The natural world is an aggregate of seemingly infinite organisms both in number and scale. Nearly every cubic foot of the planet will have various animal life, fungi, bacteria, or plant life; on all scales and sizes from a 6000 ton genetically identical tree grove to a unicellular slime mold which can unite as a multicellular organism for locomotion or reproduction. Dust mites traveling on particles which defy visibility, bacteria which decays organic matter – even our eyelashes are littered with tiny arthropods that consume dead tissues, hormones, and oils released in our eyelash follicles.
The sheer number of species on all levels of size and function are not even nearly as compelling as the evolutionary adaptations which give organisms unique characteristics. Though it is quite obvious how the environment can impact species to adapt accordingly, and that all organisms have evolved sense organs to detect environmental changes such as day and night or cold and warm – the more sublime variables which shape the mutations of most organisms (such as food availability) are not actually directly environmental but are a result of a complex feedback system. Organisms have evolved not only to adapt themselves to the changing conditions of the environment, but also in response to the other organisms within the same environment.
This is an organic feedback loop because the conditions which effect the “other organisms” also effect each individual – so the property of environmental conditions first effects an individual, such as temperature changes, but it also effects the other organisms which the individual has adapted to rely on to survive. An environmental change may effect an individuals exposed tissues or internal fluid pressures causing a metabolic change within the individual, but it will also effect the other organisms potentially removing a food source, causing bacteria which keep the organism healthy to vanish, or perhaps it will cause a competitive or predator organism to flourish. Each thing affects each other, and ultimately the source of environmental variables is the spine of causality, and feeds back into every circumstance like a wave.
Blind pale salamanders called olms in Slovakian caves have evolved gills that look like coral, cuttlefish in the deep sea communicate with each other by displaying vibrant color patters in the same chemical process which allows chameleon to blend their body color with the surrounding environment. The cordyceps fungus can control the mind and physical functions of the insect it has evolved to infect, and will walk the insect to a suitable location before the fruiting body mushrooms from its hosts head. The cordyceps that attacks jungle ants will use the ants mandibles to get a good grip on a stalk before digesting the soft tissue inside the ants head – carefully sparing the tissues which cause the mandibles to remain pinched.
When organisms respond to environment it is sensible – when organisms respond to other organisms we encounter various enigmatic questions about the continuity of experience from generation to generation. Symbiotic relationships are quite common in nature, but they are not always as simple as the bacteria protists within the stomachs of termites that digest wood fibers. The honey-badger and honeyguide bird in Africa work together to locate and exploit a honeybee nest. The honeyguide directs the honey-badger to the bees nest, the badger decimates the nest eating both honey and larva, and once the badger has his fill the honeyguide swoops in to feed on the remaining beeswax. The Boran people of Africa are also guided by the honeyguide to bees nests and have invented for themselves a loud whistle to indicate to the honeyguide their hunt for honey has begun – this doubles the chance of encountering the indicator bird.
People are so quick to reduce nature to a level they can understand. They perceive themselves and other humans as so much more intelligent than other organisms they fail to witness the sheer, and rather absurd, degree of intelligence in the natural world. Without words or notable symbols to communicate flora and fauna have adapted to each others existence, to utilize each others existence to proliferate themselves. As I can see it, in the 3.9 billions years or so since the emergence of the first proteins and amino acids, the first significant adaptation to the ‘other organisms’ as opposed to simply environment has been one which people can easily overlook as the largest global symbiotic network of flora and fauna in earth history – the flower.
Angiosperms are not the first symbiotic organism, nor are they likely the most proliferate or largest in biomass – bacteria, fungi, and protists likely overwhelm them in most accords. Flowering plants are however the notable evolutionary trait to the Plant Kingdom which risks its entire survivability on the existence of other organisms, mainly arthropods. Flowers require the transmission of pollen from one individual to another, and the development of the angiosperm from the gymnosperm demands that bugs and animals are used as locomotives of the pollen from one flower to the ovum of another of the same species.
This cannot be over looked. For a fungi to evolve within the bark litter of a conifer forest to parasitically opportunize on nutrients, or symbiotically exchange nutrients for photosynthesized sugars – this is a responsive adaptation, and entirely supported by an ‘other organism’ which the fungi depends on or its very existence. For an animal to work with another animal in the pursuit of food is a socially responsive adaptation – they both already exist and have coevolved into a bilaterally beneficial relationship, yet if one ceases to exist the other will adapt accordingly. The animal has no risk involved since it can survive independently, and the fungi will simply not exist without the tree litter so it’s not so much an evolutionary toss of the dice as much as necessity.
For the plant kingdom, which existed within the watery abyss far before it crept onto land in the form of ferns and conifers, there was really no notable reason to take the evolutionary step to flowering species – it was a great risk and depended on a much less reliable organism than tree mulch to proliferate itself. Without an adequate supply of crawling and flying insects the floral evolution would be impossible, and with the rise and fall of arthropod species due to environmental change the flowering species are perhaps the most delicate and co-dependent of the plant divisions.
But DNA was confident. It had already achieved the advances of organisms required to ensure even the most severe cataclysms would be overcome, and it did this through a slow process of bio-engineering that shaped the terrestrial, aquatic, and aerial environments as required to sustain more varieties of more complex life forms as each new evolutionary step laid the foundation for the next series of adaptations to occur. When the world first cooled the environment was extremely harsh; chemical storms and plate formations surged and upturned the surface until the first primal waters were formed from the gasses. When the initial proteins and amino acids evolved they did so on a very different world, in solutions of chemicals which would probably be toxic to the most resilient species of organisms we have today.
Our earliest ancestors, being the single-celled organisms which first evolved consuming the toxic acids in the earths proto-waters, converting gasses from the air, and over millions and millions of years exploiting the environmental conditions and altering them bit by bit allowing for new organisms to be able to survive. The byproducts and exhaust from one organism is the food and air of another, and in time the world was shaped from an inhospitable volcanic storm planet into an oxygen rich biosphere-supporting home of billions of time-adapted organisms.
The biomass created the planet we know today, and continually proceeds to alter and bio-engineer the planet for the specie of the future. This is not fantasy, this is our world. As much as life is a passive response to environmental conditions, adapting as needed to fit the circumstances and necessities, the world has only become the Eden it is today as a result of life itself. The balance of atmospheric gasses, the temperature of the earth surface, the quality of our water – these are effectively balanced for life by life, and if the environment sways out of the control of the biota from natural disaster, other adaptations will appear to correct and return the world to the preferred state.
This ‘biomass’ and its constant flux of adaptations to both survive as well as shape the environment, and the individual wonders of nature and its often eerie display of intelligence, not to mention the specie of primate which has the capacity not only to perceive itself but to write about it perceiving itself in an article – it is all nothing more than the complex mutations of a single chemical order we call DNA.