Life Finds a Way
In the movie Jurassic Park (1993), Dr. Ian Malcolm, the malcontent chaos theorist reacts to unexpected dinosaur reproduction with a very simple yet profound truth when he says “Life…finds a way.” Similarly Malcolm warns John Hammond, the creator of the dinosaur theme park: “Don't you see the danger, John, inherent in what you're doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet's ever witnessed, yet you wield it like a kid that's found his dad's gun.”
As a human race, we are wielding this powerful gun in many ways. Genetically modified crops and livestock are the product of us tinkering with DNA not unlike John Hammond does in the movie. Many of the issues we don’t think of as genetic likewise tap into the “most awesome force the planet’s ever witnessed.”
Take invasive species and genetic change, for example...I began working on a paper* on what I thought was a typical European weed, only to discover the three species had become five species after two new species were formed in North America as the European species hybridized on North American soil – right here in the Pacific Northwest. This is the Tragopogon complex, with hybrids formed from the two yellow species (e.g. Tragopogon dubius below) and the purple species (Tragopogon porrifolius also pictured below). The hybrids are actually more vigorous than their parents in some ways. Life finds a way…
Also think about climate change and genetic change…With colleagues at Cornell University, I am currently working on a review paper exploring the genetic potential of invasive weeds to go beyond their current climate tolerance range through genetic evolution. We are reviewing many cases where these weeds are jumping boundaries through changing their way of growing, reproducing and causing headaches for farmers. Like the out-of-control dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, are we setting ourselves up for disaster by modifying the climate and allowing weeds to run amuck? What were we thinking when we picked up Dad’s gun? Can we manage to keep the weeds in the narrow boxes we have labelled them in, or will life find another way?
Why do we underestimate nature? Perhaps it is our own proclivity for comfort. We do not realize the degree to which nature can weather the refining fires of environmental extremes that make us cringe and take refuge in our various artifices. We underestimate the power of almighty God imbuing organisms with the ability to stand up to extremes and to evolve to embrace them. Exploring a recent fire zone on Salt Spring Island a few weeks ago, I had an inkling that nature had found a way to survive the fire. Sure enough, as my student Devin Methven further explored the area, he discovered surviving examples of the endangered Propertius duskywing caterpillar still thriving in the Garry oak trees and a vetch plant growing out of the ashes (see pictures below). What can I say? Life finds a way!
* Clements, D.R., M.K. Upadhyaya, and S.J. Bos. 1999. The biology of Canadian weeds 110. Tragopogon dubius Scop., Tragopogon pratensis L., and Tragopogon porrifolius L..Canadian Journal of Plant Science 79: 153-163.