This is the third part of a three part article. See Preamble to a Hypothesis: Part 1, and Part 2. View/Download the complete document in PDF.
On the Extinction of Species
Finding Sustainability in the Patterns of Life and Death
Fouad M. Khan, MS
From Page 150 of Katrina Nights
(The time had come. I was back in front of the thesis committee.)
“There’s a fundamental assumption here, and that assumption is growth; unfettered, unstoppable, unchanging, perennially beneficial growth. We always start off with the unarticulated premise that bacteria populations will keep on increasing exponentially, somehow effortlessly switching from one food source to another without taking a hit to their growth rate. And that that’s somehow good too, that that’s the ideal situation. Well, maybe it isn’t.”
“Why does some life survive and other dies off?”
I said in the dark of Engineering Hall N-102, the projector casting a design on my face and torso as I blocked its rays from reaching the screen behind me. The rays formed a chart showing graphs for various species’ populations. The time scale on the graphs had been muted so that the humps could all almost coincide. The graphs seemed similar, all starting off with a low or no population then with the passage of time rising up to a peak and then tapering off to close to nothingness again. Many of the graphs were exponential curves, which basically meant that the population rise for those species happened very fast, so fast that with respect to time, the rise in population could only be plotted as an exponential function, for every unit change in time the population increased by some power of itself; if time changed from one to two, the population did not just go from three to four or six but from three to something like nine, three raised by three; exponential growth.
“If we study the microorganism population growth patterns we see that the rise in population for different microorganisms obeys pretty much the same pattern.” I continued. “In the beginning there’s moderate to no growth as the bacteria population adapts to its environment. This is called the lag phase. As soon as a certain level of adaptation is achieved, the bacteria population starts to rise exponentially; the exponential growth phase.”
I let a couple of seconds slide by quietly.
“In my research I found out that this population growth pattern is not unique to bacteria, but is a property of life itself and can be explained and quantified using two simple parameters related to the species’ biology and the internal energy of the host system.” I completed my sentence and stood there silent, letting the gravity of what I’d just said set in, I half expected to be interrupted right about now, by questions about the utility of my research or the testability of my theory, about my very qualifications to be exploring this avenue of thought, about all the factors that separated philosophy from science.
There was pin drop silence in the room, not a question was raised. The committee was waiting for me to continue with intense expressions on their face.
“In order to establish the definition of these parameters, that is to identify them and to find their range of values, I needed to map a sample of all living beings and their population growth patterns.
“Size. Physical. Size, is a factor that can be measured across a variety of all life and can be considered uniform for any one type of species. If we needed to study a phenomenon that was a property of all life, we simply needed to study it across all different sizes of living species.
“I categorized all living beings on the basis of their median size starting from the smallest microorganisms and right up to the largest dinosaurs. On the basis of this classification I split living species into bands of different size scales.”
At this point I showed my pyramid of animal size distribution with dinosaurs at the top and single cellular Amoeba in the bottom. I explained how I could only raise and kill bacteria populations in the lab so I identified various bacteria of different sizes and nurtured their populations and killed them. Then I explained how I’d obtained the population data of some other species from literature, especially those which had already entered death phase, had already become extinct or were just about to, even if in a localized sphere. There was data for the Argentinian Red Bellied Opposum, data for certain species of Bandicoot from Southern Australia, the emperor rat from Solomon Islands, the Japanese Pippisterelle and Sea Loin, and rich, rich population data from Russian forests protected since the time of Czar.
One by one I showed all the graphs, starting from the smallest species to the largest. The graphs all had a similar sort of shape, the stable rise, the exponential hump, the stationary phase and the death phase. Some populations did not seem to have an exponential growth phase and just trundled about at a constant number since time immemorial.
“So why does some life survive and other dies off? Why do some species’ populations rise exponentially while other’s tapers off? Why do all populations that rise exponentially eventually come down? Why does bacteria population shoot up if we put organic food in a Petri dish but dies off if we put hydrochloric acid in it? I believe the answer can be explained in terms of two overarching variables for all living things.” I paused a moment for effect.
