A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us About the Destiny of the Human Species – Rob R. Dunn, 2021

I liked this very much – some Nature and Environment folks thought it wasn’t human-focused enough, but that’s what I enjoyed. Dunn outlines what he calls “life’s laws,” principles akin to gravity, inertia, and entropy, that affect our environment but which humans mostly ignore at their peril. I didn’t make a proper note of them all as I read, so this list may be incomplete.

  • Species-area law (from island studies: how many species will emerge in a given geographic area)
  • Natural selection (evolution away from any imposed control like pesticides etc.)
  • Law of the niche (limits how much species can adapt to climate change, for example)
  • Law of escape (species moving away from their natural controls)
  • Law of dependence (we need our microbiome, for example; moving to outer space or other planets is a fantasy)
  • Law of cognitive buffering (species with extra brainpower will be adaptable to more conditions)

I would love to go back to this book someday to re-order/check this list – and read/re-read Dunn’s other books, because I love his writing style. He is both witty and inspiring. We had previously read Never Home Alone, which was also great, and there are many others.

In this book I learned

Although with a book like this, it’s a fine line between this section and the short quotes – those should also be memorably expressed, which for someone like Dunn makes the line even finer!

  • In Panama, Terry Erwin found about 1,200 different beetles, “more beetle species in one kind of tree in one forest than there are bird species in the United States”
  • There’s microbial life – lots of it – in the Earth’s crust! (Dunn doesn’t mention this, but looking this up taught me of the boundary called “the Moho” – great name)
  • Culex pipiens mosquitos populated the London Underground in the 1860s and are now a variant or possibly a new species, Culex molestus
  • A population of Aedes aegypti mosquitos, who can’t survive the cold outdoors in DC, persist by using human structures under the Mall in the winter
  • Humans mostly still live in the temperate areas of the globe; there are more of us but we’re just more concentrated in the same comfortable-for-us places, not spread out
  • “House sparrows can think circles around other species of sparrows”!
  • “It is thought that the ability and need to pass along microbes was part of what made termites social”
  • C-section babies miss being exposed to their mother’s microbes (increased risk of diverse diseases & infections)
  • Dallol geothermal area – amazing images – populated by Archaeans whose “dozen species are more evolutionarily diverse than all the vertebrates on Earth combined”
  • “Coendangered” (now “coextinct”) species like the black-footed ferret louse and the California condor mite
  • “Colonies of a single species of army ant, … Eciton burchellii, host more than three hundred other species of animals (to say nothing of other life-forms, such as bacteria or viruses)”

Short quotes

  • “More than half the Earth is now covered by ecosystems we have created—cities, farm fields, waste-treatment plants. We now, meanwhile, control, directly and incompetently, many of the most important ecological processes on Earth. Humans now eat half of all the net primary productivity, the green life that grows, on Earth.”
  • Dunn suggests this daily affirmation: “I am large in a world of small species. I am multicellular in a world of single-celled species. I have bones in a world of boneless species. I am named in a world of nameless species. Most of what is knowable is not yet known.”
  • “We are reminded of the scale of the unknown by near tragedy and actual tragedy. We forget about the unknown in the calm wake of near tragedy and the sorrowful quiet of real tragedy. We forget at our own expense.”
  • “As an ecologist, it seems unlikely to me that we could engineer entirely new ecosystems on other planets that we could manage sustainably when we have struggled to avoid destroying the already functioning ecosystems around us on Earth.” [see also quote below]
  • “’Variability’ sounds both vague and harmless. It is neither; it is, instead, one of nature’s greatest dangers, an elemental threat. Variability is to be feared. Variability needs to be planned for.”
  • “From the perspective of their microbes … termites offer housing and transport and a bit of food preparation to boot. They are an entomological mix between a taco truck and a bed-and-breakfast.”
  • “Even in those cases in which the most economical (by any measure) solution is to replace a functioning natural ecosystem with technology, doing so tends to yield replicas of those natural systems that are missing parts and, more generally, act ‘like’ nature systems but not as natural systems.”
  • “Honey bees are no more native to North America than are starlings, house sparrows, or kudzu. Yet as agriculture in North America intensified, honey bees became a key piece of glue necessary to hold together a broken agricultural system.”
  • “To bees, flowers are like toilet seats. And while bees do wash their hands (or, rather, their feet), that is often not enough to prevent the spread of parasites.”
  • “Nearly the entirety of the living world bears the print of human biocides. We have pressed our wide thumb ever more forcefully into the spinning clay of nature.”
  • “Generally speaking, it seems that the more extreme a set of conditions, from a human perspective, the less well the ant species living in those conditions are likely to have been studied.”
  • “The feral cats of Australia are likely to survive the extinction of human Australians. Goats will live on in many regions. With regard to the extinction of humans, goats are tougher than cockroaches.”
  • About speculation that a form of artificial intelligence could outlive us: “it is interesting that in some ways we find it easier to posit that we can invent another entity that can live sustainably than to imagine that we can do so ourselves.”

