Using cybernetics in ecology: Are we learning more by simplifying nature?

Ecosystems are hopelessly complicated. The sheer number of variables influencing any single ecosystem process is staggering; each one has a distinct role to play in that process. Remove one, and the whole thing changes.

Now when you think about all the ecosystem processes, happening in an around every single organism in the world, you can imagine how many variables are at play and how many different permutations can arise because of their interplay. You can also imagine the staggering number of results this can produce if even ONE of the variables changed.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Take one process: photosynthesis. It is arguably one of the simplest processes in the ecosystem. If I were to list out the factors affecting this one process, they would be:

  1. Incoming sunlight.
  2. Efficiency of absorption by autotrophs.
  3. Type of autotroph involved.
  4. Time of the year.
  5. Time of the day.
  6. Availability of other nutrients like oxygen, water, carbon dioxide, etc.
  7. If the autotroph is suffering from any disease.

These are 7 generalized factors. If I were to get into the specifics, I could easily list out about 20 separate factors that could affect photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is a basic process that controls the entire energy flow in one ecosystem. There are hundreds of ecosystems in the world. With millions of different kinds of animals. At each scale of your vision, you can add numerous variables to this one process. Photosynthesis itself, affects many other processes.

I’m sure you can appreciate this complexity now.

Humans cannot grasp this complexity. We are extremely primitive organisms in the eyes of the universe; we can only take in 3 variables at a time. But on Earth, we are the most advanced beings. We have a curiosity that is unrivaled in geologic history, and we desperately want to understand our world.

To facilitate this, humans have come with the study of cybernetics. It is the study of regulation, control and organization. It has been applied in numerous fields from computers to engineering to psychology. It is a theoretical science, focusing on simplification for comprehension.

In ecology, the concept of cybernetics has been extensively used. It is necessary, because otherwise, we would just be suffocated with the sheer complexity of what is going on around us. We use cybernetics to study regulation of the ecosystem within an organism, within a species, a community or even an ecosystem.

However, this post isn’t about in introduction to cybernetics and it’s functions. My sole motive behind writing this post is to explore how efficient this study of simplification has been, and what we are missing out on by continuing to employ this field in our study.

Cybernetics: A ubiquitous presence in ecology

Whether you like it or not, the principle and process of cybernetics has been used virtually everywhere in ecology. The reason, as I have said, is the complexity. This is just as well. If we are to satiate our curiosity and understand our world, we have to bring it to within the realms of our limitations; our 3-dimensional perception.

From studying how nutrients flow within an organism to the regulation of niches in an ecosystem, cybernetics has been present in helping us understand how the world works.

A typical example of a food chain
The food chain: Classic example of simplification for comprehension of the energy from in an ecosystem. A more realistic model is the Y-shaped model of energy flow

We have been able to understand the multidimensional nature of ecosystems because we have studied it one variable at a time. In the study of photosynthesis, for example, we have studied the effect of water by fixing all other factors to a constant value and varying the availability of water. With this, we have been able to explain the concept.

On the face of it, it has been a boon to ecology and the study of the natural world. We have managed to understand how nature works, by simplifying and organizing natural phenomena. We now know how photosynthesis operates, how energy flows within an ecosystem and what happens when some of these variables change.

Is it a good thing?

Here’s my question: Are we learning MORE by simplifying things? Or are we just bringing things down to an understandable level and refusing to explore more of the world?

While it has helped us understand and learn a lot about the world, I believe it has also stopped us from doing justice to the beauty of nature. Cybernetics, by principle, is constricting. It brings down something big and magical under control. It removes a bit of that magic from it. It models and theorizes withing these constraints to bring an explanation to what we observe.

Far from opening our eyes to the beauties of nature, I feel that it has also restricted us from fully appreciating what is happening in nature. I’m still wrapping my head around the idea that everything we have done in ecology is inadequate and possibly only a part of the big picture. We are nowhere near grasping the complexity of ecosystems. We can only perceive processes by keeping many of the variables as constants.

Even though we know more, we are nowhere near deciphering the miracles of nature. Cybernetics is now inbuilt in us. We need to simplify everything we do so that we can comprehend it. The habit of imagination and creativity, so integral to the minds of very young children, is being crushed by the efficiency of cybernetics. That, has been the biggest drawback of this simplification process.

What do you think about this? Whichever field you are in, chances are you have used this principle in your studies. Share your thoughts in the comments!

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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