How life moves in sustainable ways

Morning Glory

From universe to “nanoverse,” one of nature’s most common structural features is “branching.” Networks of all kinds, physical and intellectual, are grounded in a pattern that chemists refer to as “child” (smaller channels) and “parent” (larger) branches.

At the human level we see it in living systems—the brain, arteries and veins, leaves and trees. Branching occurs in chemistry, for example, when carbon atoms are cross-linked to form the hard plastic used in safety glasses. Branching made computers and the Internet possible. Flying at night we can clearly see the extensive branching of highway systems. Railways branch. There’s branching in mathematics and geometry. And we speak of “branch libraries” and businesses with branch offices and facilities. The phenomenon occurs wherever there is connection and flow—cities and suburbs, electrical systems, plumbing and sewer systems, streams and rivers, erosion, sand dunes and musical tunes. Branching is of the natural order.

Reflecting on the above image, I observe order within the chaotic, irregular lines. There isn’t one straight line, and no two of them are alike or even aligned. Yet there is cohesion, functionality and aesthetics. Systemically, I see the “parent” channels carrying water and nutrients to “child” and sub-offspring channels throughout the leaf. A microscope would reveal that each of the barren looking “fields” in between channels actually consists of a myriad of more interconnecting and intercommunicating cells. For me, the intricacy and complexity of these connections and flow channels triggers a deep appreciation of this pattern—seen on other celestial bodies as well—one that’s economical, resilient and life-supporting.

I also appreciate the pattern’s grace and harmony. Absent the color, and knowledge of the subject, one could imagine an extensive land with interstate highways, roads and lanes running through it. Zooming in would reveal a heavily populated area with living, thinking, decision-making beings—individual cells that have unique needs, wants and aspirations relating to survival, development, personal space and relationships. And they function together in harmony, as a whole! There are no battlefields, no indication of intolerant, greedy or power-hungry cells. The visual evidence alone would point to a system where sharing and collaboration are occurring throughout the land. Bring back the color and the entire space   would live up to the word “verdant.” Alive.

Might this pattern and process, which appeared on the Earth about 130 million years ago and is still visible and viable, suggest something in the way that human social systems ought to work—behaving  as we are in truth, interconnected and interdependent?

The vigorous branching of life’s tree, and not the accumulating valor of mythical marches to progress, lies behind the persistence and expansion of organic diversity in our tough and constantly stressful world. And if we do not grasp the fundamental nature of branching as the key to life’s passage across the geological stage, we will never understand evolution aright.

Stephen Jay Gould, Paleontologist, historian of science




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