Thursday, 23rd June 2016 – a date that quite possibly will become the topic of school and university examinations in history, sociology, politics and economics in the not-so-distant future.  But while we examine the human-made institutions and activities impacted by BREXIT, a more fundamental understanding may emerge from the human level itself.  The biology of BREXIT is worth contemplating, because humans are, after all, living creatures with an ecology, physiology and behaviour that are essentially biological, whether we like it or not.  Society lies within the Biosphere and humanism is merely a navel-gazing exercise.  Sure, the Enlightenment proclaimed the dominance of Homo sapiens sapiens, with Condorcet announcing that “Nature has fixed no limits to our hopes. The perfectibility of Man is indefinite”.   Yet, ultimately, like all of the other living things, we are stardust, from dust we are made and to dust we shall return (unless cryogenically preserved as popsicle people).  We depend on biology for our food and for essential ecosystem services.  We are primarily biological, and secondarily human.  So what does biology tell us about BREXIT?

 

If you think about a landscape, you can envisage lots of patches of similar habitats, split from each other by other types of habitats, a veritable mosaic.  Forest fragments may contain small populations of a particular species, say, the pink-footed purple hamster (Purpuracriceta peditesroseus – a fictitious species, in case you try to look it up).  These populations will, over time, become specialized in relation to the local environment.  However, if the population is small and isolated, inbreeding depression may result in damage, threatening the very existence of the population.  On the other hand, often, forest fragments are not completely isolated.  A limited number of individuals may be able to move to and from other forest fragments. Such a group of interacting populations is called a meta-population.   The greater the movement, the more reduced is the threat of inbreeding depression, as genetic information is exchanged between each population.  However the downside is outbreeding depression.  Here, too much genetic movement between populations dilutes the specializations developed, making neither population suited for their specific environments.

At the human level, globalization can be argued to represent outbreeding depression.  As nations lose their landscape-specific cultures, while communities fall out of touch with the essential socio-environmental identity they once had, the planetary species of humans loses diversity and variation.  It is important to note that this is not the consequence of immigration, but the embracing of a single dogma, Enlightenment economics. 

The homogenization of the human race means that local populations become further alienated from both their immediate environments and from their cultural and biogeographical contexts.  The loss of commensalism, where communities live in tandem with their landscape, is a heavy loss indeed.  A way back, championed by the Buen Vivir movement of South America amongst others, offers hope. Here, the economic focus is not on the global market, but rather the economy emerges from the interaction between humans and their landscapes.

 

Yet the drive against globalization risks tilting the balance towards inbreeding depression, tribalism and racism (towards the pink-footed purple hamsters from the neighbouring forest fragment).  Localism can be quickly transmuted into xenophobia.  This is at least as dangerous.  How then can the meta-population dynamics (i.e. the flow of purple hamsters between forest fragments) reach an appropriate balance, where cultural integrity and diversity can co-exist?

To understand how this works in Nature, we must understand one thing.  The Biosphere operates as an emergent system.  Every level within it operates sub-optimally, relinquishing optimization for the good of the whole.  Predators don’t eat all the prey.  DNA correction does not correct all of the mutations. Squirrels don’t remember where they hid all the nuts.  Nothing can be designed, but rather the outcomes are complex products of multiple interactions.  Reductionist approaches do not work here.  Central to everything is real-time continuous feedback.  There are no static structures in nature.  Everything constantly changes.  This only works because nature is continuously listening and responding at every level of organization.  It is a dynamic system.  Furthermore, no single unit of organization is optimized, except for one – ourselves.  Our drive towards optimized efficiency is primarily what destabilizes the rest of the system.

The next central lesson from nature is that it is based on function, not structure.  After every mass extinction event, completely new structures (species) emerge, but functionality is restored. Food chains are re-established, ecological succession recommences and biogeography is re-defined.  The structures are merely diffusive outcomes of an increasingly chaotic genetic code (as a result of accumulating mutations through time); restricted only by energetic context, niche availability and material obtainability.  Function, however, is much more conservative, dominated by thermodynamics.  

