Too Much Success

It’s amazing the abilities some species have. But that brings up a question. If they are such an advantage, why doesn’t every species have equally amazing abilities? This particularly comes to mind with perceptual abilities.

Human senses are fairly mediocre. We can’t sense much of the world that many other species can. We make up for it with opposable thumbs and cognitive development. Just imagine how much more bad ass humans would be if we could see like a hawk, hear like an owl, and smell like a wolf.

Maybe there is no evolutionary advantage to having the best possible abilities in all ways. It might actually be a disadvantage, both for the species and for the ecosystem or even biosphere. Any given species being too successful might throw off the balance between species. Evolution isn’t only seeking the survival of species but also the survival of complex relationships between species.

Consider one of the earliest microbes, cyanobacteria. They were so successful that it led to what is called the Great Oxygenation Event. Most other microbes at the time were anaerobic and oxygen was toxic to them. It caused earth’s first mass extinction. Even the cyanobacteria didn’t benefit, as there numbers also precipitously dropped.

Too much success can be a dangerous thing, for all involved. This is a lesson of evolution. It’s the success of the entire system of species that matters, not the success of a single species. The survival of the fittest species is secondary to the survival of the fittest ecosystem and biosphere. As Phil Plait put it (Poisoned Planet):

“It’s an interesting tale, don’t you think? The dominant form of life on Earth, spread to the far reaches of the globe, blissfully and blithely pumping out vast amounts of pollution, changing the environment on a planetary scale, sealing their fate. They wouldn’t have been able to stop even if they knew what they were doing, even if they had been warned far, far in advance of the effects they were creating.

“If this is a cautionary tale, if there is some moral you can take away from this, you are free to extract it for yourself. If you do, perhaps you can act on it. One can hope that in this climate, change is always possible.”

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M. John Harrison On Umwelts

“The material universe, it would appear, has little absolute substance. It hardly exists. It is a rag of matter, a wisp of gas, a memory of some former state. Each sentient species perceives the thin evidence of this state in a different way, generating out of this perception its physical and metaphysical Umwelt: its little bubble or envelope of ‘reality.’ These perceptual systems are hermetic and admit of no alternative . They are the product of a particular set of sense organs, evolutionary beginnings, and planetary origins. If the cat were to define the world, he would exclude the world of the housefly in his mouth. Each species has its fiction, and that fiction is to all intents and purposes real; and the actual thin substance of the universe becomes more and more debatable, oneiric, hard to achieve, like the white figures that will not focus at the edge of vision. . . .”

Viriconium
by M. John Harrison
Kindle Locations 4729-4735