Suicidal Species and the Complexity of NaturesteemCreated with Sketch.

in ecology •  9 months ago

Suicidal Species

Are (nonhuman) species suicidal by nature? That is, will they consume prey until there is no prey left, thereby unintentionally committing suicide? An experiment from the 1930s by Gause published in The Struggle for Existence seems to show this. Gause experimented with two microbial species of protists, a predator and a prey species. He put the prey species, Paramecium caudatum, in a medium for 2 days, and then introduced the predator species, Didinium nasutum. The predator species consumed the prey until it was gone, dying of starvation a little while later.

Didinium nasutum eating a species of Paramecium sp. Photograph by Eric V. Grave off of Fine Art America. Graph from Gause's famous 1930's experiments. Image taken from

Of course, these are under tightly controlled and highly unrealistic laboratory conditions, so what can this possibly tell us about the nature of nature? Well, it seems that non-human organisms are programmed to simply survive and reproduce, with not much (or no) thought for the future. Self-regulation to preserve the environment seems to be solely within the human domain.

Complexity of Nature

Nature is complex. This statement is absurdly obvious, but bears repetition, because scientists in general and ecologists in particular seem to constantly overlook this fact.Footnote 1 A single species of predator doesn't interact with a single species of prey in a vacuum, or in a tightly controlled environment. Seasons, nutrient overload, nutrient scarcity, multiple species of predators and prey, diseases, parasites, and a plethora of other variables are present in the real world that are not present in the laboratory.


Is my proposal too simple? Is it possible for species, or perhaps individuals, to plan for the future? I don't think so, and the evidence points strongly in my favor. Take consciousness, which allows us to plan for the future and play out multiple scenarios in our heads so that those ideas can die instead of us if we play out a bad scenario. (I think I read this in Taleb's Black Swan.) No other species, so far as we know, has consciousness. Take, for example, the mirror test, which shows that only humans can consistently recognize themselves in the mirror and indeed do not have to be taught to recognize themselves. I am not saying that no other species can recognize themselves in the mirror, just that it seems innate only with humans.


I believe strongly in the primacy of humans. No other species can communicate transcending time and space (writing). Perhaps "lower" organisms are simiply driven to survive and reproduce, with not much (complex) thought for the future. Perhaps I will be proven wrong in the future, but I wouldn't bet on it. The complexity of nature is something that boggles my mind, and makes scientific examination almost impossible to any degree of certainty. But I believe it is a good thing that nature is too complex for us to understand.


  1. Do nonhuman species have another imperative beyond survival and reproduction?
  2. Will we ever be able to model nature with a complexity approaching that of reality?
  3. Is it a good thing that we don't fully understand the complexity of nature?
  4. The scientific method is, in my opinion, the greatest human invention, yet it has its limitations (see Footnote 1). Will we ever invent a better lens through which to examine our world?

Nota Bene:

I am currently reading through Daniel B. Botkin's Discordant Harmonies. I am experimenting with sharpening my deductive reasoning. To do this, I read something interesting in the book and then write a post about it, predicting stuff along the way. As I continue reading, it is my goal to see if my predictions and reasoning will hold. So, if I commit any gross logical errors, it is because my deductive reasoning is not yet sharp enough!

Footnote 1:

Science is reductionist by nature. Up until this point, and perhaps even now, this is understandable, and even forgivable. Nature is so complex that we have to reduce it to noncontinuous parts to examine it. Scientists, by and large, recognize that nature is irreducible, and that this is a problem. Here are three illustrations:

  1. "... nature often comes to us as irreducible continua." Stephen J. Gould criticizing our Platonic heritage.
  2. E. O. Wilson's entire book Consilience is a lament that science and scientists have not or have not been able to broaden their scope to explain the arts and philosophy.
  3. Nassim Taleb in all of his works laments the Platonic (categorizing and reducing everything) and encourages more encompassing thought and acknowledging epistemocracy (how little we know).

First image is taken from Pixabay.

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