“The change in population of a species depends on the ‘Adaptability’ of the species. ‘Adaptability’ can be defined as the ability of the species’ population to cope with the ‘Rate of Change of Entropy’ of its host system. Think of it this way, when I add one liter of hydrochloric acid to my tank of bacteria, or heat my Petri dish to two hundred degree centigrade, the population immediately dies off, the change in entropy of the system is too fast, the RATE OF CHANGE OF ENTROPY is too high, the populations can’t cope with it. But if I keep adding the same hydrochloric one drop at a time over a period of sixty days, the bacteria survive, they adapt, their adaptive capacity is capable of handling this rate of change of entropy. (And, if the change in temperature is slow enough, there are bacteria that can live in environments up to 350 degrees centigrade.)
“In other words, give the process of evolution, nothing is poisonous per se for bacteria or any other living population, it is the speed at which that pollutant is added to the host system that makes the pollutant poisonous. Ditto for change in the other environmental conditions.” At this point I showed the committee the graphs of all of my experiments with bacteria being killed off at varying speeds through addition of acids or temperature changes.
“Now, the curious case of the exponential growth curve. The exponential growth curve is stuck upon because the bacteria have suddenly discovered a higher system. In other words when I introduce benzene in my tank of bacteria population, I am introducing an additional resource to the system. When bacteria discover this concentration of benzene and discover how to consume it, they’ve essentially jumped from their lower system of no benzene to a higher system which contains benzene in it. The higher system is more expansive and has a better capacity to absorb entropy. So the sudden change in entropy caused by sudden microorganism population rise does not have an effect on the RATE OF CHANGE OF ENTROPY, though it does add a bit to the entropy of the system. We must understand that the inherent rate of change of entropy is a primary characteristic of a system and once that is changed, the system definition is fundamentally altered, leaving the system either adaptable or inadaptable for a habiting living species population. The ‘adaptability’ of the species must now be measured against the new rate of change of entropy.
“But what happens when a species discovers a higher system and hits an exponential growth curve. I believe that there are fundamental behavioral alterations at the individual species level which reflect in the change of rate of population growth. Something in the species’ very genetic makeup, some evolutionary trigger is pushed which reduces the species to an all consuming, all reproducing machine. Some switch which previously moderated the species consumption of resources is turned off… for good. I found out that for bacteria, the consumption footprint of hydrocarbons increased between three to five folds as the population hit the exponential growth curve. The bacteria started eating and reproducing like maniacs. They ate so much and so fast, they ate themselves into oblivion.” I took a pause and drank a sip of water.
“You see with the exponential growth curve, the entropic footprint of the species also increases very rapidly. Initially the bacteria or the species is just another part of the system, contributing its set share to the overall rate of change of entropy of the system. Adding to entropy but not enough to affect the Rate of change; at this point the species population exists in harmony with the system. When a higher system is discovered such as through addition of benzene to the tank, there’s now room for bacteria to consume more and grow without affecting the already altered rate of change of entropy of the system positively, so the bacteria grow exponentially. But if the exponential growth continues soon a point arrives where the entropic footprint of the species is so high that it is higher than the entropic footprint of all the other components of the system put together. At this point the species starts to add to the rate of change of entropy of the system itself.
“Now if we recall, we’d defined the adaptability of the system as nothing more than its populations’ ability to cope with the rate of change of entropy of the system. When a species starts to add to the very rate of change of entropy of its host system and enters what I have decided to call hyperentropic growth phase, it has essentially started to make its host system uninhabitable and inadaptable for itself. It has essentially started to commit mass suicide.” I paused. There was silence in the room so still; I thought I could hear my heartbeat.
“The system becoming uninhabitable for the species is from there, only a matter of time. Once the rate of change of entropy of the system has risen too high for the species’ population to adapt to, basically due to the species own insatiable appetite, the population enters the death phase, after a very pointed peak or stationary phase. The more obtuse the rise in population, the faster the exponential growth, the smaller the length of stationary phase… . Stationary phase, a point in which the population exists in balance with the system’s hosting capabilities, is the opposite of the hyperentropic, exponential growth pattern. Species that go on exponential growth sprees do not stay in the stationary phase for long. In the stationary phase though their population has stabilized already due to high death rates, the entropic footprint of the average single species keeps on increasing because its evolutionary consume-trigger has now been switched on. It cannot stop eating.
