8. Biology and ecology lack core variables

The above reference to the second law of thermodynamics reminds us of the McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia Of Science & Technology’s definition of ecology as “environmental biology” (Parker, 1998, p. 663). Entropy is thermodynamics’ most characteristic variable, and its forte is interactions with the environment. That environment is the source of all the phenomena to which all biological and ecological existents are subject. Biology and ecology ultimately therefore depend upon cogent analysis of that environment.

A theoretical similarity between biology and ecology on the one hand, and meteorology on the other is that all deal with vast quantities of extremely hazy input data. Another similarity is the broadly similar objective: to wit, to be scientific. It is therefore instructive to observe how that discipline—a primary component of the biological surround—has addressed these similar issues. And the approach that Murray, Lange, Turchin and others recommend can again be seen to fail when we look at the development of modern meteorology, the science concerned with the atmosphere and its phenomena.

Modern meteorology begins with Vilhelm Bjerknes. He initially worked with his father who had detected an analogy between electromagnetism and fluid dynamics. He used his mathematical skills to devise a series of instruments to replicate electrical and magnetic effects on spheres, discs and membranes immersed in a viscous fluid. He then worked as assistant to Heinrich Hertz, further elucidating connections between fluid dynamics and thermodynamics. He eventually applied these ideas to the atmosphere.

Figure 3: Inertia and Force: Collision of an Air Mass
 Inertia and Force: Collision of an Air Mass

The essence of Bjerknes’ revolutionary idea can be seen in Figure 3. He examined the origins and development of air masses—a term he coined—in terms of well-known physical forces, explicitly including the microscopic. An air mass acquires the characteristics of the terrain giving birth to it. It then moves. This requires an acceleration … which in its turn demands the demonstration of a force. Bjerknes explained the relevant force and acceleration thermodynamically and through molecules, solar heating, and the Coriolis force. He therefore blended the microscopic with the macroscopic. Since the macroscopic air mass certainly possesses inertia, then it suffers an equally macroscopic frictional force as it passes over landmasses. This accounts for wind and its effects. The air mass’ ascent and descent through the atmosphere accounts for precipitation and for heating and cooling effects. Bjerknes set out his “polar front theory” in 1904 as follows:

If it is true, as every scientist believes, that subsequent atmospheric states develop from the preceding ones according to physical law, then it is apparent that the necessary and sufficient conditions for the rational solution of forecasting problems are the following: (1) A sufficiently accurate knowledge of the state of the atmosphere at the initial time. (2) A sufficiently accurate knowledge of the laws according to which one state of the atmosphere develops from another (Bjerknes, 1904).

Figure 4: Inertia and Force: Cold Fronts and Warm Fronts
 Inertia and Force: Cold Fronts and Warm Fronts

Bjerknes’ simple idea was that the molecules composing an air mass followed standard scientific and thermodynamic laws, and therefore exhibited predictable behaviours, including what would happen when it for example pressed hard up against a mountain. He developed his ideas around the First World War and, as in Figure 4, the boundary between two air masses is therefore known as a ‘front’.

Bjerknes was initially ridiculed because, for example, air masses did not have specified boundaries, as solid bodies clearly did, and so therefore could not have any ‘collisions’, never mind ones of the kind he envisioned. Undaunted, he produced the first effective climatological equations. An air mass’ inertia, volume and so forth are now so easily discernible we do not give the Bjerknes system a second thought.

Bjerknes inspired Lewis Fry Richardson, Walfrid Ekman and Carl-Gustav Arvid Rossby to transcend his original, much more local, applications and to attack the large-scale motions of the oceans and atmosphere. Between them, they made modern weather forecasting possible. We now think nothing of pressure and temperature gradients across air masses and their fronts:

Rossby’s major contribution, among many, was that he simplified so many aspects of the forces that play a role in meteorology into one great struggle to seek a balance between the winds, the gradient of pressure, and the Coriolis force (i.e. the force created by the rotation of the earth). In other words, Rossby viewed weather as a constantly changing dynamic system in search of a balance (Fishman and Kalish, 1994, p. 54).

