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Altruism, species diversity and a colorful earth

November 27, 2010

It’s a late Friday evening, and a short message that I read from a long-time precious  friend (lost over the years but reconnected through a social web) made me think about the wonders of life, its unbelievable beautiful facets and its horrifying dark corners. Why such amplitude, why not a bit less joy, but less darkness too? I think, the answer is because we are free.


Maybe that’s what life is, from a human perspective, a mix of positive and negative experiences. The sad thing is, that our  negative experiences are brought about  by what others do, knowingly or by accident. At the same time, never forget that the good things and the most fascinating positive  events are a result of human action too.

In nature, for the sake of this discussion simply defined as the biological world excluding al human beings, there are many more players active, a plethora of species from different kingdoms. While one can point out hierarchical structures, none of the ‘top’ species are able to generate a similar omnipresent tense arch between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ such as humans are able to create.

Interestingly, one can easily conceive a mechanism that would lead to much larger extremes, with one, or a few, species dominating the whole world, excluding space to live for all other life forms that in our current world (still) make up nature.

An example: single celled phytoplankton species struggle in the oceans in a fierce competition with each other, and with any kind of light absorbing entity, to collect some of the sun light. They can’t change the presence of water (which absorbs most of the light), but there is a strategy possible which could enable one species to take up all available sunlight: namely, to contain a set of pigments which together would make a very dark grey cell. Such a cell would collect much more light than any other known phytoplankton species with a green, blue, blue-green, red, brown or amber color. And by collecting more light, such species would have more energy available to fix carbon dioxide and nutrients, hence to grow, hence to outcompete other species.

But the oceans are not populated by dark gray, maybe black phytoplankton cells. Whatever the reason, many can be proposed but none can be proven to be the causal one, obviously, a set of systemic properties has excluded the emergence and proliferation of such a phytoplankton species – at least not freely living in the water column.

Overall, the absence of such potentially overwhelmingly successful species has created plenty of living space for many other (in many respects similar) species, the result is an impressive set of biological diversity which in itself has led to a stable biological system. Would we observe such a stable system in a human society, we would definitely ask: where is the altruistic driving force that makes this system possible?

But any individual human being has the ability to do good, and/or bad. We are, probably, potentially able to create stability because there are so many of us (“good” offsets “bad”), at the same time, our numbers are a main reason for a potential global instability – at least at this phase of human development.

And when we do see large global social instabilities, it is maybe because there was a group acting as only a phytoplankton cell could do if it absorbs all light and not leaving any light for other, similar, lifeforms.

Is it not logical to start asking if human societies should diffuse a bit of the available light, scatter it to areas which are currently deprived of  life saving and life generating energy?

The sad reality is, such behavior cannot be imposed, humans are free creatures, the good message is, that since we are free, we can choose anytime, anywhere, in any of our actions, to behave a bit less grey, and to contribute to a bit more colorful world.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2010 10:47 PM

    Hallo an alle
    Toller Blog, aber leider sehe ich nur die hälfte.Ist Euch das bekannt?
    Liegt das an meinem Safari?

    aus Essen

    • Bernd Kroon permalink
      December 19, 2010 6:57 PM

      Nein, das habe ich noch nie gehört. Welche Hälfte siehst Du denn?

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