Richard Feynman’s father taught young Richard the way I’d like to teach my own children; whether I do it nearly as well, I can only hope.

One day . . . my father took me to the forest again and said, “In all this time we have been looking at the forest we have only seen half of what is going on, exactly half.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “We have been looking at how all these things grow; but for each bit of growth, there must be the same amount of decay–otherwise, the materials would be consumed forever: dead trees would lie there, having used up all the stuff from the air and the ground, and it wouldn’t get back into the ground or the air, so nothing else could grow because there is no material available. There must be for each bit of growth exactly the same amount of decay.”

There then followed many walks in the woods during which we broke up old stumps, saw frizzy bags and funguses growing; he couldn’t show me bacteria, but we saw the softening effects, and so on. [Thus] I saw the forest as a process of the constant turning of materials.

This is a deep idea, a powerful idea. There is wonder in this idea, the idea that the atoms inside me were once in a tree, and that, once they leave me, they might find their way into another tree, or a bit of fungus, or even just a patch of soil. We are connected to the universe in so many different ways.

But there is also danger here. The danger is in being carried away into what Richard Dawkins called “bad poetic science.” When I look at the forest, noticing, as Feynman’s father did, that there is no waste of materials, that everything is used, what I see is not a story of cooperation and sustainability, a ecosystem-wide hand-holding kumbaya session. Instead, I see the unbridled avarice of capitalism left unchecked. Wherever there is a resource, something will exploit it. Wherever there’s a living to be made, however meager, something will eke it out. Interesting, no doubt, but a model for the life we want to live? No thank you.

Is nature wasteful? Of resources, not so much, perhaps (though I’d argue that nature is incredibly wasteful of one resource, energy. So much light energy impacts the Earth every day, and life makes use of only an insignificant fraction. But why worry – the Sun will always rise tomorrow.) But in other ways, nature is utterly and irretrievably wasteful. And these are ways that really matter to us.

Nature is wasteful of individual life. How many times, in Disney nature flicks, do we learn that predators bring down the old and weak, thereby keeping the species strong? Nothing could be further from the truth! Predators overwhelmingly take the very youngest, long before they have the opportunity to show whether they’re weak or not. Consider that of 1000 sea turtle eggs laid on a beach, only one will grow into an adult turtle. What happens to the other 999? Down the gullet. 999 lives wasted, the vast majority eaten before they’re more than a few days old. And don’t believe that the one is the strongest. So much of this is chance – did the raccoon find the nest, did the seagull or crab grab me or my sister, did the game fish snap up me or my brother?

The same is true for virtually every species. Far more young are born than could ever reach maturity. If any human society treated its young in this way, I think “wasteful” would be the kindest word we’d give it.

Nature is wasteful of innovation. For the most part, unique solutions to life’s problems are wiped out by natural selection. Natural selection is deeply conservative – until the environment changes. Then, suddenly, the rudimentary lung or the ability to digest lactose that was just a hindrance before is suddenly the key to survival. But how many innovations are wasted because the environment is unfavorable?

Nature is wasteful of its own “mistakes”, and it makes them freely. The HIV virus is in part so dangerous because it is so bad at copying itself. Eacn new generation will be loaded with mutations. Most of these are useless or fatal. But a rare few, totally by chance, make the virus better able to survive – and more deadly to its hosts.

And we should recognize this same danger in our own lives. Our genomes are sturdier than that of HIV. But they aren’t perfect. What’s more, our sexual way of reproduction is a rolling of the dice. With each generation, we take the chance that two recessive genes will come together and be expressed. Rarely, such a combination leads to a better adapted individual. But much more commonly the result is a birth defect that leads to pain, misery, early death. This waste is the direct consequence of life’s history of taking the 1 in a million chance that this next innovation will actually help. The 999,999 times it doesn’t? Well, we’ll just try again.

When we speak of finding solutions in nature, we should be very careful to avoid bad poetic science. Yes, our way of life is unsustainable. But can anyone point to anything we humans have done that goes against the lessons taught by nature? Is there a single creature out there that, given the chance, would have the wisdom to avoid our same mistakes?

Male gorillas and lions kill babies that don’t belong to them, in order to speed females into estrus. Should we, as well? Elephants destroy trees, turning forest into savanna and savanna into grassland. Is this a model for our survival? Nile perch released (yes, by humans, but do the perch care?) into Lake Victoria gobble up the cichlids, thereby destroying biodiversity. Do the perch stop to think what they’re doing? Parasites such as HIV kill their hosts, then die themselves. Sharks, victimized by humans who cut off their fins and leave them to die, in their own behaviors bite off the flippers of sea turtles, leaving the rest of the turtle (too big and too hard to swallow) alone to bleed to death. 

There is much to learn from nature, but much of it is a lesson in what not to do. If we as a society are to survive on this planet, it will not be by reproducing a more “natural” way of life. Instead, it will be through a denial of our inbred and selected “nature,” that drive that tells us to reproduce in large numbers (at least a few will survive), kill our enemies, take what we can get when we can get it and don’t worry about tomorrow.

Nature is a wasteful mess. Only by learning not to behave as nature would urge can we hope to build a better world.

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