Posted by: chrismaser | March 5, 2012


To understand today’s biodiversity (the diversity of plants and animals), it is necessary to understand the cause of biodiversity as recorded in the fossil archives through the past 550 million years or so. Generic-level diversity appears to have a significant linkage to both sea level and the degree of seawater oxygenation on continental shelves. Moreover, biodiversity is governed by such intrinsic relationships (inseparable and biological) as interactions among organisms, their predators, competitors, and habitat, as well as such extrinsic relationships (inseparable but physical) as plate tectonics, rises and fall of the sea levels, and climatic changes that are inflicted upon organisms, thereby influencing the course of evolution and extinction.1


To begin, one must be acquainted with Nature’s inviolable biophysical principles, the most important of which in this case are principles 1, 2, 6, 13, and 14:

Principle 1. Everything is a relationship.

Principle 2. All relationships are inclusive and productive.

Principle 6. All relationships are self-reinforcing feedback loops.

Principle 13. Systemic change is based on self-organized criticality.

Principle 14. Dynamic disequilibrium rules all systems.

Principle 1: Everything Is A Relationship

The universe is nothing more and nothing less that a gigantic, inclusive relationship composed of infinite, simultaneous intrinsic-extrinsic relationships, all of which are continuously fitting themselves into other relationships. What, you might wonder, does “relationship” mean in a cosmic sense. “Relationship” comes from “relation,” which in turn comes from the Latin elatus: re “back again” and latus “carried, borne.” A relationship is thus a connecting or binding of two or more things, which creates something else in a never-ending story of change—the ways in which things are connected. As things are increasingly connected, they form a network of interlinked entities, which we think of as a “system.”

A system is a way of working, organizing, or doing something together, which follows a fixed plan or set of rules of engagement, a network of things linked together that behave in certain ways, which we term “functions.” “System” is from Lower Latin systema, “an arrangement, system,” which in turn is from the Greek systema, “organized whole, body.”

Moreover, because all systems are totally interactive all of the time (whether we understand it or not, accept it or not), nothing in the universe is totally free. Freedom is always relative. There is no such thing as an independent variable in an interconnected system—except as a figment of the human imagination. Just as there cannot be an independent variable, so no given thing can be held at a constant value beyond the number one (the universal common denominator) because to do so would necessitate the detachment the thing in question from the system as an independent variable.

Therefore, all relationships are constituted by multiples of one in all its myriad forms, from quarks, atoms, molecules, and proteins, which comprise the building blocks of life, to the living organisms themselves, which collectively form the species and their interactive communities. The only way the number one can exist, as the sole representative of any form on Earth, is to be the last, living individual of a species—something intimated on the tribal level by James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 book, “The Last Of The Mohicans”—because extinction is forever.

Principle 2. All relationships are inclusive and productive

Here, it must be rendered clear that every relationship is inclusive of all intrinsic-extrinsic factors and thus productive of a cause that has an effect, and the effect, which is the cause of another effect, is the product. Therefore, the notion of an unproductive parcel of ground or an unproductive political meeting is an illustration of the narrowness of human valuation because such judgment is viewed strictly within the extrinsic realm of personal values, usually economics—not the intrinsic realm of Nature’s dynamics that not only transcend our human understanding but also defy the validity of our economic assessments.

Principle 6. All relationships are self-reinforcing feedback loops

Everything in the universe is connected to everything else in a cosmic web of interactive, intrinsic-extrinsic feedback loops, all entrained in self-reinforcing relationships that continually create novel, never-ending stories of cause and effect, stories that began with the eternal mystery of the original story, the original cause. Everything, from a microbe to a galaxy, is defined by its ever-shifting relationship to every other component of the cosmos. Thus, “freedom” (perceived as the lack of constraints) is merely a continuum of fluid relativity. In contraposition, every relationship is the embodiment of interactive constraints to the flow of energy—the very dynamic that perpetuates the relativity of freedom and thus of all relationships.

Hence, every change (no matter how minute or how grand) constitutes a systemic modification that produces novel outcomes. A feedback loop, in this sense, comprises a reciprocal relationship among countless bursts of energy moving through specific strands in the cosmic web that cause forever-new, compounding changes at either end of the strand, as well as every connecting strand.

Principle 13. Systemic change is based on self-organized criticality

Large, complicated, interactive systems seem to evolve naturally to a critical state in which even a minor, intrinsic event starts a chain reaction that can affect any number of intrinsic-extrinsic elements in the system and can lead to a dramatic, irreversible alteration in how the system functions. Although such systems produce more minor events than catastrophic ones, chain reactions of all sizes are an integral part of system dynamics. According to the theory called “self-organized criticality,” the mechanism that leads to minor events (analogous to the drop of a pin) is the same mechanism that leads to major events (analogous to an earthquake).2 Not understanding this, analysts have typically blamed some rare set of circumstances (some exception to the rule) or some powerful combination of mechanisms when catastrophe strikes.

