Biosphere Research Institute

The Director's Cut

Join Keith and read/hear/watch what's been occupying his mind over the last month.





Agriculture: the Jeckyll and Hyde that feeds the world

The United Nations Children’s Fund has announced that 1.5 million children face starvation in West Africa.  Meanwhile, food security in East Africa has become stressed to emergency levels for 16 million people, according to the Food Early Warning System (www.fews.net).  Across the big pond, soy and corn yields plummet in the United States of America amid their worst drought in fifty years. 

The British prime minister has held a hunger summit at 10 Downing Street in August, amid calls from Olympian gold medallists for greater action.  The subject of starvation continues to remain in the headlines and government agendas.  Yet little seems to have changed since Live Aid in 1985.  Indeed, starvation has been with us since records began and, doubtless, long before that beginning. How can we meet the dietary needs of 7 billion people, spread across a huge geographical range of habitats and with increasingly unreliable environmental conditions? 

Agriculture lies at the heart of this challenge, and modern farming develops as much in the laboratory as it does in the field. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have recently invested 10 million dollars into crop genetic engineering, targeted at “third” world starvation.  Breeding programmes and genetic engineering spearhead the technological thrust, using human intelligence and effort to pave the way to a better future along Progress Path.

How agriculture has destroyed the planet

Yet the production of food on our planet is one of the most destructive activities of humankind, forming two of the big three threats to biodiversity and planetary sustainability (habitat destruction and eutrophication) while contributing significantly to the third (climate change).

Habitat destruction: when man displaces nature

Huge areas of habitat have been transformed into agricultural land.  Wetlands have been drained, forests cut and savannas removed.  Not only are habitats destroyed, but also fragmented, leaving small patches that are unable to support many of the species dependent upon them.  Habitat destruction is a huge problem that fundamentally and directly impacts upon the Biosphere, eradicating vast numbers of species. And agriculture is the most significant player. 

It’s a difficult one.  Crops are plants, and so they need sunlight in order to make sugar.  The sugar is converted into starch, which forms the major source of energy for the human race, be it in potatoes, rice or corn.  The need for sunlight means that each plant must be exposed to the sky.  Plants can’t grow in multi-storey car parks.  And so growing more plants means using more surface area, and this displaces natural habitat.

However it isn’t only crops that create the problem.  In fact animals, such as cattle, are much more damaging. Animals require huge areas of grass to feed them, and this grass is converted into meat, but very inefficiently.  And so much of the potential energy is lost.  A field of cows produces 20% less food than a field of the same area planted with crops.  As humans eat more and more beef, more and more land is required to support the cattle.  While we often blame furniture manufacture and crop growth for the demise of the Amazon rainforest, in reality, some 70% of the destruction has been caused by clearance for cattle ranching, compared to only 3% due to logging (http://www.mongabay.com/brazil.html). Almost all of the rainforest in Costa Rica is gone, again mostly for cattle ranching.

And it isn’t only the species that suffer from habitat destruction.  Wetlands globally store around 600 billion tons of carbon, equivalent to the total carbon in the atmosphere. Peatland destruction alone currently contributes 10% of carbon emissions on the planet1,2. Forest cutting and burning accounts for between 12-20% of carbon emissions1. Thus, habitat destruction also contributes to climate change.

Eutrophication: killing with kindness

The second major impact of agriculture on the Biosphere comes from a very different source: fertilizers.  While plants need surface area, the quality of that area is also important.  Poor soil leads to poor harvests.  In times gone by, western farms would leave fields “fallow” every three years, growing clover or some similar legume for a season, and then ploughing the plants back into the soil. 

Clover contains bacteria that convert nitrogen gas in the air into ammonia.  This is important, as nitrogen is one of the most limiting nutrients in the soil.  Plants cannot use nitrogen gas, but can use ammonia, and so this fallow year allowed the soil to regain some of the nutrients that had been lost over the previous years.  As urban populations grew, rural areas needed to produce more and more food, and these gap years did not help. 