“The population stabilizes because of a rising death rate. The death rate is high because the rising rate of change of entropy of the system is making it uninhabitable in myriad ways, maybe there isn’t enough benzene left anymore, may be the temperature of the soil is rising due to too many bacteria farts, maybe there simply isn’t enough space for all bacteria, whatever the physical manifestation, the deaths increase. But the living bacteria keep on eating like its 1999. So the death rate keeps on increasing so that the overall population now enters the death phase. The population is now suffering a decline as steep as the rise in population earlier through the exponential growth phase.
But the surviving bacteria still don’t learn. Their individual entropic footprint keeps on rising, maintaining the overall entropic footprint of tile population, making the rate of change of entropy more and more uninhabitable for the population, until the overall population falls below the critical mass for future population rise. Extinction is now imminent and inescapable.
“I put forward the thesis that hyperentropic growth arising from exponential rise in population is irreversible. Hyperentropic growth by definition is unsustainable because it renders the very host system uninhabitable and inadaptable to the habiting species. In other words, any species which had the misfortune of stumbling upon exponential growth must eventually die off. All my experiments support this. None of the data from literature contradicts this hypothesis.”
I showed once again my graphs and data and explained them in detail. When I was done, there was absolute silence in the room. Perhaps no one was sure how to react to my thesis. Juan sat there quietly but with not a hint of worry on his face. He’d predicted this reaction to me.
“Fouad…” Dr. Cliff spoke up hesitantly. “Can we roll back to your population rise graphs for species of different sizes?”
“Sure.” I said and started going back in slides.
“There was a graph for human population…” Cliff said. I clicked back through the presentation and stopped at the human population graph.
“Are you saying your theory is applicable on all living things including humans?”
“Yes… Dr. Cliff. That’s what I feel I have the evidence for.”
“That… looks like an exponential growth curve to me.”
“Yes it is.” I said.
A nervous chuckle escaped Cliff, he asked. “Fouad … are you saying that … we are all gonna die?” He’d verbalized my conclusion but the absurdity of the premise made him laugh even as he finished his question.
I took a deep breath in. “Yes … Dr Cliff, that’s the implication I believe. This is beyond the scope of my thesis but I think we discovered a higher system when we discovered fossil fuel as an industrial resource, a source of cheap energy. Hydrocarbons were our dope, curiously not unlike those of the bacteria I grow in lab. We hit exponential growth curve when we found oil. I believe human beings entered the hyperentropic growth phase somewhere in the mid to early nineteen hundreds. We started affecting the entropy of our host system, earth in a big way around that time making it essentially inhospitable for us. I believe global warming is one of the physical manifestations of the growing inadaptability of our host system for us.”
“… upright position and fasten your seatbelt.” I catch just the last words of the announcement as I wake up from the deep slumber I’d sunk in the moment I’d got into my seat on flight A169 from Houston to Chicago. The plane is caught in a pocket of turbulence. From Chicago I am going to catch the connecting flight to Dubai and then the one back to Pakistan.
I failed to get my PhD. … But I don’t feel sad. I don’t feel happy either. I am not numb too. I am just thinking about my father and mother, the two happiest people in the world without doubt right now. Thinking of their happiness fills me with a sense of profound satisfaction.
As the turbulence shakes the calm off the faces of those around me, I close my eyes and lay back. I am sure others would be noticing the smile on my face with curiosity. It must seem insane to them. But they don’t know, I am a bacterium that has been freed from the endless cycle of unsatisfying growth.
Who gives a fuck about the PhD.
Fouad M. Khan now lives in Karachi, Pakistan. He was awarded a Masters of Science in Environmental Engineering by the University of Houston in 2007. He granted me permission to excerpt and publish these 28 pages separately from his 176-page book, Katrina Nights.
In Fouad’s own words, “I’d be happy to have you spread it as far and wide as the wind blows.”
You can read more about Fouad and find contact information at his website for Environmental Engineering Consulting. He also maintains a separate personal website for his book Katrina Nights, which can also be purchased at Amazon. You can also View/Download the complete document in PDF.