Nevertheless, ecosystems move inevitably toward a critical state, one that alters the ecosystem in some dramatic way. This dynamic makes ecosystems dissipative structures in that energy is built up through time only to be released in a disturbance of some kind—ranging in scale from flooding in a small stream to the eruption of a volcano—after which energy begins building again toward the next release of pent-up energy somewhere in time.

Such disturbances, as ecologists think of these events, can be long term and chronic, such as large movements of soil that take place over hundreds of years (termed an earth flow), or acute, such as the crescendo of a volcanic eruption that sends a pyroclastic flow sweeping down its side at amazing speed. (A pyroclastic flow is a turbulent mixture of hot gas and fragments of rock, such as pumice, that is violently ejected from a fissure and moves with great speed down the side of a volcano. Pyroclastic is Greek for “fire-broken.”)

Principle 14. Dynamic disequilibrium rules all systems

If change is a universal constant in which nothing is static, what is a natural state? In answering this question, it becomes apparent that the balance of Nature in the classical sense (disturb Nature and Nature will return to its former state after the disturbance is removed) does not hold. In fact, the so-called balance of Nature is a romanticized figment of the human imagination, something we conjured to fit our snapshot image of the world in which we live. In reality, Nature exists in a continual state of ever-shifting “dis-equilibrium,” wherein ecosystems are entrained in the irreversible process of change and novelty, thereby irreversibly altering their composition, structure, interactive feedback loops, and thus the use of available resources—irrespective of human influence. Perhaps the most outstanding evidence that an ecosystem is subject to constant change and disruption rather than remaining in a static balance comes from studies of naturally occurring external factors that re-orient ecosystems, and climate appears to be foremost among these factors.3


The relative roles of intrinsic and extrinsic controls of biodiversity are somewhat artificial and misleading. For example, high rates of extinction are typically followed within a few million years by high rates of species origination. This pattern demonstrates a diversity-dependent, dynamic disequilibrium, in which competition among species is essential to shaping total biodiversity.

As it turns out, species experience symmetrical waxing and waning of their total geographic distribution through time (“symmetry” comes from the Greek symmetria, “measure together”), which simply means that a species’ maximum geographic distribution is relatively short-lived and comes midway through a species’ biological existence. This pattern suggests that species are engaged in a protracted, ecological struggle for biophysical living space, followed by gradual decline to extinction as they steadily lose the competitive battle to the survival of the fittest. “Survival of the fittest” means a species that is most adaptable to the changing biophysical conditions is the one that will survive, whereas the most adapted—hence least adaptable—will become extinct.4

On the flip side of the coin, there is strong evidence that submarine plate tectonics, which alters the shape of ocean bottoms and continents, ultimately determines the climate over various scales of time, which in turn affects nutrient cycling, which in turn controls the diversification of species. Therefore, nutrient cycling determines changing levels of species richness throughout a range of spatial scales, thereby blurring the so-called intrinsic and extrinsic controls on biodiversity as separate entities.

There is evidence, however, that extinctions of marine organisms is concentrated at discrete points in time (occurring in pulses) at both regional and global scales, rather than on a continuous, so-called random basis. Pulsed extinction (meaning to undergo a series of brief, sudden changes in the number of species) implies that, as species fade into extinction, once-inhabited biophysical space becomes available for occupancy by new species. This dynamic is to a significant extent episodic and driven by changes in the environment that are extrinsic to the species themselves.5


This notion calls forth an amazing example of the intrinsic-extrinsic interplay that mediates biodiversity. Russian scientists have revived an Arctic flowering plant (Silene stenophylla) from a squirrel’s undisturbed, continuously frozen, Ice-Age burrow 125 feet beneath the Pleistocene permafrost on the right bank of the lower Kolyma River in northeastern Siberia. (Pleistocene Epoch, from the Geek pleistos “most” and kainos “new,” lasted from approximately 2.5 million years ago to 11,700 years before the present.)

What makes this story so astounding is that some of the plant’s frozen seeds and bits of tissue have been regenerated after 31,800 years, give or take 300 years. Moreover, the plant is not only growing and fertile but also producing viable seeds. In fact, the first generation of plants cultivated from seeds passed through all developmental stages and had the same morphological features as parent plants.

Here, the intrinsic interaction is that an Ice-Age squirrel dug its burrow in the frozen ground and stored some of the plant’s seeds and bits of tissue in its soccer-ball-sized nest filled first with hay and then animal fur. This combination of elements created a perfect storage chamber among the bones of such Ice-Age mammals as woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, bison, horse, and deer.