In 1909, German scientists developed an industrial process that allowed large-scale conversion of atmospheric nitrogen gas to ammonia using vast amounts of energy. Now, nitrogen could be sprayed onto farm fields (along with other limiting nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium) and the fields could be continually used, increasing productivity massively. 

Nitrogen acts like a floodgate.  Increasing its supply is the equivalent of opening the gate, allowing more solar energy to be converted into sugar.  However, nitrogen has the same effect on natural ecosystems.  Fertilizers are water-soluble, and so they can travel far from the site of their original application, hitching a ride in streams and rivers.

The only problem is that nature has evolved within a very limited nutrient context. Never before has it experienced such huge flows of energy and the results have been devastating. Indeed, it can be argued that the impact of fertilizers poses more of a threat to the Biosphere than does the impact of increased carbon dioxide. While our activities have led to a 30% increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the last 250 years, available nitrogen has increased by 300%3.  Increased nitrogen leads to a collapse of diversity in the Biosphere, while the manufacture of fertilizers contributes around half the carbon footprint of agriculture as a whole.

Of course, along with agriculture come two other players, business and politics. On the business front, companies sell the fertilizer and genetically modified seeds, who, by the way, are the same companies that sell the specialized herbicides that only work with those specialized seeds (a monopoly squared or M squared, if ever there was one).  As a small farmer, you end up giving all your money to one company, who then controls your farm. Monsanto and Du Pont now produce over 25% of the world’s seeds (www.grain.org).  These companies have already sued successfully any farmer who replant seeds the following season4.  Industrial farms now produce 50% of the world’s pork and 66% of the world’s chicken and eggs (www.grain.org). As these monopolies grow, alternatives quickly go bust, leading to global control of the agriculture market, one of the most lucrative on earth.  Make no mistake about it, genetic modification is a business, not a charity, and its aim is to dominate the seed market, with as many compulsory tie-ins as possible.

The other player, politics, has equally huge effects on agriculture.  Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union, controlling prices, providing subsidies and failing to protect the environment adequately, while accruing huge grain mountains and wine lakes. Long term conflict zones are usually accompanied with starvation, as are isolated states such AS North Korea and Zimbabwe.

 

And so while we are feeding the human population on our planet, we are destroying many of the other species, their habitats and the critical life support systems associated with these, such as clean water, fresh air, a balanced atmosphere and proper cycling of material.  As our population increases and starvation becomes a reality for more of us, we need to wake up and smell the coffee (itself a major driver of deforestation, soil erosion and river pollution, due to recent intensification and the development of varieties that are more productive but require direct sunlight).  We cannot continue with our current industrial agriculture in order to “feed the world” without severely damaging the Biosphere and the ecosystem services that allow us to exist on this planet.  Agriculture is the biggest anthropogenic threat to our world, and current practice creates more problems than solutions. 

Genetic engineering: enlightened technology or a millstone around the neck?

The debate over the pros and cons of Genetic Modification (GM) has focused on two areas: possible toxic effects and spread of introduced genes to other organisms, and supportive research has emerged from both sides of the argument.  However I suggest that there are two much more fundamental considerations: the anti-biotic effect and the millstone-around-the-neck effect.

The antibiotic effect refers to the resistance of target organisms to genetic modification.  The only two successful modifications thus far have now been defeated by nature.  Bt toxin modification consists of putting genes into corn and cotton from the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a toxin that destroys insect gut cells, killing them.  Today, some 50% of cotton globally is genetically modified with the Bt toxin genes, while 25% of all corn contains the modification.  However in 2010, it was discovered that the pink bollworm, a major pest, had become immune, and the GM crops no longer could defend themselves from attack5.

The second modification is the herbicide resistant modification, which allows farmers to spray stronger herbicides on their fields without killing the crops themselves.  77% of the global soybean crop is now genetically modified with the herbicide resistant genes.  However, weeds such as amaranth and giant ragweed have become resistant to the herbicide.

The problem is that these are the only meaningful GM approaches out there, and now they are becoming ineffective.  It’s like giving people lots of antibiotics in a hospital.  Sooner or later, the bacteria develop resistance, and the antibiotics become useless.

