Posted by: Randall Niles | May 3, 2012

Symbiosis on the African Savannah

Sorry for my long-term hiatus. For some of it, I was on a tremendous trip to Southern Africa with one of my sons…

Along with 100 Trillion Dollar bills from Zimbabwe and mosquito bites from Botswana, one meaningful thing I brought back from my trip was a deeper appreciation for the wonder of symbiotic relationships on our planet. As you might recall, I like scuba diving and I’m always impressed with the wonder of “symbiosis” on the coral reefs. However, if you want to see interdependent nature on a massive scale, try multiple days on safari!

As we remember from middle school science class, symbiosis describes the mutual relationship between certain types of organic life. Remarkably, many of these interdependent relationships are totally required for survival, right from the start. Certain plants require certain bugs and certain bugs require certain plants… There are even creatures that need other creatures for their dung!

Across the board, African savannah ecosystems require “mutualism” of various organisms to survive and grow. Beyond the obvious predator-prey food chains observable from a Land Cruiser, ecosystems require the less-obvious symbiosis of plants converting carbon from the air, fungi extracting minerals from the ground, and insects pollinating flowering buds in the trees. Herbivores need micro-organisms in their digestive tract to convert plant matter to energy. Carnivores need herbivores to – well, you know… There are even creatures that eat the bones!

You get the point… Our planet is finely-tuned with a wide variety of necessary, symbiotic relationships. Without them, many interdependent organisms cease to exist.

So, how did this awesome feat of nature happen?

The typical science texts point to the concept of “co-evolution.” Co-evolution is the attempt to address the myriad of plant, animal, fungi, and micro-organism relationships that are totally interdependent and required for mutual survival. In a nutshell, co-evolution declares that the countless “miracles” of Darwinian evolution didn’t just happen one at a time, in a distinct tree of changing species, but often two at a time, side-by-side, at the exact same moment in genetic history.

Think about that for a moment…

Indeed, science is science, and the scientific method is the scientific method. However, when we contemplate “the necessary historic process of co-evolution,” at best, we’re using “forensic science.” Since we can’t reproduce the naturalistic process of co-evolution in a laboratory, we gather the evidence and pose rational/logical theories. If the evidence brings us to “highly improbable,” “almost miraculous,” “nearly impossible,” “unknown for now,” etc., then I think it’s responsible to pose the “Think About It” questions  — yes, even in the classroom. If “design,” “accident,” “plan,” “necessity,” and “crazy absurdity” are part of the string of possible answers, so be it. I don’t think asking a philosophical question jeopardizes good science in our classrooms. Actually, I think it’s our duty to the students to spark such questions…

Still Thinking,

Randall Niles


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