Featured Post

Holobionts: a new Paradigm to Understand the Role of Humankind in the Ecosystem

You are a holobiont, I am a holobiont, we are all holobionts. "Holobiont" means, literally, "whole living creature." It ...

Friday, January 27, 2023

Gaia on the Move: the Rise of the Savanna Monkeys

This text had already been published as an appendix to a longer post on the evolution of forests. It is republished here as a stand-alone post on the role of humans in the evolution of the world's forests (link to the image above)

Primates are arboreal creatures that evolved in the warm environment of the Eocene forests. They used tree branches as a refuge, and they could adapt to various kinds of food. Modern primates do not shy from hunting other species, maybe even ancient primates did the same. From the viewpoint of these ancient primates, the shrinking of the area occupied by tropical forests that started with the "Grande Coupure," some 30 million years ago, was a disaster. They were not equipped to live in savannas: they were slow on the ground: an easy lunch for the powerful predators of the time. Primates also never colonized the northern taiga. Most likely, it was not because they couldn't live in cold environments (some modern monkeys can do that), but because they couldn't cross the "mammoth steppe" that separated the Tropical forests from the Northern forests. If some of them tried, the local carnivores made sure that they didn't succeed. So, "boreal monkeys" do not exist (actually, there is one, shown in the picture, but it is not exactly a monkey!).  

Eventually, monkeys were forced to move into the savanna. During the Pleistocene, about 4 million years ago, the Australopithecines appeared in Africa, (image source). We may call them the first "savanna monkeys." In parallel, perhaps a little later, another kind of savanna monkey, the baboon, also evolved in Africa. In the beginning, australopithecines and baboons were probably practicing similar living techniques, but in time they developed into very different species. The baboons still exist today as a rugged and adaptable species that, however, never developed the special characteristics of australopithecines that turned them into humans. The first creatures that we classify as belonging to the genus Homo, the homo habilis, appeared some 2.8 million years ago. They were also savanna dwellers. 

This branch of savanna monkeys won the game of survival by means of a series of evolutionary innovations. They increased their body size for better defense, they developed an erect stance to have a longer field of view, they super-charged their metabolism by getting rid of their body hair and using profuse sweating for cooling, they developed complex languages to create social groups for defense against predators, and they learned how to make stone tools adaptable to different situations. Finally, they developed a tool that no animal on Earth had mastered before: fire. Over a few hundred thousand years, they spread all over the world from their initial base in a small area of Central Africa. The savanna monkeys, now called "Homo sapiens," were a stunning evolutionary success. The consequences on the ecosystem were enormous.

First, the savanna monkeys exterminated most of the megafauna. The only large mammals that survived the onslaught were those living in Africa, perhaps because they evolved together with the australopithecines and developed specific defense techniques. For instance, the large ears of the African elephant are a cooling system destined to make elephants able to cope with the incredible stamina of human hunters. But in Eurasia, North America, and Australia, the arrival of the newcomers was so fast and so unexpected that most of the large animals were wiped out. 

By eliminating the megaherbivores, the monkeys had, theoretically, given a hand to the competitors of grass, forests, which now had an easier time encroaching on grassland without seeing their saplings trampled. But the savanna monkeys had also taken the role of megaherbivores. They used fires with great efficiency to clear forests to make space for the game they hunted. Later, as they developed metallurgy, the monkeys were able to cut down entire forests to make space for the cultivation of the grass species that they had domesticated meanwhile: wheat, rice, maize, oath, and many others. 

But the savanna monkeys were not necessarily enemies of the forests. In parallel to agriculture, they also managed entire forests as food sources. The story of the chestnut forests of North America is nearly forgotten today but, about one century ago, the forests of the region were largely formed of chestnut trees planted by Native Americans as a source of food (image source). By the start of the 20th century, the chestnut forest was devastated by the "chestnut blight," a fungal disease that came from China. It is said that some 3-4 billion chestnut trees were destroyed and, now, the chestnut forest doesn't exist anymore. The American chestnut forest is not the only example of a forest managed, or even created, by humans. Even the Amazon rainforest, sometimes considered an example of a "natural" forest, shows evidence of having been managed by the Amazonian Natives in the past as a source of food and other products. 

