Constructing a wetlands or savanna by reassembling portions of a
natural one is only one method of biome building -- which the ecologists
call the "analog" way. It seemed to work fine. But as Tony Burgess
pointed out, "You can go two ways with this. You can mimic an analog of
a particular environment you find in nature, or you can invent a
synthetic one based on many of them." Bio2 wound up being a synthetic
ecosystem, with many analog parts, such as Adey's marshland.
"Bio2 is a synthetic ecosystem, but so is California by now," said
Burgess. Warshall agrees: "What you see in California is a symbol of the
future. A heavily synthetic ecology. It has hundreds of exotic species.
A lot of Australia is going this way too. And the redwood/eucalyptus
forest is also a new synthetic ecology." As are many other ecosystems in
this world of jet travel, when species are jet-setted far from their
home territories and introduced accidentally or deliberately in lands
they would otherwise never reach. Warshall said, "Walter Adey first used
the term synthetic ecology. Then I realized that there were already huge
amounts of synthetic ecology in Biosphere One. And that I wasn't
inventing a synthetic ecology in Bio2, I was merely duplicating what
already existed." Edward Mills of Cornell University has identified 136
species of fish from Europe, the Pacific and elsewhere now thriving in
the Great Lakes. "Probably most of the biomass in the Great Lakes is
exotic," Mills claims. "It's a very artificial system now."
We might as well develop a science of synthetic ecosystem creation since
we've been creating them anyway in a haphazard fashion. Many archeo-
ecologists believe that the entire spectrum of early humanoid
activities -- hunting, grazing, setting prairie fires, and selective herb
gathering -- forged an "artificial" ecology upon the wilderness, that is,
an ecology greatly shaped by human arts. In fact, all that we think of
as natural virgin wilderness is abundant with artificiality and the mark
of human activity. "Many rain forests are actually pretty heavily
managed by indigenous Indians," Burgess says. "But the first thing we do
when we come in is wipe out the indigenous people, so the management
expertise disappears. We assumed that this growth of old trees is
pristine rain forest because the only way we know how to manage a forest
is to clear the trees, and these weren't clear-cut." Burgess believes
that the mark of human activity runs so deep that it cannot be undone
easily. "Once you alter the ecosystem, and you get the right seeds
dispersed in the ground and the essential climate window, then the
transformation starts and it's irreversible. This does not require the
presence of man to keep the synthetic ecosystem going. It runs
undisturbed. All the people in California could die and its current
synthetic flora and fauna will remain. It's a new meta-stable state that
remains as long as the self-reinforcing conditions stay the same."
"California, Chile and Australia are converging very rapidly to become
the same synthetic ecology," Burgess claims. "They were established by
the same people, and shaped by the same goal: removal of the ancient
herbivores to be replaced by the production of bovines: cow meat." As a
synthetic ecology, Bio2 is a foreshadowing of ecologies to come. It is
clear that we are not retreating from our influence on nature. Perhaps
the bottle of Bio2 can teach us how to artificially evolve useful, less
disruptive synthetic ecosystems.
As the ecologists began to assemble the first deliberately synthesized
ecology they made an attempt to devise guidelines they felt would be
important in creating any living closed biosystem. The makers of Bio2
called these the Principles of Biospherics. When creating a biosphere
Microorganisms do most of the work.
Soil is an organism. It is alive. It breathes.
Make redundant food webs.
Increase diversity gradually.
If you can't provide a physical function, you need to simulate it.
The atmosphere communicates the state of the whole system.
Listen to the system; see where it wants to go.
Rain forests, tundras, and everglades are not themselves natural closed
systems; they are open to each other. There is only one natural closed
system we know of: the Earth as a whole, or Gaia. In the end our
interest in fashioning new closed systems rests on concocting second
examples of living closed systems so that we may generalize their
behavior and understand the system of Earth, our home.
Closed systems are a particularly intense variety of coevolution.
Pouring shrimp into a flask and pinching off the throat of the flask is
like putting a chameleon in a mirrored bottle and pinching closed the
entrance. The chameleon responds to the image it has generated, just as
the shrimp responds to the atmosphere it has generated. The closed
bottle -- once the internal loops weave together and tighten -- accelerates
change and evolution within. This isolation, like the isolation in
terrestrial evolution, breeds variety and marked differences.
But eventually all closed systems are opened or at least leak. We can be
certain that whatever artificial closed systems we fabricate will sooner
or later be opened. Bio2 will be closed and unsealed every year or so.
And in the heavens, on the scale of galactic time, the closed systems of
planets will be penetrated and shared in a type of cross-panspermia -- a
few exchanges of species here and there. The ecology of the cosmos is
this type: a universe of isolated systems (planets), furiously inventing
things in that mad way of a chameleon locked in a mirrored bottle. Every
now and then marvels from one closed system will arrive with a shock
On Gaia, the briefly closed miniature Gaias we construct are mostly
instructional aides. They are models made to answer primarily one
question: what influence do we, and can we, have over the unified system
of life on Earth? Are there levels we can reach, or is Gaia entirely out
of our control?