The ecological perspective

by Suspended Reason

The ecological thought does, indeed, consist in the ramifications of the truly wonderful fact” of the mesh. All life forms are the mesh, and so are all the dead ones, as are their habitats, which are also made up of living and nonliving beings. (Timothy Morton)

Riffing off Erving Goffman, Ecologist”, I thought I’d write up the core principles I find most useful for thinking ecologically. I’m particularly curious which principles readers think I’m missing—I’d love to hear from you etc etc; my email’s .

  1. The unit of survival is the organism-and-environment. Fitness is always contextual to a given environment. Because a given organism is only ever suited to a given distribution of environments, its survival depends also on that environment surviving (staying in-distribution). See also Bateson’s Form, Substance, & Difference.”

  2. Drift & disruption drive an adaptation ripple. When an environment is disrupted, the average organism loses fitness. Previous strategies and adaptations no longer work. Because the environment is always changing, it is useful to describe organisms as mesa-optimizers: optimizers who have themselves been optimized by a base” process (e.g. natural selection). Drift is inevitable because ecology is too complex a system to ever fully stabilize. Due to drift and disruption, an organism’s optimization function differs (often quite dramatically) from what is optimal from the perspective of the base optimizer (e.g. natural selection).

  3. Selection is frequency-dependent. Because the unit of survival is the organism-and-environment, the composition of that environment is critical. The population of a given species will have a strong effect on the survival chances of a single member. The population of a given prey species will have strong effect on the chances of a predator species. And so on.

  4. What is true for an organism is true for a strategy. Organisms are merely bundles of strategies. A strategy, being a solution fitted to a problem context, only works if that context is maintained; if the environment is disrupted, the strategy no longer works. The effect of a given strategy depends on the history of strategies deployed. Is this a new, unseen strategy to which other organisms are naive, or is this a tired strategy to which they are well-accustomed and habituated?

  5. What is true for a strategy is true for a resource. The poison lies in the dose (the frequency), e.g. too much water or too much salt are both fatal for mammals. For nearly any chemical, there is an (at least theoretical, but usually actual) organism for whom it is a sought-after nutrient, and also for whom it is a filtered-out toxin. (The few exceptions on earth might be carbon & water, since they’re so fundamental to the planet’s evolutionary history?) Oxygenation of the atmosphere led to one of the greatest die-offs in planetary history.

  6. Every available resource ends up a seized opportunity. All waste products are nutrient opportunities. Grifts” tile ecosystems—food stuck in an alligator’s teeth becomes birdfood; if plastic sits around long enough in landfills, bacteria will evolve the capacity to break down its hydrocarbons.