The action of the savanna monkeys was always massive and, in most cases, it ended in disaster. Even the oceans were not safe from the monkeys: they nearly managed to exterminate the baleen whales, turning large areas of the oceans into deserts. On land, entire forests were razed to the ground. Desertification ensued, brought upon by "megadroughts" when the rain cycle was no more controlled by the forests. Even when the monkeys spared a forest, they often turned it into a monoculture, subjected to be destroyed by pests, as the case of the American chestnuts shows. Yet, in a certain sense, the monkeys were making a favor to forests. Despite the huge losses to saws and hatchets, they never succeeded in completely exterminating a tree species, although some are critically endangered nowadays. 

The most important action of the monkeys was their habit of burning sedimented carbon species that had been removed from the ecosphere long before. The monkeys call these carbon species "fossil fuels" and they have been going on an incredible burning bonanza using the energy stored in this ancient carbon without the need of going through the need of the slow and laborious photosynthesis process. In so doing, they raised the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to levels that had not been seen for tens of millions of years before. That was welcome food for the trees, which are now rebounding from their former distressful situation during the Pleistocene, reconquering some of the lands they had lost to grass. In the North of Eurasia, the Taiga is expanding and gradually eliminating the old mammoth steppe. Areas that today are deserts are likely to become green. We are already seeing the trend in the Sahara desert. 

What the savanna monkeys could do was probably a surprise for Gaia herself, who must be now scratching her head and wondering what has happened to her beloved Earth. And what's going to happen, now?  There are several possibilities, including a cataclysmic extinction of most vertebrates, or perhaps all of them. Or, perhaps, a new burst of evolution could replace them with completely new life forms. What we can say is that evolution is turbo-charged in this phase of the existence of planet Earth. Changes will be many and very rapid. Not necessarily pleasant for the existing species but, as always, Gaia knows best. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

Holobionts against Totalitarianism

by Ugo Bardi

I read Jordan Peterson's book "12 rules for life" a few months ago, and I must say that I was not very impressed. I found it nice, but I saw many things that Peterson says as non-controversial, so I wondered why someone should bother to write them in a book. It must be because I live in a relatively different cultural climate. I can understand that it is not the same everywhere in the world. Anyway, the work by Peterson seemed to me not especially original, but never banal. 

Then, a few days ago, I stumbled into this interview by Cathy Newman on the TV station Channel 4 in the UK. Look, a 30 minutes clip usually is way beyond my capability to watch in full. But this one kept me glued to the screen the whole time. Try it yourself. It is an incredible drama playing. The interviewer, Newman, tries all the time to lead Peterson into a trap, to make him admit that he said something that he never said, to confess some unconfessable sin of his. 

I have seen it happen. It has happened to me. We you are questioned so aggressively and continuously, it is all too easy to lose your balance and then the slightest mistake will haunt you forever. But Peterson, here, is truly fantastic. He never loses a step. He never gets angry. He never fails to make his point. I mean, absolutely great. Do spend half an hour listening to this interview because it encapsulates most of what's wrong with our world. And, in particular, how poisonous the dialog can become when it falls into the hands of propaganda professionals (aka journalists). 

Here is an example of the conversation, at 24:35: 

CN. Under Mao, millions of people died, but there's no comparison between Mao and a trans activist. Why not? Because trans activists aren't killing millions of people, 
JP. the philosophy that's guiding their utterances is the same philosophy, the consequences are yet...
CN . You're saying that trans activists know it leads to the deaths of millions of people? 
JP. Well no. I'm saying that the philosophy that drives their utterances is the same philosophy that already has driven us to the deaths of millions.
CN. Okay, tell us how that philosophy is in any way comparable.
JP. Sure that's no problem. The first thing is that their philosophy presumes that group identity is paramount. That's the fundamental philosophy that drove the Soviet Union and Mao's China and it's the fundamental philosophy of the left-wing activists. It's identity politics doesn't matter who you are as an individual it matters who you are in terms of your group identity

You note the not-so-subtle techniques that Cathy Newman uses: "if you say that, then you mean this" -- with "this," for instance, condoning Mao Zedong's mass exterminations. It is usually done mentioning Hitler, but recently he seems to have slipped down the list of the bugaboos of history. In any case, it is a very easy trick, and it works almost all the time. Sometimes it spectacularly backfires, as in this case, but not everyone will understand the game being played.  

