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The Web of Life: How Behavior Links Soil, Plants, Animals, and People with the Landscapes
Fred Provenza, Utah State University, Logan, UT
All life, from microbes in the soil that sustains the life of plants to animals including people, is interconnected and interdependent upon continuous inputs and transfers of solar energy and matter. Bodies are in essence societies of cells and organs that continually interact one with another and with the biophysical environments in which they live. Arthur Koestler coined the term “holon” for interrelationships involving parts and wholes, and he stressed that each holon has two conflicting propensities: an integrative propensity to function as part of the larger whole, and a self-assertive propensity to safeguard its individual autonomy. Within a body or a social system, each cell or individual must affirm its individuality to maintain the functioning of the system, but it must also yield to the demands of the whole to make the system viable. These two tendencies are opposite but complementary. In a healthy system – cell, individual, society, or ecosystem – there is a balance between integration and self-assertion. This balance is not static but consists by necessity of a dynamic interplay between the two complementary tendencies, which makes the whole system flexible and open to constant change.
While our Western culture teaches us to think and behave in linear, hierarchical ways, no one central force controls these outcomes on landscapes, only a large number of holons, all interacting and adapting to each other and to their local environments as they all move and change. Ultimately, complex patterns emerge from the local interactions of all of the parts. Complex Adaptive Systems thus display emergent properties that arise from the virtually unending number of interactions occurring as the parts of the system interact one with another as a function of history, necessity, and chance. Due to the complexity of these interactions, any modifications we make to the system will produce results we cannot anticipate or predict in advance. We must continually adapt to ever-changing social and biophysical environments. That means participating in creating the here-and-now and realizing that ‘things never were the way they were and they never will be again.’ In our attempts to recreate the past (which is history and mostly mystery) and predict the future (which is mystery and soon-to-be history) we miss the mystery and wonder of the moment, which is all we ever really have…