November 25, 2017

Wildlife and systems theory

Editorial article, published in The Ecologist Vol. 6 No. 7, August – September 1976.

The London Zoo is a shameful establishment where wild animals, living in totally inappropriate conditions, are exhibited like postage stamps in an album. This reflects the personality of its secretary, Lord Zuckerman, president of the Fauna Preservation Society, who is no more fitted to preside over a Zoological Society or a preservation society than Colonel Callan was to be Minister of Employment, or General Amin is to be Secretary of the United Nations.

His recent speech on the subject of wildlife [1] should make this clear, as do his writings in general. These furnish a veritable museum of scientific misconceptions of every type, which have often been quoted in the pages of The Ecologist, and which seek to rationalise industrial man’s systematic destruction of the natural systems that make up the Biosphere.

Lord Zuckerman appears to regard wild animals as an amenity and nothing more. Their extermination is quite justified if this serves a higher social purpose such as combating starvation or paying for school meals.

He does not seem to understand that man has evolved over millions of years as an integral part of the Biosphere, along with all the other life forms, which he regards as expendable. He does not seem to realise that if we exterminate wild animals we are at the same time destroying the system of which we are part – the environment to which man must be regarded as but a long-term adaptation.

The result of such an anti-evolutionary process must be to reduce the stability of the Biosphere and eventually to render it incapable of supporting complex forms of life, thereby further increasing starvation.

The present epidemic of tree diseases throughout the world is but a symptom of this growing instability. America has now lost all its chestnut trees. Throughout the world elm trees are dying. In Florida and the West Indies, palm trees are being annihilated by Lethal Yellowing Disease. A disease affecting beech trees is spreading through North America from Nova Scotia and one affecting the maple is also beginning to appear on this continent, while in the Mediterranean, umbrella pines are dying and a disease is killing off male cypresses.

How long will it be before a similar disease exterminates the human species? Let us not forget that complex, long-lived forms of life are more vulnerable than the simpler short-lived ones, which can adapt more quickly to rapid environmental changes. That is why, in the long run, the pesticides to which Lord Zuckerman attaches so much importance, must do more damage to man than to the ‘pests’ they were designed to exterminate.

The notion that pesticides can make a significant global contribution to world food supplies is based on ignorance. The proportion of the U.S. food crop eaten by pests has actually increased, since their large-scale introduction, from 31.4 percent between 1941 and 1951, to 33.6 percent in the following decade. [2]

The belief that they can stamp out infectious diseases is based on equal ignorance. They seem to work for a time but become increasingly ineffective. Gonorrhoea is out of control in the U.S. and elsewhere. Malaria will probably account for several million deaths in India alone – this year. All these things, however, will only become evident to our very ignorant scientists once the ‘reductionist’ approach has been abandoned in favour of the ‘systemic’ one.

The notion that the workings of a complex system like the Biosphere can be understood by breaking it down into its component parts to be examined in isolation from each other – in ‘controlled laboratory conditions’ which is absolutely fundamental to modern scientific method – is based on ignorance of the structure and function of natural systems. They are made up of component parts which are interrelated in all sorts of subtle ways. Their character, in fact, is not only derived from the component parts themselves but also – and it is this that is so important – from the way they are interrelated or organised.

If it is possible to build up a great diversity of natural systems from so limited a number of components it is due to the extraordinary difference in the behaviour of these components when used in different ways, i.e. when combined in a particular way with other components. In other words, a system is very much more than the sum of its component parts.

It is for this reason that studying systems in isolation from the larger system of which they are part, gives one very little information on the way they will behave in any conditions save the artificial ones of the laboratory, in which the study is being conducted and in which they alone occur. Indeed, isolated systems do not exist in nature, any more than do phoenixes or unicorns and this makes nonsense of most scientific research carried out today – including Zuckerman’s famous study of baboons in the London Zoo.

To illustrate this thesis, let us consider how little we understand of human nutrition. As Ross Hall, one the few ecologically orientated nutritionists, has pointed out, the function of a vitamin or any other nutrient, cannot be understood simply from its chemical composition. Its action, like that of all the other constituents of our food, is very different in different environmental systems.

This means that when flour is refined and vitamins and other nutrients are lost, their subsequent reintroduction provides no compensation for this loss. For whole wheat is a system, which means that it is more than the sum of its component parts, and by enriching the devitalised flour, we do not restore its lost nutritive value.

This may be confirmed by the fact that, although in Canada practically all the bread sold is enriched with thiamine and iron, a recent study by Nutrition Canada has revealed that a vast majority of Canadians suffer from thiamine and iron deficiency. The fact is that, once we have broken down the whole wheat into its constituent parts, we are incapable of putting it together again in the correct way. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men, as Ross Hall [3] puts it, cannot put Humpty together again. What is more, this is true of any natural system which we may have irresponsibly taken apart.

