The current Covid-19 pandemic circulating the world has given rise to a wave of online commentary regarding how “It’s nature fighting back” or “It’s punishment for how we’re treating the environment” or in the hilariously differing trajectory of “It’s God’s way of testing us”. What needs to be understood about nature is that it is not a cognizant being. It does not have any sort of motif in its apparent structure nor is the any intention to its outline. I am often asked “What is the purpose of ….. in nature?” What is the purpose of mosquitoes, or flies, or a virus, or snakes, or humans, and so on? We need to move away from the idea of top down design, the idea that there is a role to everything, and that purpose is inherent in ecology.

First off, I want to point out a word that many people may not be familiar, Teleology. Teleology is the idea that everything is imbued with purpose; it has both a spiritual and philosophical connotation. Children, and many adults, are natural born teleologists. When asked “what is the purpose of a tree?”, children would say that it is to provide shade, or to provide food for animals. Adults would probably say that the purpose of a tree is to provide oxygen to the planet. This is a woeful misunderstanding of life. We need to flip the idea on its head. There is no purpose or role in nature. There is only the result of that particular thing existing in nature. The result of trees existing is that oxygen is provided, and that animals are able to forage for food. While this seems like merely semantics, it is actually a fundamental shift in our view of everything.

What this makes us see is that results are created by flexible variables, not fixed constants. During the Carboniferous Era, around 400 to 290 million years ago, the success of newly evolved trees from ferns saw them systematically cover huge tracts of Earth. At this time, microorganisms had not evolved to break down complex organic carbons compounds on land, and much of the biomass from dead plants was stored in swamp-like conditions. Over millions of years, these vast carbon deposits gradually fossilized into the coal we are now using. Another aspect is that there was little to offset the aggressive expansion of these fern trees, as large herbivores did not exist in any real capacity, nor had various parasites (fungal, microbial, or animal) evolved to slow plant expansion. Over 100 million years, oxygen levels rose from around 20% (comparable to today’s air) to around 35%. This had two effects. Firstly, the continued rise in oxygen led to the rise of giant arthropods such as scorpions and dragonflies. The second result was that the removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide led a loss of green house gases, and an eventual cooling of the earth. This ultimately created frozen conditions worldwide, with the exception of a warm equator, and eventual mass extinctions that followed. What was the purpose of trees? To destroy greenhouse gases and cause mass extinctions? Again, the only thing that can be said is the result of trees is the production of oxygen. The same course of logic can be applies with any organism.

Another concern about top down ecology beliefs is that there is no allowance for concepts of niche exploitation and evolution. By stating that certain things have an inherent role, we extrude the concept that organisms have evolved to exploit conditions around them. Often these niches are created by two or more species trying to out-compete each other. A fine of example of this is the Columbian Mastodon and the Avocado. Avocados historically needed to be consumed by large, sack-gut, herbivores. In this instance it was the Colombian Mastodon, a smaller cousin of the North American Mastodon. On a side note, the word Mastodon literally means “nipple tooth” on account of its teeth being nipple shaped. The Mastodon would eat the avocado, in much the same way African elephants eat marula fruit. The basic sack stomach would digest the flesh of the fruit and help soften the protective layer of the seed to ensure that it germinates. The avocado seed would be defecated out in a pile of warm, nutrient rich dung, ensuring its survival. Now would one argue that the role of a mastodon is to disperse avocados, or is the role of avocados to feed mastodons? Neither, the avocado had evolved by selective pressures to have a large, unpleasant tasting seed that would deter smaller browsing animals, but would also survive the rigors of the digestive tract of a large browser. When Mastodons were driven to extinction around 11500 years ago by the arrival of humans, the avocado declined until agriculture developed in South America around 9000 years ago. It was not the avocados role to feed humans any more than it had the role of feeding mastodons. Likewise, it was not the mastodon’s role to feed humans, nor was it the human’s role to kill mastodons. Only the result of each species interactions mattered. A similar incident with the Dodo and the Tambalacoque Tree (Sideroxylon grandiflorum) occurred. The Tambalocoque tree relied on the Dodo for dispersal. However its fruit was not appealing to humans. With the disappearance of the Dodo, the resultant impact was that the Tambalocoque tree has gradually ebbed towards near extinction.

Tying this back to Covid-19, there is no particular purpose to the virus. It has evolved to replicate from close human contact. Its survival is reliant on close proximity interaction between humans, and the result of humans living in high density is that the virus is facilitated with opportunities to spread rapidly. There is no decree or law in nature that controls human population growth, only the result of having such a population growth. By having such unfettered growth, we facilitate variables such as disease and famine to spread through our ranks. When we are able to identify the causes of the resultant position we are in, we have the ability to adjust our trajectory and improve. To quote Nick Cave “I am the master of my pain. ‘Tis the bit, the bridle, and the trashing cane”. We are solely responsible for where we are.


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