The extrinsic interactions, however, are twofold. On the one hand, the sediments were firmly cemented together and often totally filled with ice, thus totally preventing water from infiltrating, which allowed the permafrost acted like Nature’s “cryobank”, wherein the seeds and tissue were frozen in viable condition for more than 31 millennia. On the other hand, variable environmental dynamics were taking place above the permafrost throughout these same millennia. (A cryobank is a place where biological material can be stored at extremely low temperatures, in this case at 19.4 degrees Fahrenheit.)

This intrinsic-extrinsic synergy protected an ancient gene pool of preexisting life, which supposedly had long since vanished from the Earth’s biodiversity. Nevertheless, its survival demonstrates that permafrost is a potential source of ancient germplasm that could be used to study of rates of microevolution.6

Now, for discussion’s sake, let’s assume the environment above the permafrost had changed sufficiently over the millennia to cause the extinction of Silene stenophylla. However, because the frozen plant material recovered from the squirrel’s burrow is viable, the possibility might exist to reintroduce the species into today’s world, where it might once again be able to enrich to the overall biodiversity of the area—that is, provided it’s flexible enough genetically to adapt the current environmental conditions.

In sum, biological diversity reflects the complex interplay between abrupt and gradual environmental changes taking place over large scales of space and millions of years at varying thresholds of dynamic disequilibrium. These thresholds are caused in part by the intrinsic interactions among species themselves and in part by the extrinsic interactions between the adaptability of species and their forever-changing environment.



Series on Biodiversity:

• Earth Before Oxygen

• The Advent of Oxygen

• The Long, Slow Path To Life As We Know It

• What—Exactly—Is Biodiversity?

• Biodiversity—Our Social-Environmental Insurance Policy

• Endangering Our Environmental Insurance Policy

• A Lesson of Consciousness From the California Condor

Related Posts:

• Biodiversity–The Variety Of Life

1. Composition, Structure, And Function

2. Disturbance Regimes

3. Cumulative Effects, Lag Periods, And Thresholds

4. Biological Diversity

5. Genetic Diversity

6. Functional Diversity

7. Nature’s Services–Ecological Wealth Across Generations

• The Law Of Cosmic Unification

• Principle 1: Everything is a relationship



1. (1) James Crampton. What Drives Biodiversity Changes? Science 334 (2011):1073-1074; (2) John Alroy. Geographical, Environmental and Intrinsic Biotic Controls On Phanerozoic Marine Diversification. Palaeontology 53 (2010):1211–1235; and (3) Michael J. Benton. The Red Queen and the Court Jester: Species Diversity and the Role of Biotic and Abiotic Factors Through Time. Science 323 (2009):728–732.

2. Per Bak. and Kan Chen. Self-organizing criticality. Scientific American, January (1991):46-53.

3. The discussion of Nature’s biophysical principles is based on: Chris Maser. Social-Environmental Planning: The Design Interface Between Everyforest and Everycity. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. (2009) 321 pp.

4. The preceding two paragraphs are based on: (1) John Alroy. Dynamics of Origination and Extinction in the Marine Fossil Record. Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences USA 105 (2008):11536–11542; (2) Michael Foote, James S. Crampton, Alan G. Beu, and others. Rise and Fall of Species Occupancy in Cenozoic Fossil Mollusks. Science 318 (2007):1131–1134; and (3) Lee Hsiang Liow and Nils Chr Stenseth. The Rise and Fall of Species: Implications For Macroevolutionary and Macroecological Studies. Proceedings of The Royal Society B 274 (2007):2745–2752.

5. The preceding two paragraphs are based on: (1) Bjarte Hannisdal and Shanan E. Peters. Phanerozoic Earth System Evolution and Marine Biodiversity. Science 334 (2011):1121–1124; (2) Andrés L. Cárdenas and Peter J. Harries. Effect of Nutrient Availability on Marine Origination Rates Throughout the Phanerozoic Eon. Nature Geoscience 3 (2010):430–434; (3) Michael Foote. Pulsed Origination and Extinction in the Marine Realm. Paleobiology 31 (2005):6–20; and (4) James S. Crampton, Michael Foote, Alan G. Beu, and others. The Ark Was Full! Constant To Declining Cenozoic Shallow Marine Biodiversity on An Isolated Midlatitude Continent. Paleobiology 32 (2006):509–532.

6. (1) Ned Potter. Flowering Plant Revived After 30,000 Years in Russian Permafrost.; (2) Svetlana Yashina, Stanislav Gubin, Stanislav Maksimovich, and others. Regeneration of whole fertile plants from 30,000-y-old fruit tissue buried in Siberian permafrost. Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences USA (2012); (3) Vladimir Isachenkov. Russians Revive Ice Age Flower From Frozen Burrow. ; and (4) Pleistocene.

Text and Photo © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.

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