Meteorology’s predictive abilities have been ridiculed ever since 1854 when the United Kingdom established the first Meteorological Department. Its first head was Captain Robert Fitzroy … who is far more famous for issuing an invitation to the 21-year-old Charles Darwin to accompany him on an upcoming voyage on his 21-gun brig, the Beagle (Milner 1990). Fitzroy, “the Met’”s first head, was given the authority to produce weather forecasts. The opprobrium and disrespect with which his forecasts were met were widely felt to be the cause of his eventual suicide (Fishman & Kalish, 1994; Milner 1990). Attitudes to weather forecasting have not improved since:

An analysis of weather forecasting for ten summers ending in 1986 in Honolulu showed that forecasts were 83% correct. That sounds pretty good, until you realize that the climate in Honolulu is not like the climate anywhere else on the mainland. The climate in Honolulu is fairly uniform, a veritable tropical paradise. In fact, the climate in Honolulu is so uniform that a one-day forecast of no rain every day of the year would have been 85% correct. In other words, the forecasters in Honolulu did worse with their forecasts than no forecasts at all. (Fishman and Kalish, 1994, p. 3).

Turchin is, interestingly enough, one of those to criticize meteorology on this basis:

… it is a gross exaggeration to claim that physics is a predictive science in all its aspects. Physicists assure us, on one hand, that they have a complete understanding of the laws of fluid dynamics that govern atmospheric movements. On the other hand, neither they nor anybody else can accurately predict weather more than 5-7 days in advance. (Turchin, 2001, p. 17).

Figure 5: Velocity vector field for San Francisco Bay wind pattern
 Velocity vector field for San Francisco Bay wind pattern

Such criticisms are easy to make, but their basis is, in the context, somewhat simplistic and naive. Meteorology’s scientific rigour and respectability—along with the way it unifies the microscopic and the macroscopic—cannot be so easily dismissed. Figure 5 shows a mapping of the wind velocity vector field ten metres above the surface of the San Francisco Bay at 2:00 pm on October 25th., 2011. There is nothing questionable about the scientific basis of these measurements. As is customary with vector maps, arrow size is proportional to wind speed which is measured in knots. Directions are as from true north. The theory of vector fields is impeccable, and we shall be using it shortly to bring some order to a chaotic field.

The theoretical developments made since Bjerknes are considerable and impressive. The Rossby parameter, for example, is β = f/y = 2ωcosφ/a where ω is the earth’s rotation, φ is the given latitude, and a is the earth’s mean radius, describing how the Coriolis force varies with latitude, φ (Glickman et al, 2000). The Rossby number, f, that it incorporates then links these variations in the Coriolis effect to planetary rotation at any given point, and so to latitude and the effect on fluid atmospheric flow … and therefore on weather phenomena.

It may nevertheless be true that meteorology, like ecology, has no comprehensive or general laws, but the former is still very much more than descriptive. Velocity vector fields could not be produced unless meteorology had based itself firmly upon the established laws of science, thermodynamics in particular. As a result, its storm systems and weather patterns are recognized and, as Bjerknes stated, weather patterns in temperate middle latitudes are a clear result of warm and cold air masses interacting. Its forecasting techniques and results are easy to mock, but they are squarely based on the laws it has adopted. Commendable predictions are possible, and the reasons for the difficulty to predict are solidly mathematical and scientific. They are themselves the result of a sound scientific theory that deserves scrutiny before being dismissed. We will discuss that theory of computing and computers shortly.

Meteorology’s scientific rigour and respectability—along with the way it unifies the microscopic and the macroscopic—are not nearly so easy to ridicule as its supposed lack of an ability to predict, especially when the facts of what makes meteorology so unabashedly scientific are so grievously misunderstood. As Karsai and Kampis express it in their criticisms of biologists and ecologists:

Using scientific inquiry without first teaching the proper scientific method may generate a complete misunderstanding of how science works. Asking questions, collecting data, and obtaining an answer from the latter are parts of the scientific method, but do not wholly constitute the scientific method itself (Karsai and Kampis, 2010, p. 633).

No forecast at all, which is the alternative, does not use the scientific method and so is simply not science. The accuracy of the forecast is another matter, and is itself the subject of considerable scientific investigation. Being scientific involves examining phenomena, and then trying to base both an understanding and a future expectation upon that understanding gained of those phenomena. In that sense, meteorology is somewhat in advance of ecology, for biology and ecology lack any unitive scientific coherence and comprehensiveness as regards predicting the behaviour of their core variables. Indeed … it is not even clear that biology or ecology have any core variables that can be predicted.

As an example of biology and ecology’s lack of coherence regarding its core variables, we measured the various generation lengths for Brassica rapa in our experiment as 44, 35, and 28 days respectively. B. rapa might be semelparous, but these times clearly shortened as the population density increased. We calculated the equilibrium age distribution length as T = 36 days. Biology currently has no cogent explanation why these generation times should shorten … but we will provide one in due course.