Thus, if one allows a family to disintegrate into its constituent parts, one cannot reconstitute it by forcing its members, who have grown up in isolation from each other, to come back and live together again. The basic interrelationships required to hold a family together cannot be easily restored. Still less, of course, can one recreate a biological organism that has disintegrated into its component cells or molecules, or for that matter an ecosystem whose constituent populations have been exterminated.

If we cannot reconstitute a natural system once it has disintegrated, neither can we provide a substitute for it, which satisfies both the countless requirements of the smaller systems which compose it, or of the larger one, of which it is part. Whatever we introduce in its stead, in fact can only be expected to satisfy a minimal proportion of these requirements. A good illustration of this principle is our attempt, as part of the developmental process, to substitute cows milk for human milk.

Needless to say it is always easy to find experts, who, on the basis of a simplistic notion of human nutrition, assure us of its superiority. One reason often given for this is that it has a higher protein content. As Crawford [4] points out, however, a calf needs more protein because, at birth, it grows more quickly than does a human baby. Much more important is the fact that cows’ milk contains fewer polyunsaturated fats which are required for building up brain tissue than does human milk, enough to satisfy the requirements of a calf, in fact, but not that of a human baby, whose brain grows much more quickly.

There are a host of other reasons why cows’ milk is a poor substitute for human milk. Thus cows’ milk contains an almost equal ratio of calcium and phosphorus, which is unsatisfactory for a human baby, which requires more calcium. The level of sodium in cows’ milk is too high and may give rise to primary hypertension.

The low level of copper in cows’ milk has been related to the reduced transportation of iron and hence contributes to the iron deficiency associated with anaemia, which is common among North American infants. In human milk too, the proportion of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and short-chain fatty acids is that which most favours their absorption and conversion to energy in the human baby.

Furthermore, the gastro-intestinal tract of a baby fed on human milk is colonised by the bacteria Lactobacillis bifidis. The important role played by this bacillus appears to have been grossly underestimated. Its presence appears to be essential to assure the absorption of protein and other nutrients in the milk.

There is also growing reason to believe that the important relationship between the mother and infant, which develops during breast feeding, has a significant effect on the child’s digestive capacities.

Equally important is the role played by human milk in assuring immunisation to disease. Certain antibodies (IgG) are transmitted by the placenta which is permeable to them. This is not so with other antibodies (IgA and IgM). This means that babies are born without immunity to the diseases against which the latter provide protection.

This includes those of gastro-enteric origin, which happen to be the leading causes of mortality among babies throughout the world. However, these antibodies IgZ and IgM are present in human milk in sufficient concentrations to provide protection against many gastro-enteric diseases such as those caused by E. coli and also against polio, though it appears that this immunisation only occurs if the corresponding antigens are present in the child’s immediate environment.

Polio and Yellow Fever are partly, at least, diseases of hygiene. Children living in a natural environment in which they are exposed among other things to their own excreta, are unlikely to contract these diseases, as immunity against them is likely to build up – so long, of course, as they are also fed on their mother’s milk.

As Katz and Young [5] point out, it is likely that a real synergy exists among nutritional, immunological, psychoendocrinological and maternal responses, which foster infant development.

In fact, if one regards the family as constituting a system of which the mother and child are but interrelated parts and, together with the physical environment in which it lives, as constituting a larger system, it becomes obvious just how naïve and irresponsible it is, to suppose that a highly complex process such as breast feeding, which has evolved over millions of years to achieve it present degree of perfection, can be advantageously replaced by feeding an infant milk, designed by evolution to satisfy a very different set of requirements – those of a baby ungulate – and contained in a bottle designed to provide but a crude imitation of its mother’s teat. Nor of course, can a zoo replace a natural ecosystem as a means of sustaining wildlife populations.

Yet this is the sort of notion that is shaped by using modern day scientific methodology, based on naive empirical correlations made in laboratory conditions and innocent as it is of any theoretical concern with the structure and function of natural systems which have co-evolved as the interrelated parts of the Biosphere.

If Lord Zuckerman wants a course on Systems Theory, I would be willing to give it to him. In the meantime, if it is to avoid being totally discredited, the British Zoological Society must find itself another Secretary.


1. Lord Zuckerman, Closing Address at the World Conference on Breeding Endangered Species in Captivity. London, 8 July 1976.
2. US Department of Agriculture statistics.
3. Ross Hume Hall, Food for Nought – the Decline in Nutrition. Harper & Row, 1974.
4. Michael Crawford, “The Food We Eat” London 1973.
5. S. H. Katz and M. V. Young, Biological and Social Aspects of Breast Feeding. Paper presented at the 1975 meeting of the American Association for the Development of Science.
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