Physiology of the Biosphere

This post follows on from the previous, in the sense that there are different perspectives that anything can be viewed from, but it was stimulated by a comment on G. McPherson’s blog, made by The Real Dr. House, where he said this :

The REAL Dr. House
August 31st, 2012 at 6:04 am

ulvfugl: Collapse means different things to different people.

The REAL Dr. House: This spurred a thought in me that I hadn’t had before (perhaps others are already there?). Global climate change may lead to ecological collapse similar to the way that runaway fever can lead to death in a human.

Proteins are long molecules twisted about themselves in certain patterns and shapes. Those shapes are largely what determine how they work. When a protein heats up to a significant degree, the bonds that are maintaining their shape break causing it to “denature” or lose that shape so they no longer work. This is how fever protects the human body: fever goes up and the proteins in the invading virus or bacteria denature, and you get better. Unfortunately, if the fever gets too high, then the proteins that make a human work start to denature as well and then the body can’t work either, leading to organ failure and possibly death. (Forgive the basic biochemistry lesson.)

So, if we think of the environment as one large body, it too can tolerate lots of variation in cold and heat. As long as it doesn’t go too far either way, then the body can adjust, and may actually benefit. However, if the heat goes too high, the body reaches a point where things don’t work anymore and organs (ecosystems) fail. Death soon follows. As this fever of AGW continues to rise, then we will start to see various systems fail – not just weather. Here are a few off the cuffs examples: pollens of entire species don’t work anymore, beneficial bacteria are unable to function, embryos don’t develop properly, endocrine systems can’t function, etc.

Fortunately, all the building blocks of life will still remain on Earth and as the forces which led to the runaway warming slowly recede, life will slowly begin to reemerge – just different from what was there before.

So of all the various “collapse” entities (social, government, etc.), ecological collapse is the one which is the most ominous – at least for everything living today. Of course, this is at the heart of what Guy has been preaching, but for whatever reason it just hadn’t occurred to me to think of it quite this way.

So here’s my response :

Thinking “of the environment as one large body” doesn’t quite work, because ‘the environment’ is approximately defined as whatever surrounds us. However, thinking of the biosphere as one large body is a very reasonable thought experiment, and has been explored by Lovelock, Margulis, and others, as in the Gaia Theory.

Gaia theory is very unpopular with certain sectors of the scientific orthodoxy. Partly that’s because they don’t understand it, so they attack various strawmen of their own creation. Partly, because they don’t understand the points I made in the previous post, and insist that only their own favoured reductionist level of understanding is valid, and partly because Lovelock named the damn thing after a Greek goddess, on the advice of William Golding, and so introduced an element of mythos, which has caused endless absurd discord, which could have been avoided if he had called it ‘Theory X’, or even the Lovelock Theory, and stuck to logos.

Scientists trained in reductionist materialist orthodoxy, which is most of them, simply cannot get their heads around other paradigms, so any suggestion of a ‘world soul’ or ‘Earth spirit’ freaks them out. But there’s no need for any such thing ( although I’m happy myself to entertain the idea ) because we ourselves grow, hold together, and function by means of some homeostatic principle about which we have absolutely no real understanding. It may be entirely mechanistic, although the placebo effect and other weirdness suggests otherwise. I mean, exactly how does the human body know that it needs to put such and such a chemical in such and such a place at such and such a time ?

But we don’t have to go along with Lovelock’s thinking. All we have to do is to postulate that the biosphere, defined as extending from the deep ocean trenches up to the stratosphere, is a thin covering, coating a rocky mineral planet with a molten core, that circles the Sun, and that it might be viewed, on one level, as a unitary living organism, just as the ant heap, or the colony of ant heaps in a meadow, were in my previous post.

So then, if it’s possible to speculate whether this ‘thing’, containing all living things, can be considered as an organism in it’s own right, we can proceed further and ask questions.

The first hurdle we hit, is that we don’t have any other of the kind to compare. If Mars had it’s own atmosphere, oceans, and biota, we could contrast the two and make some sense of the problem. But we only have Earth. It’s semantically impossible to make any sense of something if you only have the one example to go on. That’s because all meaning is constructed via metaphor. ‘This’ is ‘like that’. Our biosphere isn’t ‘like’ anything else, anywhere, that we know of.

However, we can partially get around that hurdle, because we know the Earth has a history, so we can compare previous versions of the biosphere with what we have today.

