Chains, Webs, and Soups

12 09 2012

A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded this article about a bacterial infection spreading through the water pipes of a hospital. It is eye-opening on a lot of levels, not the least of which includes the increasing danger hospitals may pose to health as more and more antibiotic resistant forms of bacteria develop. I’ll leave that particular issue for others, though, and focus on something else.

In response to the article, another friend grimly joked that this was just bacteria reminding us who was at the top of the food chain. The food chain bit was just a joke, but it made me realize how deeply embedded that concept of the food chain was and how poorly it captured what was going on. It’s a soup, I thought. It’s the bacteria reminding us that our food chain is in their soup.

I shared the thought as an aside over at the Archdruid Report to which Greer replied as most ecologically minded folks would–well, of course, the food chain doesn’t really exist, it’s really more of a web. That’s a good answer, but it doesn’t quite satisfy me, either. While an ecological web is a better abstraction in most cases than a food chain, it is still an abstraction that conceals the way in which interactions spring between elements of the web in ways not suggested by the web’s structure.

The web, like the chain, sits in a soup. Species move through this soup that is our total planetary ecosystem, coming into contact with each other in quite disorganized ways, with results ranging from the insignificant to the profound. Both webs and food chains are real on some level, reflective of certain forms of organizational stability (i.e., homeostasis) that develop between elements of the ecosystem. But all of those chains and webs sit in a broader system that is only partially constrained by them.

We want to think of the ecosystem as more systematic than it actually is, integrating food chains into broader ecological web relationships, and describing the total system as a network of webs. But that’s just false. The systems are achievements of organic life and inorganic matter, but they exist in a broader network that is not systematic in the same fashion. It’s not simply chaos in a pure sense, it possesses a sort of latent receptivity to order, but it isn’t itself orderly.

We see the systems because it is how we have evolved. We not only see systems, but are well-suited to generating new ones, creating new forms of order within an environment. That makes us extraordinarily adaptive (as a species if not as individuals and societies), but it disposes us to see and imagine more order to the world than actually exists. We can make out the lines of food chains and webs and even impose chain and web forms of order around ourselves, but all that takes place in a more amorphous, less structured, soup.

This is not a remotely novel observation. If Nietzsche is just a little right about the dynamics of Greek religious life in his The Birth of Tragedy, it was viscerally encoded, thousands of years ago, in the contrast between Apollo as bearer of the arts and sciences and Dionysos as the embodiment of the wild world. All I’m doing is pointing out that we are in a position to understand this point at a more theoretical, and potentially scientific, level.

To achieve that, we need a clearer sense of the difference between complexity (which has received much fanfare since Gleick’s Chaos) and soupiness (which I would be tempted to call chaos, were not the term already so freighted with Gleick’s popularization of complexity). We need to be aware of the way in which some forms of seeming disorder result from a certain lack of orderliness and not just from echoes of distant orderliness.

I would wager, though could not be sure, that entropy enters prominently into an understanding of this soupiness. The soupiness is not some perfectly smooth backdrop to order, but an unevenly dense volume, as highly ordered, energy rich, systems decline into less ordered, less rich systems.

That sort of talk helps make clear another key dimension of the soupiness, too. It is energy, pure and simple, in varying states of accessibility and density. Energy qua energy is the something from which this or that thing arises.

Again, this is nothing too revolutionary. All I’m doing is shifting the emphasis away from the rarer, denser, highly organized webs of organic relationships, to the common, less visible, field through which they float. I hope that makes more clear how much more rarefied the total ecosystem really is, how much more disparate one thing is from another.

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