Thus we cannot plan towards a transition to a specific structural dream, but rather, a functional restoration.  The destruction of ecosystem function is a consequence of our refusal to listen, and of our focus on the structures of human value.  Yet we cannot hope to regain social dignity without environmental dignity.  For we are of nature, not separated from it, and thus our social fulfilment can only be found within that context, just as it is for all of the other species on Earth. 

Finally, even a cursory study of island biogeography reveals that the island species-area relationship (i.e. how many species can exist on an island of a given area) is widely considered to be an outcome of the equilibrium model of island biogeography (EMIB).

The total number of species on an island is controlled by the rate of successful immigration to that island, which gradually decreases with time due to niche saturation, while increasing with increasing area (a bigger target to find), by the rate of extinction of species on the island, which gradually decreases with increasing island area (due to their being more niches in larger islands), and the area of the island itself.  Immigration to an island is an inverse function of distance to the nearest landmass with species present (i.e. the further away and more isolated, the lower the likelihood of reaching the island).  For an island of a particular size, a dynamic equilibrium is reached in terms of total species present.  I would suggest that in human terms, distance represents freedom of movement (determined by immigration policies and ability to travel), while island size represents economic opportunity (niches available).  In nature, this process is based on continuous feedback in that it is a dynamic process.  Importantly, in nature, greater species diversity offers greater resilience. 

 

So what can we learn from nature in terms of BREXIT and the direction ahead? Firstly, healthy populations need a balance of identity and diversity.  Emphasis on either one risks the health and welfare of that population.  Extremism, either left or right, will not be the basis for a stable society, nor will it bring social or environmental dignity.

Secondly, nature is an emergent system, and thus it does not design towards a particular outcome.  It is a dynamic process, wherein continuous real-time feedback is the key driver of change.  This feedback comes not just from a particular species or population, but from the broader environment.  Listening to one set of voices alone will fail to inform sufficiently.  All levels of organization must contribute to the conversation.  Thus the polarized political system currently practiced will never succeed in building diversity and resilience.  As humans, careful monitoring of our impact on the ecosystem services and ecological processes must lie at the heart of improvement science, and provide the guidance for us. 

Thirdly, as James Hutton famously observed, over 200 years ago, the Earth is a super-organism and thus is best studied using functional indicators rather than structural indicators.  Structure should serve function, not restrict it, and structure must be flexible enough to respond to real time feedback.  It is not sufficient to have a fixed structure that responds to different challenges by altering its output.  The structure itself must change to maintain the functional integrity of a state.

 For example, a functioning society may not need the political structures that we currently live under.  Indeed, the disconnection between voters and party politics was evident in the recent referendum.  Thus separating from Europe, for better or for worse, should only be the first step.  We then should carry out a root and branch critique relating to the appropriateness of the structures of our state in terms of delivering a functional state.  At the Biosphere Research Institute, we have pioneered the Functional Management Approach (FUNCMAP – see www.biosri.org for details).  The emphasis should be on dynamic, continuously informed decision making, rather than static structural elitism.

Finally, Nature relies on diversity, fundamentally, for resilience.  Human societies can also find greater resilience by embracing difference and benefitting from increased complexity in terms of cultural, linguistic, artistic, creative and historical diversity.  However there is a balance to be had.  Diversity requires heterogeneity, and thus we must be careful to maintain our identities while celebrating our unity.  Identity relates to our understanding of what and where we are, combining a sense of self, place and heritage.  Landscape and culture are central to this.  Nature works within its ecosystems, which marry species with landscape.  Thus our relationship with the habitats within which we live must form a part of this identity, simultaneously restoring environmental and social dignity to the planet.

Like any new start, be it from a peaceful or violent revolt, Britain new has the opportunity, like never before, to restore itself to a state within its proper ecological and social context.  It provides a rare opportunity to press the reset button.  The negotiations relating to BREXIT, including decisions taken in  Scotland relating to a re-negotiation with the EU, should be taken as an opportunity to set a new progressive path, leading the way forward to a better, sustainable world, where social and environmental dignity are the over-arching canons.