Thought Piece by Richard Register, President, Ecocity Builders

Ecology and evolution are the same thing!

I don’t mean this figuratively but literally. Recently I was noticing that though evolution happens so slowly that we can’t often see the changes or have to have exhaustive, expensive studies to prove something is happening with mutations in time spans most of us are used to. Nonetheless we can notice that mutations are in fact happening. Most are detrimental but occasionally one is beneficial. The dynamics are pretty well proved. Looking at the constant interaction of living creatures and cosmic rays and other disturbances chemical and ridiological we now can see that these can change our DNA in tiny but profound ways. And so we know as we go about our dance of selection in Darwinian ways, we humans are evolving. Plus, with the discovery after Darwin was long gone, of what mechanism actually causes the “natural selection” he and Alfred Russell Wallace identified – the mutations just mentioned – we have a mechanism now well studied.

But the pace of evolution is so slow it seems to be something quite different from ecology, ecology being the interaction of individual organisms with others of the same species and other species and with the total environment. In a recent writing in these electronic pages I celebrated Lynn Margulis’ contribution to evolution too. She essentially pushed evolution thinking back from 500 million years ago from what’s called the Cambrian Explosion to 3,000 million years ago by suggesting that things – ironically since she revealed mechanisms spanning yet greater sweeps of time – sped up with the appearance of the more complex eukaryotic cells from the much simpler prokaryotic cells deep in evolutionary time. (That’s what the Cambrian Explosion was all about – the period early in the Cambrian geologic period when around 540 million years ago multi-cellular life relatively rapidly appeared and diversified enormously.)

Her mechanism was the invasion of larger simple cells (prokaryotes) by smaller bacteria that were initially no doubt predators looking for food, but that penetrated into the larger cells, but didn’t kill them, and became something like parasites – but not really. Because the invader and host discovered that they had different characteristics that complemented one another and made possible the evolving more complex cells (eukaryotes) that now make up the bodies of us extremely complex multi-cellular organisms. The notion became known as endosymbiosis and amounts to the cooperative/symbiotic functioning of evolution to match and balance the competitive element of evolution, selection of the fittest, of Darwin and Wallace.

Now looking at the dynamics involved we notice an enormous difference in the time scale between what we see in the ecological processes around us, and as plants and animals interact with each other, the soil, rainfall and so on. But is anything going on in this system as we look at it in say a human generation different in principle than what goes on in all evolution?

I won’t try to trace what exactly, other than mutations always having worked for selection of the fittest and endosymbiosis always having worked to create that which was either selected or not, is in fact the same in both ecology and evolution. But I’ll suggest something I think is interesting. And that is: of course they look radically different even if they are the same thing and have (or has) been around in this solar system for somewhere between 3 and 4 billion years. They look different because we look with time scales we live in at ecology, and we look at evolution over time scales hard to grasp that seem very abstract in comparison – but if real, the goings on of evolution definitely are not abstract at all any more than ecology is, but of the substance of the universe, mater and energy through time and space.

The life time of a forest after a thorough-going forest fire, call it a generation, we can say is from regeneration with the first grasses, flowers and bushes coming back as tree seeds and stumps start to sprout until the forest reaches its much more stable “climax” condition of full maturity. At that point old trees are dying out at a stead rate and new trees growing vigorous and happily to replace the old relatively steadily. The forest can stay in that state a while, burn again or get swept away in small patches by landslides or floods. But call that around 250 years as a very rough average. Then think of the time it takes for two new species to diverge from one enough that the two lines can no longer mate and thus remain separate species into the future which we might think of as evolutionary time. That’s more like 2.5 million years, thought different for different organisms. 2.5 million in any case has a certain symmetry for our comparison here because you compare the two – forest time which most of us can conevie of as ecological time, and time to evolve a new species – and you can see why it is so hard to see that ecology and evolution are the same thing. The rate of speciation is about 10,000 times slower than a forest would experience in “growing up” to maturity. Now imagine a human generation, time enough for human individuals to grow up and its often regarded to be about 25 years, the time when the next generation is in the middle of its reproduction phase. That slice of time is 1/100,000th as long as the time it takes Darwin’s and Wallace’s mutations (thought they didn’t know about mutations) and Margulis’ continuing inside cells dynamics to split off new species.

I haven’t figured out that convincingly what this might imply for ecocities yet or how it might inform many other practical issue in our lives but it is quite intriguing. One thing it might imply would be of interest in the anti-evolution vs. evolution debate since so many people accept that ecological processes we can see before our eyes are real; even “creationists” can see and often acknowledge the patterns of ecological dynamics. But if they are the same thing as evolution, just seen in exceedingly different time frames, then the creationists would have to abandon either creationism or ecology, and for ecology there is real time evidence of how it works and that if it doesn’t, neither can life go on.

One thing it may imply for ecocities: I’ve taken models from nature seriously forever, in regard to cities. (Well, for 45 years anyway.) I’ve seen that compact, three-dimensional arrangements make not just living organisms of complexity possible but also make cities efficient and, as Paolo Soleri says, lean: able to accomplish a lot with little expenditure of matter and energy. Very good, and a lesson from evolution, in that it just happens to evolve that way. So I have sometimes thought that ecocities might better be called evocities instead of ecocities. Or ecoevocities, or evoecocities. Gets messy in a way.

But the thing itself, the grand phenomenon of the universe changing through time you might call it… might you call it ecolution?

Richard Register is founder and president of Ecocity Builders and can be reached at

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