So, we can reconstruct, plus some guesswork, the 4,500 million year history, and then slice it into a set of samples, and see how the biosphere developed. This would be kinda analogous to embryology. Are there ‘developmental stages’, so to speak, that imply some sort of organising factor, or homeostasis.

You could then also consider any evidence for something like physiology. Of course, any comparisom with what we know of plant and animal embryology or physiology is likely to be very imperfect, possibly completely misleading, because as I said, the biosphere is not ‘like’ anything else. But I think we have to be humble, and put ourselves in the position of Harvey some 400 years ago, trying to understand human physiology.

If you read the literature, it appears to me that there is plenty of evidence to suggest a biospheric physiology. For example, weather erodes rock to silt and soil and this gets washed down by the rivers into the oceans, so, over time, minerals available to life on land might tend to be depleted. So, is there a mechanism that returns minerals from the ocean, so they can re-circulate ? That’s the sort of thing that we are familiar with in living organisms. Excess fat gets stored for later use, kidneys filter wanted and unwanted chemicals, etc.

Well, yes, there’s evidence for that. The salmon return from the ocean and swim upstream to spawn and then die, and they bring very significant quantities of minerals back from the oceans which fertilise – via bears, eagles, wolves, etc – the land on either side of the river.

There are plenty more examples. I’d suggest that, when the biosphere has an excess of something, which effects the homeostatic balance unfavourably, it has ways of sequestration. Hence limestone rock takes calcium out of the system, and oil and coal take carbon out of the systems.

You can probably see now where I’m going with this. If you follow the metaphor, the analogy, then Homo sapiens is like a disease organism on a human body, smallpox or TB or necrotizing fasciitis, afflicting the biosphere, and the biosphere responds, via global warming, with a ‘fever’, to try and rid itself of this pathogen that threatens to kill it.

Which leads into what Dr. House said above in his comment….

Yes, all the building blocks for life will remain, whatever happens. As I understand it, following previous mass extinction events, it’s taken 10 or 20 million years for life to recover. However, Homo sapiens will have gone ‘for good’ – if that’s the right term ?

Certainly, from the point of view of every other living thing on the planet, with the possible exception of a few domesticated species, the end of Homo sapiens would be the most wonderful thing that could happen.

And civilisation will be gone forever. Because even if some hominids survive, they will not be able to re-run history and rebuild. The metal ores and the coal and oil which we have squandered will not be available.

So, to conclude. Whether or not the biosphere is an organism in it’s own right, we shall probably never know, because we will have destroyed both it, in its present form, and ourselves…





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12 Responses to Physiology of the Biosphere

  1. Yes. You definitely captured the essence of what I was trying to say. Thank you for your thoughtful post and response. (And biosphere is a much better choice of words than environment.)

  2. ulvfugl says:

    Thanks for replying here, TRDH.

    Yes, the words ‘environment’ and ‘environmentalism’ have become rather meaningless, used constantly in the media, to signify what ? Clean tidy streets free from factory smoke and jet noise ?

    Biosphere, for me, means that thing which encompasses all life as we know it. But it’s much more than that. It’s the thing that produced us. Most species that it has produced have vanished. Some, like horseshoe crabs, persist for 450 million years or so.

    The question is, how best to think about what this strange entity called biosphere actually is.

    We can draw upon comparisoms with things that we do understand, like morphology, anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and so forth. We normally think of living things as organisms, and an organism has a specific definition, as something which can reproduce itself, react to stimuli, grow, and has homeostasis.

    However, the term gets fuzzy around the edges, regarding stuff like viruses and prions, which appear to be on the boundary between chemicals and biological entities, so at the opposite end of the scale, it’s not too far fetched to say that we could conceive of ‘biospheres’ as organisms, especially if we could find a second one somewhere out there amongst the stars.

    This biosphere obviously reacts to stimuli. It receives powerful stimulation from the Sun, and then it goes into deep shadow, and every part of it responds to those cycles.

    It probably doesn’t fit the requirement to reproduce itself. We usually think of reproduction in terms of sex, but that isn’t a requirement, some organisms can reproduce without sex. I suppose that if somehow portions of Earth’s life could reach Mars and establish a new biosphere there, that would be a kind of reproduction.

    Hard to see how the biosphere could ‘grow’. Unless one thinks in terms of perpetuating itself through time.

    And then we come to the most interesting part of the question, homeostasis.