And the anti-biotic effect leads to the second problem, the millstone-around-the-neck effect.  All GM approaches involve inserting extra DNA into the plants so that they can make proteins that they couldn’t normally make.  These proteins give them special powers.  However, making these extra proteins costs energy.  And the one thing scientists cannot do is to increase the ability of a plant to make more sugar. 

However you try, the key enzyme, RUBISCO, cannot be messed with.  So the income for a plant is fixed at an upper level.  Since GM plants have greater expenditure than “normal” plants, then, on a level playing field, GM plants will have less sugar to put into making grain that will normal plants.  This has been seen in herbicide–resistant oil seed rape (www.fao.org/docrep/006/Y5031E/y5031e0i.htm).

Of course the whole idea of these extra proteins is to create an uneven playing field, giving the plants an advantage. They don’t need to compete against weeds (the herbicide-resistant plants) or they don’t need to be eaten by insects (The Bt toxin plants).  Thus, these genetically modified crops do not lose as much energy in each of these contexts as would the normal plants. 

The problem comes when resistance to the magic powers occurs.  Now these “special” plants no longer can use their superpowers, and become less productive than their unmodified cousins.  They start running a budget deficit.  Indeed, the fancy proteins they are programmed to produce become millstones around their necks. Now since something like a quarter of all corn on the planet has the Bt toxin inserted, and more and more countries are being encouraged to plant it, we will soon have a really significant issue on our hands. 

Having lost the normal corn, we will be left with a sub-standard crop that produces less, not more food for the world.  Just do the maths. Three minus two is less than three minus one. In addition to this problem, genetic engineering has so far swallowed and wasted billions of pounds of university funding that could have been spent on much more useful science, such as ecology.  And all for what cause? To produce a weaker product than we already had.  This is a fairly typical Enlightenment outcome, isolated thinking within Bubbleworld.

Bubbleworld is a place where humans operate in isolation of their context.  It is a product of the Enlightenment, summed up by one of this philosophical magalith’s most powerful architects, the Marquis de Condorcet, when he wrote “Nature has fixed no limits to our hopes”. The Enlightenment philosophers viewed nature as a bind, a limitation, an inhibitor, much like the church and state.  Reasoning and technology, he argued, could demolish these constraints, freeing us to design and think our way to a utopia.  Even better, the previously dominant force that once was nature would now become the raw material for the industrial machine, and act as the waste disposal unit for the toxic excrement and rubble of our designs and lifestyles.  They created new jigsaw pieces without any reference to the puzzle, then they forced these pieces into the frame at any cost, because they have no comprehension of the big picture whatsoever. Until we recognize that solution space must be defined by the context of the biosphere, we will never achieve a sustainable outcome. 

So what is the answer?  How do we feed an increasing number of people without risking everything? The bottom line is the provision of adequate nutrition using a sustainable approach.  I suggest this will require two things: moving away from a western-northern model and recognizing our ecological context.

Moving away from a western model

The western-northern model of intensive, industrial agriculture, designed to meet a meat-rich, increasingly obese, increasingly unhealthy set of consumers, has failed and is exporting its problems to southern and eastern regions, as “developing” nations adopt our “developed” lifestyles, and the agricultural approaches that underpin these lifestyles.  Increases in red meat consumption, animal fat, salt and sugar are contributing to a staggering rise in such conditions as hypertension and type II diabetes in these areas, which, previously, had a very small incidence.

Indeed, the very idea that our western situation represents something that a nation should desire to develop towards strikes me as unfortunate.  Sustainable development, if such a concept exists at all, will not be achieved with Europe and North America as its role models.  And our agricultural model lies at the heart of many of these problems, both in terms of supply and demand.  While profit and power are seated at the heart of the agribusiness, any pretence of doing what is right for the human and the Biosphere will remain exactly that. For what is right for the human must work within the biosphere. Integration, not isolation, is the message here. 

Source and Sink Solution Space (S4)

The impacts that agriculture have upon the planet can be grouped under two headings: source and sink. These two sets of challenges can be used to help us develop a new agriculture that is more sustainable.  