Indeed it is so easy to get trapped in the totalitarian vision of the world. This interview took place before the Covid pandemic, but somehow it prefigures it. The aggressive, continuous, obsessive, categorization of all manifestations of non-standard thought as dangerous forms of misinformation was exactly what Peterson was speaking against. No wonder that he is now involved in a sort of witch trial that might lead him to undergo forced re-educational training.  

In the end, I think the whole story is about holobionts. the holobiont philosophy is about recognizing diversity and valuing it. The totalitarian philosophy is to squash diversity and make it disappear. Ecosystems are not made of creatures that are all the same. Ecosystems thrive the more diversity they contain. They may compete, mostly they collaborate. If we lose our holobiont nature, we are doomed forever. 

Friday, January 20, 2023

Reflections on Controlled Burning and Water Management


By our fellow holobiont, Ian Schindler


I had the following to say about Ugo's post on controlled burning: I would like to point out that solutions are not unique. Controlled fires might work, but there are usually other ways to achieve the stated goals. For example David Holmgren lives in Australia, is very sensitive to fire management, and does so without resorting to controlled fires.

Good water management can go a long way to reducing the window of opportunity for fires. Good water management consists of storing water when there is excess rain and slowly letting out the storage when there is no rain.  This regulates the flow of water to the sea so that when it rains the flow is decreased and when it doesn't rain the flow is increased.  As a consequence, the variation of the water content in plants is decreased
decreasing the risk of fires because the plants are rarely dry.

Note that an excellent place to store water is the soil. The soil is the plant gut. A compost pile is a powerful concentration of the plant gut. The greater the biomass of the soil, the greater its water capacity is. A compost pile can absorb 90% of its dry weight in water. The mycelium of fungi maintain soil integrity in the case of high water content.

Note also that the plant holobiont is an excellent water purifier. Most of what we consider pollution in water ways is food for plants once it has been digested by the plant holobiont. This includes animal excrement, petro-chemicals, most pesticides and herbicides, and explosives. It does take time to digest some of this stuff which is why Joseph Jenkins  recommends curing compost for a year before applying it. Outside of a compost pile the digestion will be slower, however sending water throughwetlands with plants purifies water far better than your standard water treatment plant at lower energy costs.


1. Channels for excess water should be on level sets, spreading the water out (avoiding choke points) not down hill.
2.  In cities, it is a grave error to mix greywater with blackwater. Blackwater should be composted, greywater should be used to irrigate plants. This was established by the late Belgian chemist Joseph Országh in the 1990s.  See http://eautarcie.org/ for extensive videos on  designing such systems.

Examples of bad design in Los Angeles (note that according to https://www.greywatercorps.com/ 19% of the electric power used in Los Angeles is dedicated to pumping water, either from some source or in water treatment facilities).

1. The Los Angeles river used to have a floodplain that soaked up excess water and purified it during heavy rain.  The floodplain was drained, buildings were constructed and concrete was poured onto the river bed to "increase flood capacity".  This is of course very poor water management because both water storage and purification has been removed. Today    there are many projects to rectify this poor design non of which go far    enough in my opinion.
2. Our neighbors up the hill (in Los Angeles) have frequent problems with their sewage line. The pipes are very old and leak. Plant roots grow into the sewage line eventually blocking it so that every 6 months city workers come to cut out the roots growing in the pipes. Of course the plants are using much better water management than the people. They are slowing water flow into the ocean and doing some purification. If greywater was used for irrigation, there would be far less water flowingin the pipes and problems would be substantially reduced.
3. In 2022, new homes are required to send the rain water from the roof through a filter before it enters the storm drain to go out to the sea. It is hard to imagine a more ignorant mandate in an arid region. The mandate should be to store the rain water for use in the house.  

An example of good water management, the water wizard of Oregon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuYGS5pLRZg

I have become a big fan of living green roofs. Sun and precipitation wear down roofing material. In addition to protecting roofing material, putting soil for plants on roofs offers water storage and purification. Green roofs insulate from the heat and from the cold if the exterior temperature is below freezing. Living green roofs increase biodiversity by providing space for drought resistant plants and other creatures to thrive.  A few centimeters of soil on the roof should reduce the risk of the house burning as well.
Here is a link to Alan Savory's Ted Talk on holistic management of livestock preventing the need for fires in savannas in Africa:


Ian --


Holobionts are the building blocks of life!