Variations in rates of chemical component processing such as we measured would at first sight seem to be the bread and butter of evolution. Yet biology and ecology offer no cogent reason for these variations, and also do not relate them to natural selection, surely the most important of all variables in modern biology. It would surely be worth while to determine the primary causes of B. rapa’s demonstrated variations in generation length, given their long-term significance. After all, if Brassica rapa had maintained its 44-day generation cycle for one year, it would have gone through 8.295 generations, as opposed to the 10.139 generations calculated for the equilibrium age distribution one. If it had maintained its 35-day cycle for a year, there would have been 10.429 generations, and if its 28-day cycle then there would have been 13.036.

These variations in Brassica rapa’s generation length may not seem significant over a single experiment, but the nub of Darwin’s position is that: “I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection” (Darwin, 1859, p. 76). A biological population’s evident ability to vary its generation length as the environment or its population numbers vary is surely evidence of such a significant “slight variation”. If, after all, we consider a millennium instead of a year, then these variations surely stop being “slight” because B. rapa then has the potential to fit in 8,295, 10,139, 13,036 and 18,250 generations for the four values we measured and/or calculated. Plants that remained in the fastest cohort would therefore have fitted in over 10,000 more generations than those in the slowest one. This is surely scope for evolutionary diversification. It would be instructive to study B. rapa’s closest phylogenetic neighbours—the family Brassicaceae contains 107 genera and 1,101 currently accepted taxa—to gain comparable data. Whatever may be the realities of evolutionary diversification, the only possible cause for such differences must surely be: (a) the number and types of chemical components exploited, (b) the relative number densities of the biological entities holding those components at various points of their cycle, (c) their specific chemical configurations, and (d) “natural selection” howsoever defined, and as it works with this kind of raw material.

Yet on closer examination … not only is there no coordinated way to record and examine such temporal differences and relate them to evolutionary behaviour, biologists and ecologists cannot even at this point agree on how to measure time periods; which time periods are appropriate; and whether or not generation lengths are even significant!

This surprising lack of coherence regarding generation time is exemplified in his paper The biology of time across different scales by Dean Buonomano who says:

For both individuals and society as a whole, the ability to precisely track and tell time is critical across scales spanning over 15 orders of magnitude: from the nanosecond accuracy of atomic clocks used for global positioning systems to the tracking of our yearly trip around the sun. In-between these extremes we track the minutes and hours that govern our daily activities. …

In nature, animals also keep track of time over an equally impressive range of scales: from tens of microseconds, used for sound localization, to the anticipation of yearly seasonal changes, as well as the control of longer physiological events such as puberty and menopause. It is in between these extremes that arguably the most sophisticated forms of timing occur. It is on the scale of milliseconds and seconds that complex forms of sensory and motor processing, which include speech recognition and motor coordination, take place. The mechanisms by which animals tell time remain incompletely understood (Buonomano, 2007).

What is of note is that although Buonomano’s paper contains the words ‘the biology of time’, it pays scant attention to surely the most distinctive of all biological time periods: that over which heritability happens.

Frankham and Brook’s paper The importance of time scale in conservation biology and ecology does at least have the virtue that it discusses, in somewhat greater detail, the possibility that generations might well be of some importance in biology and ecology. They admit that generations are often used in evolutionary genetics, but they nevertheless point out that:

Time scales are rarely discussed explicitly in conservation biology and ecology, but are often tacitly assumed to scale to years rather than generations, or some mixture of these. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) uses a mixture of years and generations in its threatened species categorization system, with both being used for critically endangered categories, but years alone being used for the vulnerable category (Frankham and Brook, 2004).

No matter what its failings, meteorology presents a contrast. It has a clear set of core and accepted variables whose values it tries to predict. And as soon as a rotating planet, oceans, and an atmosphere exist then its core variables also exist. It therefore has no need for explicit meteorological laws. All standard scientific laws are immediate as soon as such pertinent external designata become relevant. Many biologists would presently argue that something “extra” is surely required of a planet before biological phenomena can exist, and that therefore this immediacy does not hold for biological entities. Something over and above the mere presence of a suitable planet is surely needed … and without identifying that something what hope, so the argument goes, for biological or ecological laws? It is hard to see how any subject can be properly scientific when it not only cannot clearly delineate its subect matter, but cannot even highlight its core variables.