to the biosphere as COTS is occasionally to Indo-Pacific coral reefs.  In both cases, the deterioration of the system occurs when the developing population is endowed with an extraordinary richness of resources with which it expands out of control, and the lack of control stems from natural selection acting on the individual genotype and not on the community or ecosystem. Now the eminent paleontologist Peter Ward has just published a book on his Medea hypothesis in which he presents geologic evidence that some of the mass extinctions in Earth’s history have been caused in the same way, by episodes of prokaryotic life becoming system-destructive when they are too successful (the Siberian Traps, the Deccan Traps and the KT asteroid notwithstanding). 
  This allegory of Faust has been on the conscience of thinkers for centuries. It has been told in philosophy (Goethe), plays (Marlowe), operas ( Gounod, Boito), with other major musical works (Berlioz, Schumann, Mahler, Liszt), painting (Rembrandt), poetry and novels.  Faust was a person for whom the devil agreed to provide knowledge and success, but when Faust reached the zenith of human happiness, the devil collected on his soul. Faust was happy with the deal because he was confident the moment of payback would never come. Knowledge has given humanity technology and global economics, and with this we (north continental mainland societies) have been able to develop a lavish existence by use in a couple centuries of the stores of petroleum that it has taken organisms hundreds of millions of years to accrue.  Our byproducts are changing the climate as have, according to Ward’s Medea hypothesis, the byproducts of very successful prokaryotes leading to mass extinctions in the past. Technology and global economics has allowed us to overharvest the presumed infinite stocks of fish in the ocean and to reduce the slowly accrued arable topsoils to an unprecedented extent.  
  Humans are not the only eukaryote with Faustian traits. The crown-of-thorns seastar has the gifts of a morphology with large food-intake to biomass ratio as a juvenile that provides for rapid growth to maturity and an elastic disk-like structure in early reproductive years that allows for a broad range of available prey (1989 American Scientist 77: 154-163). Furthermore, the extraordinary fecundity of COTS provides it with the capacity to capitalize rapidly when the larvae are lucky and provided with a dense larval food supply (“Faust” is derived from Latin “lucky” or “auspicious”).  When the COTS rises to prominence by overexploitation  of  its resource, the productive times are followed by a payback of precipitous population decline.  Furthermore, the morphology for juveniles becomes a liability when the adult grows to over 50 cm in diameter. Natural selection is not able to modify these traits because the (proximally) very successful  COTS reproduce before the payback, in the same way natural selection has not helped humans with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases.  In addition, phytoplankton blooms associated with spawning are too irregular to allow consistent natural selection. 
  On the global scale, Peter Ward made a compelling case that we should be wary of the popular Gaia hypothesis that life regulates the environment in a way that tends to keep an environment favorable to life. “Gaia” is the “good mother” and the classical Greek culture referred to her as the benevolent Mother Earth. Medea was the unhappy wife of Jason that killed their children out of revenge.  Medea may be an appropriate image for the effects of the Siberian Traps (at the Permian-Triassic change) and the effects of the Deccan Traps (Cretaceous-Cenozoic boundary), but for Ward’s depiction of most of the mass extinctions I would think of Mother Earth as not vengeful, but rather an overly generous mother that sometimes spoiled her children and provided no discipline. Perhaps “there was an old lady that lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.”  Faust is the complementary allegory that when a being is given extraordinary success, natural selection works on the traits of the individual genotype and does not operate on the future impacts on systems.
  (James Lovelock, the original author of the Gaia hypothesis (British), has just published a new book on “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” in which he says “We all need modern Churchills to lead us from the clinging, flabby, consensual thinking of the late twentieth century and to bind our nations with a single-minded effort…” to correct for the fact that we are pushing the system too far.  His referral to Churchill was in a comparison with Churchill’s guiding the British away from the common belief in the 1930s that if we were just complacently peaceful, that the threat of World War II would go away. We should not complacently rely on Mother Earth.)
  As with the gift of morphology of COTS, humanity has been endowed with technology that has enabled us to overharvest the seemingly infinite oceans. With scuba and nightlights, we have the capacity to rapidly deplete islands of the populations of vulnerable large coral-reef fishes such as the Bolbometopon muricatum and Cheilinus undulatus. The “Freedom to Fish Act” keeps being proposed in Hawaii and on the mainland US, but in French Polynesia, Palau, Fiji, American Samoa, and Queensland, there are laws against the use of scuba while spearfishing.  It seems that the possibilities for a separation of spearfishing and scuba in the US mainland and Hawaii are almost nil, although I believe an NGO is planning to approach the matter in Hawaii.  It is my understanding that Australia has also explicitly included the Precautionary Principle in some governmental decisions.  Why do Australians and some Pacific islanders behave more responsibly? When one thinks of the rich soils of Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, and elsewhere in the Midwest, and the oilfields of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and the coalfields of the Appalachians, etc, vis-à-vis the central expanses of Australia, and the total resources of the individual tropical Pacific islands, one cannot help but wonder if Australia and Pacific islands keep within the system like COTS in oligotrophic waters, while the US in the last 2 centuries has been given an endowment like Faust and expanded out of control like COTS spawning in  a phytoplankton bloom. 
  Decades ago, Bob Johannes said that the fisheries and other extractive-resource endeavors from coral reefs should be managed at the village or watershed level. The role of the national government should be to provide protection of the villages against intrusion by foreign or large-scale corporations, but to otherwise let the management decisions be made at the village level.  Bob Johannes’ wise admonition may apply to global economics as well. Township savings and loan institutions have usually been sustainable because of careful  assessments of reliability and abilities of the clients to pay their mortgages.  Large-scale banks often have been Faustian and have rapidly grown out of control by building on foundations  of mortgages that cannot be repaid, and with chain-mail economics (e.g., Ponzi-schemes), rather than the responsible policies of local savings and loans. The escape of CEOs by golden parachutes illustrates that altruism is not in our genes when in large groups. Steve Jameson (2008 Marine Pollution Bulletin 56: 1513-1514) points out that when operating as very large bodies such as corporations and nations, we do not have the genetic capacity to make rational decisions for stewardship.
  Rebuilding community-based management may lead to more responsible behavior by individuals (Reef Encounter 34: 34-35), but while behavior of individuals may be rational, large groups are Faustian.  According to NGO websites, more than 770 companies hired an estimated 2,340 lobbyists to derail federal policy on climate change in the past year, with more than four climate lobbyist for every member of the US Congress, with estimated expenditures on lobbying against climate change topping $90 million last year.  In his new book supporting his Medea hypothesis, Peter Ward is concerned that on a global scale, humanity is behaving like prokaryotes did when leading up to some previous mass extinctions. Although other species like COTS and locusts and Caulerpa taxifolia can be Faustian on a local scale, humanity is the only eukaryote that seems to have the potential of matching the effects of prokaryotes at times in the geologic past. However, as with the use of scuba with spearfishing, the US was outstanding in not signing the Kyoto Convention. Most other nations were more responsible.  Perhaps as we use up our resources, we can assume a less profligate lifestyle and develop more responsible behavior as a nation. Can this happen before we push the system beyond the tipping point?

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