Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Petri Dishes

Take enough biology courses and eventually you'll get to a lab that requires you to smear some samples on a nutrient-rich plate and watch bacteria colonies grow. Oh wow, how cool is that! Look at them multiply and multiply. See how they expand without planning or forsight. Sometimes when you put two or more kinds of bacteria on the same plate, they grow and grow until they meet and then try to kill each other off in a last desperate grasp for dwindling resources.

Well, what did you expect from a bunch of stupid bacteria? Humans are so much better than such creatures because we actually take time and effort to raise our young, to train them for life in our complex society. We aren't running blindly, headlong into the future. Only simple organisms consume all their resources without a plan for sustainability.

You may have seen those growth charts, the ones that depict a nice exponential curve, steadily rising over time until it reaches a tipping point, whereupon it shoots up to the top, at the limit of its environs. There will probably be a list of "limiting factors", or "outside pressure" to indicate famine, disease, predators, etc, as mechanisms to keep the population in check. After so much time on the chart, though, the organism(s) represented will undergo a "death phase", the sharp decline that could very easily lead to extinction. The fossil record has many such examples.

Humans, being the clever monkeys that we are, have found ways to bypass these environmental pressures and have altered the population curve. We can expand and expand without fear of running out of resources or ever hitting that decline/death phase. Yes, when the population reaches 9 BILLION around 2050, we will have A) plenty of food for all these people, B) plenty of important, meaningful, and fulfilling occupations for all these people, C) plenty of room to prevent overcrowding, D) plenty of hospitals and medical programs to keep horribly infectious diseases from decimating a crowded country, and E) an extensive and effective worldwide recycling program to mitigate the effects of waste and pollution. And other such necessary measures.

It is a good thing we have all these things lined up for the future. What clever, clever monkeys we are. Not like those nasty bacteria. Imagine if we were those bacteria, having to face mass starvation because we over-farmed and over-grazed much of the world, leaving food only for those rich, powerful, or privileged people that happened to be born in a certain geographical area. Boy, what a horrible scrambling for food such a situation would entail. Imagine if we didn't have all diseases under control and had to fight massive epidemics of rapidly mutating diseases in heavily crowded cities that developed too quickly and without sufficient resources to construct proper sewers, treatment plants, hospitals/clinics, and research labs. Gee, that would be a mess. There would be plenty of work for morticians and cremators. Imagine if we had to engage in massive wars to fight over the few sources of fresh water still left. It's a good thing modern industry has all but eliminated pollution that can be introduced to the water table. Or imagine wars for viable land upon which to grow our crops. It's a good thing our current mode of food production doesn't leave too many salt deposits and doesn't require outrageous amounts of energy (imagine an input of 8 calories of energy for every 1 of food). Any less efficient and old Malthus would have turned out to be right after all. Imagine if we didn't have sustainable, renewable energy sources and had to rely on limited sources like fossil fuels just to grow and transport our food. Imagine if governments had to decide who would live and who would die, who would or could be born and who could not, based solely on their genetic viability or skillset. Or mass sterilization: get some crop sprayers and spray a few poor neighbourhoods and all the babies come out dead or deformed. Imagine if all the sanctity we hold for life and human rights now was thrown out the window because the situation would be so desperate we could not afford to have it.

Just imagine all these scenarios and more and remind yourself that it's a good thing we're clever monkeys that know how to keep our population in check, and not a bunch of bacteria overpopulating a petri dish.


Blogger SH said...

It reminded me of a song by King Crimson called "Facts of Life":

Six billion ants
Crawling on a plate
None of them give back
As much as they take

But is there really a fundamental difference between bacteria and humans? I mean really? We imagine ourselves to be clever monkeys, but are we really?

05 September, 2006 19:46  
Blogger Delta said...

Clever post Mookie. The current situation does resemble a bacteria growing in a petri dish, at least in the sense that it is uncontrollable and lacks the mechanisms needed to plan for its future.

07 September, 2006 02:00  
Blogger Mookie said...

"But is there really a fundamental difference between bacteria and humans? I mean really? We imagine ourselves to be clever monkeys, but are we really?"

No, there is no difference. We are each just a glorified collection of bacteria. Like these cute little animalcules, we are driven more by our sex urges than by any rational concern for long-term survival.

Some of us ARE concerned. It seems there are those who have a capacity for sustained rational thought, and those who lack it. There may be many people that are a threat to the long-term survival of humanity and just don't realise it. I have been wondering if there is some sort of delineation taking place within human society.

Wolves and dogs can sometimes mate - they are genetically compatible - but often don't for pheromonal or behavioural reasons. My father points out that it's the dumb, uneducated people that have all the babies, and the intelligent, educated people who do not. Maybe this is the beginning of the rift within humanity. Two trends diverging with different strategies.

07 September, 2006 02:32  

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