Nature’s Invisible Hand – Simply Complex

Stuck in a traffic jam? Trouble with your partner? Stressed by your job?  Zoom away and relax for a moment in wonderland… a place of rainbows and unicorns. But where can we find such mystic place?

The narrow strip of lush evergreen forests along the mountains of the Annamites called Truong Son in Vietnam, and Sai Phou Louang in Laos, might just be it!  Entangled in the rainbow-magic monsoon forests along the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail, look closely and you might just get a glimpse of a unicorn…

The polite Animal

An Asian unicorn to be precise! And its name is well deserved, owing to its long, sharp parallel horns. Undeniably, the chocolate brown Saolas or Pseudoryx nghetinhensis do have a certain mystique about them. Known as ‘polite’ animals, they walk in a gentle, quiet and slow manner. When they sleep, they have their forelegs tucked under their bodies, necks extended and chins resting on the floor. Then again, to witness this wonder you have to be lucky,very lucky. The eight million year old cousin to the cow, goat and antelope is a relic of the last Ice Age and one of the world’s rarest mammals. Only 11 have been recorded alive. The first one during an expedition lead by Dr. John Mackinnon, the co-director of the ASEAN Regional Centre for Biodiversity Conservation, now known as ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), who remembers: ‘I knew it was so ‘wow!’ so ‘new’!’

Snapshot of the rare Asian Unicorn, Saola

Snapshot of the rare Asian Unicorn, Saola. Creative Commons from vi.wikipedia

Also with an undeniable wow factor is the Kangaroo rat, which is so adapted to desert life that it won’t take a single drink of water in its whole life. Or the scallops, which have more than 100 single eyes – commonly blue ones. Or take the clam ‘Ming’, the world’s oldest-recorded animal, born 507-years ago when Leonardo da Vinci was just painting the ‘Mona Lisa’. Sadly Ming just passed away, some 70 million years after the Dino Deinocheirus, an odd mix of a sloth and camel, with 2.4-m-long arms and 20-cm claws. Not wow enough? Then you might like the Glowing Jellyfish, or rather the glow-in-the-dark ice cream, a British company is making from the jellyfish’s luminescent protein.

The Economy of Nature

Glow-in-the-dark, 100 eyes, unicorns! Marveling the resourcefulness of nature’s incredibly ludicrous and squandering inventions one cannot help but wonder: what’s the point and how is this even possible? By sheer chance? Surely not?

Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith offers an answer. Exactly 238 years ago, on 9 March 1776, he published ‘The Wealth of Nations’. In this fundamental work in classical economics, he illuminates how our incredibly complex, inventive and powerful economy works and developed – a similarly puzzling mystery to nature’s rich biological diversity.   In a nutshell: Each enterprise is doing its best to prosper, yet without the ‘benefit’ of a centralized planner. Something very simple -individual competition- results invisibly to our eye in something very complex – an efficient economy. But how can Smith’s famous metaphor of the invisible hand of the self-regulating market explain our rich natural biodiversity? English naturalist Charles Darwin wondered too, and coined the term ‘Economy of Nature’, according to which life on earth evolves without the guidance of a designer. Instead, in his book ‘Origin of Species’ he explains the ‘invisible hand’ of nature, better known as evolution.

Playing Evolution

“The survival of the Fittest” – rings a bell?  Well, let’s see… To grasp this concept, take a friend and play a little game. You have to guess a word in 20 questions only with yes or no answers. Out of the about one million possible words of the English language that seems impossible, or is it? Just try and see what happens:  ‘Is the word an animal?’ ‘No’. ‘Can I eat it?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Is it a fruit?’ ‘No’…

Step by step you get to the answer, quicker than you think. This is how it works: initially you ask for a category of words, which may be wrong. Thus, in the next round you randomly vary the category and repeat asking, coming closer to the word every step. This is the same with nature: a random genetic mutation causes a variation, for instance slightly thicker fur on a formerly bold animal. In a hot climate this variation is useless,  or even a hindrance. The environment will answer with no. In a colder climate however, the variation is very beneficial, helping to survive the cold. Thus, the variation will be passed on to the next ‘round of questions’, inherited by the following generation. This way of the environment saying yes is called selection. But instead of passing on variations in words like in the game, evolution uses genetic code, also known as DNA. This does not only happen in one individual but the whole genetic pool of many individuals. Repeated over and over again the animal species will become very furry – or glowing in the dark or have 100 eyes.

Stunning Simplicity

Put simply, the stepwise progress of evolution works through hereditary variation plus variation in success of reproduction (selection) plus repetition. Thus, the common understanding of evolution as the ‘survival of the fittest’ can be rephrased as ‘passing on the code of the most successful reproducer’. However, this does not only happen in reproducing animal or plant species. It is a universal principle in many systems, such as culture. Our taste for music, art or food is stored (e.g. in a cookbook), multiplied and passed on (e.g. by a publishing house), and modified (e.g. by the cook). Or take evolutionary algorithms which are used daily for instance by hackers to break password protection or by automated trading systems in the financial sector.

Just like Smith’s invisible hand ‘Darwin’s theory of evolution was a concept of such stunning simplicity – variation, selection, repetition- but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life’ English writer Douglas Adams put it.

Does life get ever more complex then? There are indeed increasingly complex blueprints, like the ones of our eye or brain. But that does not necessarily make it more successful. In fact, the most basic life forms are still dominant on earth, such as the estimated nine million bacteria species which are around for billions of years already.

Going Bankrupt

This notion does not only explain the immense biological diversity around us, but puts us in line with the millions of peer species – inviting a certain humbleness. Sure, throughout history humans tried to push the pause button on their own evolution by building buffers, like houses or medicine, against the natural selection around them. And instead of growing their own thick coat of fur like other animals, men simply learnt to take it off them. But mind you that it is exactly this evolution born diversity around us that makes the global ecosystems resilient to all kinds of threats. If one species fails, the next one steps in. If conditions change, gene pools can adapt. Biodiversity acts as an ecosystem insurance, we are all too dependent on.

But at the same time that we discover our brilliantly rich, complex world in which we live in, we are destroying it at a rate is unprecedented in history- a rate too fast for natural adaptation, since evolution doesn’t happen overnight.  While in Smith’s economy enterprises go ‘bankrupt‘, in nature, species go ’exterminated’.

Which brings us back to our unicorn: the latest was photographed in Vietnam last September 2013 for the first time in the 21st century. Let’s hope it was not the last time, as the unicorn is extremely threatened from hunting and habitat fragmentation. To protect its habitat, Barney Long, a World Wildlife Fund conservation biologist is working with fellow scientists in Vietnam, where he woefully reckoned: ‘If we lose the Saola, it will be a symbol of our failure to protect this unique ecosystem’.

Long couldn’t be more right. The Unicorn is only one of its 5000 fellow species endangered in Southeast Asia, almost a third of all 16,928 species listed as threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List. And exactly these are the priority of the Unicorn spotter Mackinnon’s heritage, the ACB.  the Philippine-based Centre, Since 2010 supported by the German development cooperation GIZ, coordinate sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity. Well aware that its loss is bad news not only for unicorn lovers but for all Southeast Asians, utterly dependent on the services biodiverse and resilient ecosystems provide. These services include provisioning of water and timber, cleaning of air or supporting of natural cycles, and also recreational and esthetic values.

Such values come to mind when wandering about Vietnam’s wild jungle or dreaming away with rainbows and unicorns… sounds like a much better idea than letting them go ‘bankrupt’, doesn’t it?

First Published ASEAN Biodiversity News, 9.3.2014