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We are Ecosystems

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I attended a meeting on evolutionary biology a while back, and the last presentation was by an emergency room physician from Seattle, Washington. His talk was on the rise in the crime rate in the United States, which he traced back to 1959. That marked the beginning of the Interstate Highway System, which fostered increased mobility in this country, but disrupted the relationship of people with their environments.

As a working scientist with an interest in human evolution, I find the
intimate interrelationship between life and its environs of great interest. There are two emerging ideas in evolution and ecology, epigenetic inheritance and niche construction, respectively. The former deals with the direct inheritance of genetic information from the environment, the latter with how organisms fashion their own environments—worms modify the soil they live in, beavers build dams, humans build towns and cities. The merging of those two processes is a very powerful image of how life on this planet evolved from water to land, and then across the face of the Earth. My insight has been that the first cell was actually a niche construction (Torday, JS. The Cell as the First Niche Construction. Biology (Basel). 2016 Apr 28;5(2)), and that was what fostered all of the activities of life from that day to this.

So of course we must be good stewards of our environment, given that it is where we evolved from, and gained our existence from, past, present and future. Our current trajectory in forming the Anthropocene deviates from that path, but we must acknowledge it and ascribe to it or face extinction.

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