Source issues: the takers

Source aspects include land use, fertilizer manufacture and application, monocultures, soil erosion, genetic modification, water use and pesticide use.  Solutions from the bubbleworld of Enlightenment thinking include increasing the production area, increasing the intensity of intercession, increasing the productive efficiency and genetically modifying plants against drought, pests, herbicides and nutrient deficiency.  Remember those sun coffee plants?  They produce four times more coffee. That’s all the industrial agriculturalists want to here.  They lead to the large scale destruction of rainforests, but who cares? Just as beating your slave to force him to work harder was once an acceptable practice in the British and other Empires, so trashing the planet for a profitable cup of coffee is just fine.

The ecological approach targets the reduction of the impact of agriculture on the environment as a key driver.  This means a reduction in the intensity: less fertilizers, less pesticides, less area, less monocultures and less water use.  It means reconnection our diet with our ecology.  Natural ecosystems have very tight cycles that do not permit leakage of material.  And agriculture can become more ecological, and thus sustainable, by a few simple techniques.

 Agroforestry combines trees with crops.  A tree species such as Grevillia robusta (the silky oak) grows quickly, frees up phosphorus and prevents soil erosion, while also providing wood for construction and fire.  Phosphorus is an extremely limiting nutrient and must be bought at ever-increasing prices due to diminishing availability.

Intercropping with legumes is a second approach. Here, plants such as soybean are planted in rows between maize, providing nitrogen (which the soybean takes from the air through bacteria living in their roots).  There is no need to use the extremely damaging Haber-Bosch process nor to construct genetically modified crops, with all the inherent disadvantages, when nature already supplies nitrogen-rich plants.  Maintaining hedgerows allows many insects, small mammals and birds to thrive which can control the pests that pesticides are used for.  Meanwhile, partial shade from trees and intercropped legumes reduces evaporation of water from bare soil, and heavy rain damage following harvesting, thus further stabilizing it.

 We shouldn’t be surprised that natural systems work better than man-made systems. After all, they have been tried and tested for hundreds of millions of years, and have recovered from almost complete decimation following numerous mass extinction events without the assistance of the UN, the World Bank or the European Union. Reflecting on this makes a mockery of the Marquis of Condorcet’s statement, that “nature has fixed no limits to our hopes”.  This great Enlightenment dictum sadly marks the point at which we really took a wrong turn.  Rather, our salvation lies in the recognition that unless we work within nature, we have no hope.

Sink issues: restoring our sovereignty

As sinks, we are the market for the agribusiness, and so we are important players.  Our behaviour can be market-driven or ecologically driven, trend-following or trend-setting, holistic or reductionist. The choice is, ultimately, ours.  No-one is force-feeding us and any human population is ultimately made up of individuals.  We also have votes, and thus have input into a democratic political process.  So we can influence the decision-makers and industrial providers. 

However if we are not pro-active, then we lose our authority, and become swept along in the river of apathy, contributing to the greed and devastation that mark the relentless current of selfishness, both at an individual and species level.  It is for us to claim our sovereignty.

 As users we are also responsible for much of the waste of so much food.  From field to plate, we waste between 40-50% of the food that we produce.  Can you imagine being able to reduce the surface area used by agriculture by 40-50% percent? Starvation could be alleviated by merely reducing waste.  No need for expensive and questionable genetic modification.  No call for increased intensification of agriculture. A simple matter of being willing to eat more ugly vegetables and shop and cook more responsibly could make a huge difference.  A move towards eating less red meat would also have a dramatic effect.  If we halved our red meat intake, that 80% of the Amazon rainforest that has been destroyed could be reduced to 40%.  That would be 100000 square miles of rainforest.

Of course, it isn’t just what each of the seven billion human sinks eat, but also the number of sinks out there.  Population control will have an impact.  For the number of people on the planet at present is artificially inflated and unsustainable, not only in terms of food, but also because our ecological footprints extend into many other destructive processes, such as manufacturing and energy use.