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Rain is Life, and Holobionts Create it


Buying vegetables at a stall in Florence on a rainy day. My wife, Grazia, is the one with the pink umbrella. 

By Ugo Bardi

After three months of drought during the summer, Florence is now drenched in rain. It has been raining for two months and people are complaining that it is too much! But it is how things have to be: I recently discovered that rain is an "autocatalytic" phenomenon. A more humid atmosphere creates more rain, and rain creates a more humid atmosphere. And that creates long periods of static weather -- too little rain and then too much. 

I learned that from the work of Anastassia Makarieva, Mara Baudena, and several others who have studied the relationship between atmospheric humidity and rain. Look at this figure, from a paper by Makarieva et al., to be published.

The y-axis is the amount of rain, in mm/hour. The x-axis is the amount of water vapor in the "air column." Note the strongly non-linear relationship. It is a typical power law: a small increase in atmospheric humidity causes a large change in rainfall. The three red points indicate the boundary of the "abiotic regime" (no rain) and the power law region.  

As I said, it is an autocatalytic phenomenon, Rain tends to generate more rain, at least as long as it wets the land and it generates moisture transpiration, which increases the water vapor content in the atmosphere. This has very practical consequences in many senses. One is the role of forests in weather and climate. Forests generate strong evapotranspiration, that is they pump water from the soil to the atmosphere. And, also, forests tend to keep water in the soil, slowing down the runoff.

So, not only do forests generate rain, but they also tend to maintain the rain pattern. Without forests, and with the land covered with buildings, you have the typical desert climate: dry most of the time, then with short periods of heavy rain. Disasters ensue, now a common pattern in areas such as California or Italy, where deforestation has taken place. 

So, we need our fellow holobionts, the trees. Onward, fellow holobionts!

(below, some rain-loving holobionts pictured together)

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The tragedy of science: we cannot fault the tiger for being the tiger

Vinay Prasad is a young researcher in oncology who recently published the post reproduced below on his blog. It is about how oncology has become a field whose main purpose is mainly to enrich companies and practitioners. The tragedy of these reflections is that they apply just as well to many other fields of science. And it is sad to think that science started as a disinterested search for truth, and then it was turned into an ideological shield for criminal activities. Correctly, Vinay Prasad says that we cannot fault corporations for aiming at profits (we cannot fault the tiger for being the tiger). But we can fault the whole health system built with the purpose of making money instead of helping patients. Vinay Prasad's most recent book (2020) is titled "Malignant". I am reading it. It was already rather dark, but not as pessimistic as his latest post. 

Here are some excerpts from Vinay Prasad's text, you can look at the complete text on his blog:

I started my journey into cancer medicine more than 10 years ago, and it has been joyous and tragic, fulfilling and frustrating, all at once and often on the same day. Recently, I returned from our latest conference, and I had a chance to think about that experience a few days later in the mountains of the Sierra Nevadas. My conclusion is grim.


The tragedy in oncology is that we have dismantled the system that is meant to tell real innovation from pseudo-innovation. Almost no one understands the problem, even few care about fixing it, and instead most hope to fatten themselves of the riches, while the opportunity exists. Meanwhile, we have entirely lost sight of the goal— the purpose of our task. We have forgotten that this is about helping people sick and dying of cancer live long and live better. That goal is lost.

10 years ago, I believed that, as a younger generation swept through, reform would be inevitable. 10 years later, I see how naive I was. For every young person who understands the problem, there are 9 more salivating at the idea of becoming the next key opinion leader, eagerly going to advisory boards or pharma-sponsored dinners. Every young person who speaks out publicly is advised by colleagues or their boss to stop talking. Some are even told not to (or fearful of) retweeting critical content like mine or Aaron Goodman’s.


Academic leaders. This category contains some massive failures. We have ‘leaders': who are pocketing 10s of thousands from Pharma and defending their (failed) products. What am I to think when the company behind Melflufen hires a leading academic to defend a garbage subgroup analysis at the ODAC? What am I to think when university after university enters into financial arrangements with companies? Pushing back on corporatism is impossible, when you are on the payroll.

Journals and professional societies. Many journals block critical commentary. Many organizations sell out their professional conferences to Pharma. These institutions are now so dependent of Pharma largess that they are powerless to say anything. Only a few voices inside these organizations keep them from toppling into complete advertisements.