    The wiki page summarises Lovelock’s take thus :

    In the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock stated that the entire mass of living matter on Earth (or any planet with life) functions as a vast homeostatic superorganism that actively modifies its planetary environment to produce the environmental conditions necessary for its own survival. In this view, the entire planet maintains homeostasis. Whether this sort of system is present on Earth is still open to debate. However, some relatively simple homeostatic mechanisms are generally accepted. For example, it is sometimes claimed that when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise, certain plants are able to grow better and thus act to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere[dubious – discuss]. However, warming has exacerbated droughts, making water the actual limiting factor on land. When sunlight is plentiful and atmospheric temperature climbs, it has been claimed that the phytoplankton of the ocean surface waters may thrive and produce more dimethyl sulfide, DMS. The DMS molecules act as cloud condensation nuclei, which produce more clouds, and thus increase the atmospheric albedo, and this feeds back to lower the temperature of the atmosphere. However, rising sea temperature has stratified the oceans, separating warm, sunlit waters from cool, nutrient-rich waters. Thus, nutrients have become the limiting factor, and plankton levels have actually fallen over the past 50 years, not risen. As scientists discover more about Earth, vast numbers of positive and negative feedback loops are being discovered, that, together, maintain a metastable condition, sometimes within very broad range of environmental conditions. Environmental pressure, such as competition or change in temperature, can lead to adaptation/extinction of species over time.

    That seems very reasonable to me, and I don’t really understand why many scientists object. I mean, we can refer to this biosphere as Mother Earth, if we want to add a bit of poetic mythos, which is true enough, because it IS the mother of us all. It’s also the father of us all… but we are not obliged to add mythos, the whole thing can be comprehended in purely mechanistic, materialistic, rationalist terms, as a system with highly complex feedback loops.

    I mean, we ourselves get hot, we sweat, the moisture evaporates, and cools us, and then we get thirsty and drink to replace the water. It’s not hard to understand. It doesn’t require any mystery regarding a goddess, angel, soul, whatever.

    It’s a pity that we, as a species, did not understand this 10,000 years ago, when we began cities and agriculture. Perhaps some of us did, at some intuitive level, mythos, and perhaps shamans warned against what was developing. I think that is where the ‘disease’ began. We became pathogenic, destroying the ‘organs’ that are essential to the systems. Clearing forests, domesticating animals, etc. However, there were so few of us then, that the impact was insignificant and tolerable.

    We could have stayed at low levels of technology that integrated with our environment. We could have stayed with biodegradable houses and low-impact eco-friendly horticulture. But the thing called civilisation multiplied, and then came the industrial revolution, coal and oil, and now we are in crisis. All the systems that maintain the integrity of the biosphere are flashing red alert.

    The divine maternal Gaia becomes Kali, with her necklace of human skulls….

  3. ulvfugl says:

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    MIDWAY : trailer : a film by Chris Jordan from Midway on Vimeo.

  4. ulvfugl says:

    Symptoms of the disease, the pathology, called civilisation….

    We replace this

    with this…

  5. ulvfugl says:


    with this…

  6. ulvfugl says:

    “We have more to learn from the fiction of J.G. Ballard … than we do from Le Corbusier. The good city form of tomorrow is a refugee camp built by Brown & Root; the world’s largest architectural client is the U.S. Department of Defense. More people now live in overseas military camps than in houses designed by Mies van der Rohe — yet we study Mies van der Rohe.”

  7. ulvfugl says:

    “It has been an exciting week for those among us who have dedicated their lives to watching ice melt, since every day this past week has set a new record low for the amount of arctic ice remaining…arguably, the old 2007 record may have fallen on August 24th, when the japanese aerospace agency’s arctic sea ice monitor recorded their new low sea-ice extent of 4,189,375 square kilometers, but August 26th marks the date the record was broken according to our National Snow and Ice Data Center, when the arctic sea ice extent fell to 1.58 million square miles, or 4.10 million square kilometers, which was 70,000 square kilometers below the previous record low daily sea ice extent set on September 18 of 2007…to put those numbers in perspective, that is about a million more square miles of the arctic now open than was during the 1979-2000 average, or about an area as large as texas and alaska combined…

    this is remarkable in that the record was broken so early in the arctic ice melt season, and that ice will continue to melt and set new low extents every day at least till mid september, also remarkable in that the melting is accelerating this late in the season, ie, more ice has been melting each day than the day before, rather than slowing down as it usually would in late august, with a daily rate of loss 50% higher than it was in 2007, the year the old record was set; normally, at this time of year, we’re losing about 15,000 sq miles of ice a day; this year the rate of ice loss continues at 29,000 a day, nearly twice the average…of course, these newly opened areas in the arctic sea will absorb even more heat than iced over areas that would reflect the sun’s rays back into the atmosphere… the adjacent illustration from the NSIDC graphs the ice extent during the melt seasons since 1979, the beginning of the satellite record, on the date the new record was set; this year to that date is in dark blue, the previous record year 2007 is a green dash, 1980 is orange, the average of all data is in light blue, with the 1979-2000 average as a solid black line, and the gray area indicating the two standard deviation range of the data; NSIDC also data shows that all 6 lowest ice extents in the satellite record have occurred over the past 6 years…