Finally, for the sake of our own species, we need to radically re-assess our dietary intake.  The western, northern nations have been wallowing in a soup of damaging fats, salts and carbohydrates for a century or more, and now the eastern, southern nations are on a path towards this status.  The ill-health that dominates the “developed” world is hitching a ride on the globalization bus, as we export our self-induced problems to the rest of the world, wrapped up in a greasy burger and chips (with plenty of salt).

The good life: cultural and geographic contexts

Bon vivir (literally the good life or cpllective well being) is an exciting set of policies that are now central to a number of South American governments (http://www.desenredando.org/public/varios/2011/Walsh_Development_as_Buen_Vivir.pdf).  This approach puts the environment first and relies on indigenous knowledge combined with habitat-specific approaches.  It stresses pluralism rather than globalization, where the diversity of human culture is celebrated within a pluriverse.  Here lots of different approaches, each tailored to the cultural and geographic landscapes of the country involved, co-exist.  These are land-based solutions utilizing knowledge and plants from these areas, and thus not requiring any transformation of landscape.  Both culture and landscape are respected, rather than demeaned and displaced.  This is the world of post-development, moving away from westernization as a solution.

What price destruction?

In the 1960s, food consisted of 30% of the family budget.  Today, it totals only 15%.  Surely this reflects a diminishing respect for the costs of food production.  It is cheap to destroy the planet, so it can’t really be worth anything anyway.  Furthermore, farmers are receiving a reduced percentage of the money we spend on food, because of the middlemen, be they abattoirs or supermarkets.  Thus farmers are also forced to use cheap production methods, prohibiting more expensive environmentally-friendly processes.  Caring for the environment is a luxury on such tight margins, even with subsidies. 

We need a restructuring and re-evaluation of food supply.  We should be forced to pay more for food, bringing back the 30% level.  Indeed by doing this, it would prevent us wasting the saved money on further environmental damage in terms of luxury goods.  This increase in price should feed back to the farmers, who should then be directed to use more expensive approaches to reduce their ecological footprints.  Certain food items, such as red meat and fish, should have a higher tariff to reflect the greater impact of their production.  These measures would have a significant bearing upon our planet, and would provide greater accountability, by equating price with damage.

The rebellious steering column and the importance of sub-optimality

The thing about being part of a bigger picture is that our identity must include this picture.  In other words, we are not only living on a planet with lots of other things, but at the ecosystem level, our reference point for who we are includes these other things.  Ecosystems cannot be separated into isolated pockets.  Rather they operate as one, and their components are part of the whole. 

I often picture the ecosystem as a car.  Humans are parts of this car.  Let’s consider ourselves as the steering column, which connects the steering wheel to the steering system.  From our point of view, our existence is made less comfortable by two things: the steering wheel and the steering system.  These attach to us at either end, and continually place demands on us.  The steering wheel keeps turning, left and right, then left again, placing strain on us.  At the other end, we must force the steering system left, then right, the left again, which again is tiring work. 

If we could just detach ourselves from these two onerous duties, neither of which has any real meaning to us, we could be left alone to enjoy being a steering column.  After all, our identity is within ourselves, and these annoying constraints are damaging our ability to live comfortably and enjoy life.  Instead we risk becoming damaged, suffering injury, and maybe even breaking in two.  So the day we decide to uncouple ourselves from the steering wheel and the steering system felt like a day of true enlightenment.  As the Marquis may have put it, “the car has fixed no limits to our hopes”.  And, to begin with, it was true.  No more rotational forces (torque) and no more compression forces from the potholed highways.

The curve at the bottom of the road, that final day, came quickly. Pressure on the brake pedal was amplified by the booster, which then linked to the master cylinder, from where brake fluid was pushed through the brake lines, pressing the brake pads and drums against the wheel disk.  The car slowed beautifully, all of the components working together. Of course the brake pads wear down a little every time, but still play their role.

Meanwhile, as the brake pedal is pressed, the brake switch connects an electrical circuit that allows electricity to flow through bulbs at the back of the car, heating the filament to around 2000 degrees centigrade, and warning other vehicles behind.

