9. Argument by analogy

To show how we will now proceed, we provide an intuitive analogy between ecology and meteorology. We will follow meteorology, and link biological and ecological organisms directly to their molecular structure … which inevitably means the occasional reference to thermodynamics.

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, was the first, in 1854, to use the word ‘thermodynamics’, which he described as the ‘theory of the mechanical action of heat’ (Welch, 1991). He was thus the first to use ‘energy’ in its modern sense, and as a unifying concept. Several formulations of the second law of thermodynamics are available, but as we shall eventually see, Kelvin’s (now known as the Kelvin–Planck) is the most relevant to biology and ecology:

No process is possible in which the sole result is the absorption of heat from a reservoir and its complete conversion into work (Atkins, 1984).

Our analogy is that … Figure 3 shows an air mass—read: a population of molecules in interaction?—abutting a hill—read: the environment? Meteorology has its clear criteria to explain how that air mass will respond through its pressure and its temperature gradients of heat and energy. It can then declare how its broader climatic weather patterns will impinge on the environment, and so help determine local flora and fauna. Our analogy is that biology may well have such similarities.

But even here … as soon as we try to link these two subjects and indicate what effects air masses might have on the environment, and so more directly on biology and ecology, we run into a problem. For lack of a robust theory, biologists and ecologists are divided as to the correct analysis to apply:

Believe it or not, the attempt to achieve an accurate description of how the number of species varies across the land surface of the Earth is still an active research frontier. The best available information concerns the vascular plants. What produced, and thus explains, global patterns of plant diversity? More to the point, which explains these patterns better: facts about the current environment, or about the evolutionary past? To begin answering this question, consider that terrestrial communities can be classified according to a number of different schemes. Two of the most basic are “Köppen-Geiger” climate zones and landmasses. Conveniently, these two schemes yield the same number of categories: five each. One can classify communities according to whether they currently experience “dry”, “mild-humid”, “polar”, “snowy-forest”, or “tropical-rainy” climates; or alternatively, whether they are in Africa, Australia, Eurasia, North America, or South America (Mikkelson, 2003).

So which is more important: these lush tropical-rainy trees, or the South American-ness of this jungle location? As we shall see, such differences in analysis occur because of a lack of clarity concerning mass, inertia, time, and others.

But we shall for now restrict ourselves to our analogy. We observe that our Brassica rapa population began with four seeds per each pot. This mass … this population of suitably composed molecules … eventually met an obstruction—read: “abutted a hill in the environment”?—and so was forced to change its behaviour. Was there a force? If so, what was its origin? What was its magnitude? And … did our B. rapa population somehow “heat up” as an air mass would … and perhaps as suggested by its measured stresses in our experiment? The B. rapa population certainly seemed to emulate the air mass, because it eventually reverted to a “less pressurized state”, just as the air mass equalized its own pressures by rising and flowing over the mountain top. Was, then, B. rapa’s collapse in numbers the biological-ecological equivalent, through its population of molecules, to that “escape over the mountain”? Is there, more broadly, some coherent way of re-examining—as meteorologists did—such basic scientific concepts as mass, force and inertia, so we can hopefully clarify biological activity?

We will now show that biological and ecological populations indeed have their equivalent of forces, masses and inertia, and that we can equally well measure their “pressures” and “temperatures” and so forth, however these are understood. We shall also explain these variations in numbers exhibited—in true Darwinian style—by our Brassica rapa population, and state their origin and significance. It is also through such a combination of discrete numbers and differential equations that we shall eventually produce our quantum biology.