Junior faculty. The vast majority are busy running uncontrolled trials that will not help anyone (most uncontrolled trials can’t even answer a useful question). Many have joined ad-boards, etc. Some are studying important topics but have nothing novel to add. An abstract on health disparities that shows… health disparities. Except the solution remains unclear, and the authors think all that is needed are more expensive, mediocre drugs. Cookie cutter projects is another weak spot. If you don’t have a novel idea, it’s ok to think for a while— rather than follow the path of least resistance.

Oncology press. A cottage industry of rag publications cover oncology. They are almost entirely funded by pharma or it’s ads, and they have no critical coverage. Even oncology podcasts are upwardly biased. This is not journalism, but advertisement.

The Industry. The group that I have the least quarrel with is pharma itself. We cannot fault the tiger for being the tiger. Instead, it is the aforementioned entities who have let their guard down. The tiger has a moral obligation to make profit. We were the ones who did not incentivize the right things.


How will it end?

Internal reform is not possible. Too many people benefit from the status quo. Reform will come from government regulation— and must come from the USA— that tilts incentives to what matters. I will continue to write, podcast and publish on the flaws of cancer medicine, but going forward, I will spend more time strategizing on political solutions to this problem.

Meanwhile, I won’t forget the goal of oncology: to help people with cancer live as long and as well as possible, using as few drugs as possible, and, pushing for the best evidence to guide those choices. Perhaps we should all have to take that oath.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The Return of the Ents: The Tribe of the Trees

Image by VargasNi

The idea of trees moving and fighting humans is old, it goes back to Shakespeare's Macbeth and the prophecy of the witches

Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.

You find the same idea again in Tolkien's "Trilogy of the Ring," with the creatures called "Ents," which attack the city of the orcs at the battle of Isengard. Both Shakespeare and Tolkien express a similar idea, that at some point too much is too much and nature rebels against human evil with all its force. To the point of seeing trees taking their roots out of the ground, and marching against human cities. 

In modern times, the idea that trees and humans are in conflict is gaining attention. The concept of "biotic regulation of the environment" proposed by Makarieva, Gorshkov, and others, is gaining ground in the world. It basically says that if we destroy the world's forests, we destroy ourselves. Not an easy position to take in a world where forests are considered "natural resources" and where the standard economic theories say that a tree has no monetary value unless it is cut down and sold as wood.

Would "humanizing" trees in fiction help people to have a more gentle attitude toward trees? Maybe, but it is not so clear. Personally, I always found depressing Tolkien's walking trees. Their representation in the 2002 movie "The Two Towers" didn't change my opinion of them. They are clumsy, ugly, and not really believable, not even in a fantasy movie. 

Recently, another take on presenting the world from the viewpoint of trees was tried by Stefano Mancuso, well-known botanist at the University of Florence, and an expert in plant neurobiology. If there is a human being on this planet who can know something about how plants think, he is the one! So, he published a novel titled "the tribe of the trees" (la tribù degli alberi). (so far available only in Italian).

I have mixed feelings about this novel. For one thing, it is a well-written story, nice to read, captivating, and with delightful characters.  The story moves onward smoothly, one event after the other, leading to the conclusion when trees discover the problem of global warming -- even though they don't know anything about atmospheric physics and have never seen a human being.  

Mancuso's trees have many "tree-like" characteristics, and they are far from being as clumsy and ugly as Tolkien's Ents. And note that there are no human beings whatsoever in the novel: it is only trees! But Mancuso's trees are, in my opinion, a little too humanized. They can move, speak to each other, and, in many ways, behave like human beings. Mancuso's forest looks very much like a modern university, with its various departments (=tribes) and their researchers, librarians, technicians, etc.

An expert in plant neurobiology, such as Mancuso, could have told us much more about how trees "think," if they do (I think they do!). But I can also understand that in novel terms it is not easy to build a story about creatures whose brain is located underground, cannot move, and perceive the external world mainly as a combination of chemical signals. The power of human imagination is immense, but it would be a truly alien novel, one that maybe only trees could read!

For me, the best human fiction piece that tries to understand trees is "The Secret of the Old Wood" (Il segreto del bosco vecchio) by Dino Buzzati (1935). It is, however, one of those masterpieces that go beyond the mere concept of narrative and touch the very fabric of the universe. If you can understand Italian, read the book or watch the movie (or both). It is a humbling experience that will make you reflect on what it means to be human. Or a tree.