And now it is time to turn the steering wheel.  The vehicle has slowed, the brake lights have switched on, everything is working perfectly together in a system that has evolved within the laws of physics and chemistry, to function as a part of the greater machine. But something is terribly wrong. 

The wheel has no effect on the steering. The steering column has isolated itself from the rest of the system. There’s nothing the vehicle can do – it has been compromised by one structure ignoring its context, for its own selfish interests, no longer in conversation with the rest of the vehicle.

The final plummet off the road, through the safety barrier, briefly in flight before crashing, exploding, burning, smouldering, cooling, lying twisted, destroyed, incapable of anything, happened almost in slow motion. The steering column initially felt the giddy weightless feeling and enjoyed the good life, stress-free and chilled in isolation. 

Then, suddenly, the jarring collision with the rocks crushed the column’s surroundings.  Fire spread through, and the steering column vented its anger at the rest of the vehicle, yelling and blaming and cursing nature. Too late, the column offered to reconnect itself to the other components of the steering system, for there is no longer any possibility to continue the journey.

Two lessons emerge from this analogy. Firstly, our activities cannot be optimized at our level of existence alone.  Compromise and pain must be part of our existence, because we are part of not only our own level, but of a much greater system.  Sustainability for the human race equates to stability for the Biosphere, and thus all of our activities and actions must be integrated within the functioning of our living planet.  Thus our solutions should be suboptimal in terms of our species. 

It is as if we were sitting on a multi-armed see-saw (see below!), where we must position ourselves within the overall system in order to achieve balance. So there is no point in optimizing agriculture, in order to produce as much food as possible and to feed as many of us as possible, if this activity leads to  the destruction of the ecosytem services upon which we depend.  If the squirrel ate all the acorns there would be no future woodland nor would there be any future squirrels, while if the fox ate all the rabbits, there would be no rabbits left and no foxes. Instead populations listen to their context, with decreases in fox numbers when rabbit numbers decline. We need to listen to nature and reduce, not increase our exploitation.

 

 

 

The second lesson is more fundamental.  The detachment that the Enlightenment has instilled in us must be challenged.  Our acceptance of our own superiority and intelligence (the self-styled Homo sapiens sapiens) combined with the disregard for natural systems, has placed us in an isolated state, just like the rebellious steering column, and in denial of the very Biosphere that holds the secrets of sustainable living within it.

The Enlightment is a call to arms against nature as much as it is against church and state. Indeed, the fruits of the Enlightenment have been more devastating to nature than they have upon either church or state.  The path to utopia is paved with the crushed corpses of our wild animals and the smouldering stumps of our forests. The blood of the Biosphere is upon the hands of Enlightment philosophy.  It is this philosophy of the modern world, as much a part of agriculture as of all of the other industrial crutches that our modern, western, northern world reclines upon, that must be challenged.  Having done that, the answers are around us and within us, the indigenous knowledge of the Bon Vivir movement, combined with the re-integration of our decision making within the biosphere. 

And as the thinkers and donors and  doers continue to discuss how to solve starvation, I trust that they will think a little deeper, and reflect on the philosophical basis upon which their decision making is built.  The message I wish to leave you is this: reduction not intensity, diversity not globalization, reintegration not isolation and sub-optimality not optimality.

Next month, I’ll discuss the abuse of energy.

  1. Van der Werf, G. R. et alNature Geosci. 2, 737–738 (2009).
  2. Non-peatland wetlands produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, which balances the carbon stored, but peatlands are net storers of carbon.
  3. Smil, V. (2001) Enriching the Earth. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., USA.
  4. http://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/monsanto-wins-lawsuit-against-indiana-soybean-farmer
  5. Bagla, P. (2010) Hardy Cotton-Munching Pests Are Latest Blow to GM Crops. Science 327 (5972): 1439–1439.