Long quotes

Repeatedly scientists have announced the end (or near end) of science, the discovery of new species, or the discovery of life’s extremes. Usually, in doing so, they position themselves as having been key to putting the final pieces in place. “Finally, now that I am done, we are done. Look what I know!” And repeatedly, after such announcements, new discoveries have revealed life to be far grander and more poorly studied than had been imagined. Erwin’s law [named after a beetle biologist] reflects the reality that most of life is not yet named, much less studied.

Trying to control the cassava mealybug:

To find the enemies of the mealybug, one would have to know where the mealybug came from. No one did. In the absence of knowing where the mealybug was from, one could benefit from knowing where the relatives of the mealybug were from. No one knew which species it was related to, much less where they lived. In the absence of knowing where its relatives were from, one might go to the place where cassava was first domesticated (where its pests and parasites and their pests and parasites might be most common). No one had studied the geographic origin of cassava in much detail.

As much as the world can sometimes seem futuristic, many of the most brutal tasks are still carried out by human bodies. Human bodies pick fruit, load trucks, and kill pigs and chickens, and so it is still human bodies on which the global economy depends. Fifty percent of global agricultural production alone depends on the work of small landholders, who do much of their work outdoors by hand. Collectively, those human bodies, with their innumerable arms and legs, are directly susceptible to the effects of temperature.

[The basic idea of the law of cognitive buffering] is that animals with big brains are able to use their intelligence in inventive ways so as to find food even when food is scarce and maybe also warmth when it is cold and shade when it is hot. They buffer bad conditions with big brains. Superficially this would appear to be a law that bodes well for us humans. We have very big brains relative to our bodies, big enough that our heads nod with their own weight when we are exhausted. What’s more, those big brains are thought to have evolved, in part, to help cope with variable climates. But whether our big brains will help us in the future is going to depend on just how we use them, whether we and our institutions are more like a crow or more like the dusky seaside sparrow [which went extinct].

Carpenter ants, for instance, depend on bacteria passed by mothers to daughters, generation after generation, in order to produce some of the vitamins they require. At least one of those bacteria species is now housed, by the carpenter ants, in a special kind of cell that lines its gut. It is inside the ant’s cells, integrated into its body. It is inherited by baby ants inside their eggs. It is part of the ant’s body, part of its egg, and yet it is still separate. Conditions too warm for the bacteria, but not the ant, kill the bacteria. Then after a while, no longer whole, the ants slowly die too.

[Space colonization would be], for humanity, something akin to a rebirth, or at least a molt. By this I mean that they require us to take with us the species we need to survive. This is a much harder task than any that species on Earth must engage in. When a leaf-cutter ant queen flies to start a new colony, she carries with her the fungus that her progeny will grow on the leaves they gather. But she doesn’t need to take with her the plants that make the leaves. We will need to take the plants and also much more.

Of the ideas I’ve articulated in this book, the idea that we should save the services of nature, where we can, rather than trying to reinvent them is perhaps both the most obvious and the most contentious. It is obvious in that on some level it is intuitive that we should not break what is already working. It is contentious in that, increasingly, the future being imagined by scientists and engineers is one in which more and more of nature’s services are replaced by technologies. Recently, a number of researchers have gone so far as to suggest that they don’t need nature. They argue that, with genes in the lab, they can create whatever is needed. It is possible that they are right. I doubt it. I suspect my vacuum-cleaner repair person would doubt it too. And here is the thing: if they are wrong, and we have failed to save the ecosystems we needed, failed to keep them from breaking, well, then the consequences will be great.

[This] shows a version of the big evolutionary tree of life. If the branches were all labeled, you would quickly notice that the names on the branches are mostly unfamiliar. Some of the big branches on the tree of life, for example, include the Micrarchaeota, the Wirthbacteria, the Firmicutes, the Chloroflexi, or the even more cryptic “RBX1,” Lokiarchaeota and Thorarchaeota. If you were to look for the branch that includes humans, you might struggle to find it. This isn’t a mistake but, rather, a reflection of our own place in life’s bigger picture.
On this tree, or rather, a sort of bush, each line represents a major lineage of life. All species with cells with nuclei are part of the Eukaryotes, represented as a single broom-like branch … in the lower right-hand section of the tree. Eukaryotes include malaria parasites, algae, plants, and animals, among other life-forms. The Opisthokonta, one small part of the Eukaryote branch, is the branch that includes animals and fungi. Animals, if we zero in, are just one slender branch of the Opisthokonta. From this broad perspective, vertebrates do not get a special branch on the tree. The vertebrates are a small bud. The mammals are a cell in that bud. Humanity is, to continue the metaphor, something less than a cell.

Ecologists love to go to and study rain forests, ancient grasslands, and islands. They hate to work in toxic dumps and nuclear sites, even if the dumps and nuclear sites are proximate and relatively easy to study. And who can blame them? Meanwhile, the most extreme deserts on Earth are both remote and inhospitable, the kinds of places one is exiled to rather than the kinds of places to which one flocks when classes are done. They too are rarely studied. The result is that we tend to be blind to the ecology of some of the most rapidly growing ecosystems, blind to the future’s extremes.

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