    physicist Stuart Staniford, observing that the annual change in arctic sea ice was not linear, fitted a quadratic equation to the rate of loss, which shows the arctic would hit zero ice in 2017; his further extrapolations show the Arctic ice free for six months out of the year by 2025…Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge, believes arctic ice is on the brink of collapse and that it will be gone in 3 years….you may recall that we discussed one of the effects of a warmer arctic sea on methane release this past winter; that the arctic contains copious amounts of methane-hydrates frozen at high pressure on the seabed, and that as the ocean warmed, russian scientists observed massive plumes of methane bubbling to the surface of the arctic ocean, some as large as 1000 meters in diameter…methane is known to be a potent greenhouse gas, considered 25 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2 over a 100 year time horizon, but 72 times as potent over 20 years, so the release of methane enhances the warming feedback, accelerating the process….to see this visually, we have 3 arctic projections showing methane releases from 2002, 2010 and 2011 at the end of our January 8th blog post; the change over just a few years is really quite stunning…

    and it’s not just the ice in the arctic ocean that’s been melting…last week, analysis of satellite photographs confirmed that greenland had already also exceeded it’s one season melt record on August 8th, almost a full month before the normal end of the melt season on that large island…the record ice loss had been anticipated after an unprecedented 4 day thaw over 97% of the ice sheet in mid-july; also, a nearly obscure last item in the NSIDC’s first July Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis bulletin noted that the snow cover in the northern hemisphere in June had melted to such an extent that it beat the 45 year record low a month early, breaking the 2010 record by 1 million square kilometers…much of this snowpack loss is from higher elevations, where downstream cities depend on a continuous release of ice-melt for their water supply…and arguably, the loss of seasonal of snow & ice on land masses is a more serious problem than over the arctic sea, because it adds to sea level rise, and most of the world’s major port cities are built at sea level; you might recall the illustration we used when discussing greenland’s ice-loss in 2010: if all the snow pack loss from greenland that year were to be dumped at once on low lying new jersey, it would cover new jersey with 257 feet of snow…James Hansen, the head of NASA’s goddard institute, believes that a 5 meter sea level rise is possible this century as the greenland & antarctic ice sheets rapidly melt…”

  8. ulvfugl says:

    Here is a really wonderful example of what I am thinking of a biospheric physiology.

    Fungi of the rain forest produce spores, some of the spores float upwards into the sky and form nuclei for water droplets that form clouds, and then rain, for the forest and the fungi…. Neat.

    But then along comes the disease, the pathology. Humans and their capitalist industrial machine called civilisation, which clears away the forest and the fungi… and the clouds… and the rain…

  9. ulvfugl says:

    “A few months ago I had a dream that left a very strong impression on me.

    In this dream, I found myself briefly transformed into one of humanity’s early ancestors. One minute I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom, and the next I was naked, covered in a fine coat of hair, and sitting under a tree on a savannah. I changed back very quickly, but there was something profound about that instant during which I was, essentially, what human beings were about a million years ago.

    What I remember most was the sensation of that early hominid being confronted with the understanding of the modern world and modern living that was in my head. Against every cliché of ‘caveman frightened by all things modern’, that brief moment of hominid-me experiencing the modern world was characterised by a sorrow the like of which I have never before felt. I was overwhelmed with a sense of ‘him’ exclaiming:

    ‘What have you all done? This is not how we were meant to live.’”

  10. ulvfugl says:

    “The aim of Applied History is to bring to the table insights from the past that may be useful to a given present or future situation. That means a lot of telling people something to the effect of ‘What you’re talking about is similar to X, so look further into X for some possible guidance on what to do, and what not to do.’ This approach is old. Very old. It is asking the same question that has been asked for as long as humans have asked questions: What did our ancestors do in these circumstances? The practice of asking this question has informed the actions of humans since the beginning. Our ancestors managed to survive so that we are here today. They must have been doing something right, so their record was considered useful.

    You can imagine, then, how unsettling it would be for the answer to be: ‘They never had to deal with anything like this. We’re on our own.’”

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