 

 



Citisphere: Ecosystem Lost and Found

A powerpoint presentation exploring how cities can return to the Biosphere

By Dr Keith Skene 



It's not Carbon, Stupid

Why Carbon isn't the greatest threat to Global Sustainability

In a challenging article recently published in Contemporary Review,  Dr Keith Skene argues that we are in danger of missing the boat by pursuing carbon as the biggest threat to humankind.  Instead, he points to a different set of threats that clearly form the need for a much more urgent response.  Read his thoughts here.




A diffusion-based model of evolution: Why natural selection doesn't lead to evolution.

Natural selection as a concept, stemmed from a combination of Thomas Malthus’ work on population dynamics, and the consequences of this on survival.  Darwin argued that as competitive pressure increased, only the best fitted to conditions would survive (hence the term Survival of the fittest, coined by Herbert Spencer).  As a result, there would be a selection of these individuals over others less suited to the conditions. 

This, Darwin argued, would produce changes in populations, leading to evolution.  We would expect, therefore, that natural selection would act most strongly under conditions of increased competition.  Does the evidence agree with this?  Let’s take two examples: the fossil record over the last 400 million years, and the Galapagos tanagers (wrongly called finches).

Over the last 400 million years a number of mass extinctions have occurred.  The rate of diversification (measured by evolution of new species, itself a questionable unit) is greatest just after these cataclysmic events, then slows down afterwards.  The fastest rate occurs when competition is lowest, and slows as competition increases.  This is the opposite to what we would expect if natural selection was the basis of evolution. 

The Galapagos tanagers are thought to have been blown to the Galapagos Islands from mainland South America some 2-3 million years ago, and microsatellite DNA evidence points to them evolving from one species from Ecuador.  It is thought that around thirty of this species were blown, in a huge storm across to the islands in a single event. The isolation was important to allow successive generations to separate from the original population.

They arrived on an island with no competition – the only finches in the village!  Then they evolved.  Selective pressure was lower than on the mainland, due to the absence of many species of birds present on the mainland, so evolution occurred at low levels of selection on the Galapagos islands, not high levels.  If selective pressure had been high, then surely there would have been a reduction in variation, not an expansion.

More and more evidence has been found that evolution decreases with increasing competition, the opposite to what we would expect.  So can we conclude that natural selection actually reduces evolution rather than facilitating it?  Consider the impact of selection – it reduces variation, by rejecting a number of forms and selecting only a few.  With loss of variation over time, diversity will decrease.

Thus natural selection reduces genetic variation and diversity, rather than increasing these fundamental evolutionary characteristics.  Both the fossil evidence, with diversification gradually slowing after a mass extinction, as competition, and, therefore, selective pressure, increased, and the diversification of the tanagers, only after escaping the mainland to a low-competition archipelago, support this.

 The bottom line is that selection always leads to a reduction in variation. In fact I would define selection as any process that decreases variation.  As a result, natural selection cannot be a driver of diversification.  It is the opposite to this.  As competition increases, only a small subset of the original variation can survive, and thus we get a reduction in the variation of the species. 

It is only when life is released from such pressure, after a mass extinction, or upon colonization of an island, that we see diversification.  Diversification is the process of diffusion into free energetic space, driven by the second law of thermodynamics. 

Natural selection acts to restrain this diffusive process, gradually leading to equilibrium, as evolution grinds to a halt.  So Darwin's theory is actually one of non-evolution, rather than evolution.  It is thermodynamic diffusion that explains what we see inthe fossil record and on islands, not selection.  Diffusion leads to diversity, not selection, and this has important implications for economics, cultural diversity, racial tolerance, conservation and sustainability.

Just think about it for a moment.  If diffusion rather than selection is key, then removing competition will enhance stability, function and diversification.  It is no longer about the fit, but the diverse.  Judgement upon unfit or less fit disappears, and instead is replaced by a celebration of everything as an outworking of the dance between matter and thermodynamics.  No-one is "ugly" or "disabled", "unfit" or "weak", but rather all of us are wonderful expressions of universal laws, part of the fascinating expression of a cosmos whose essence is energetic, where function , not form is essence, and where all are validated by their existence. It is no longer about the selection and survival of the fittest, but about the diffusive exploration of energetic space.