The Law of Balance and the Grave Dangers of Imbalance

Contrary to what Darwin believed, it is not competition, or the struggle for life, which was later rephrased by Herbert Spencer as the “survival of the fittest,” but mutually-beneficial cooperation and coexistence, that is the principle Law of Nature. This switch in perspective from the individual organism to the entire ecosystem in which that organism exists profoundly alters our understanding of Nature.

According to Darwin’s basic principle of the “struggle for life,” those species that fail in this struggle become extinct, meaning that extinctions of species should have occurred fairly regularly throughout evolutionary history. That the Darwinian view is wrong is shown by the fact that, in a state of balanced equilibrium, which includes physical factors like temperature, rainfall, atmospheric composition and pressure, water salinity and acidity, and so forth, and which is the state that existed everywhere until humanity started to spread all over the world like a pestilence, species extinctions were extremely rare.[1]

In ordinary times—times here understood to mean whole geologic epochs—extinction takes place only very rarely, more rarely even than speciation [the development of a new species],[2] and it occurs at what’s known as the background extinction rate. This rate varies from one group of organisms to another; often it’s expressed in terms of extinctions per million species-years. Calculating the background extinction rate is a laborious task that entails combing through whole databases’ worth of fossils. For what’s probably the best-studied group, which is mammals, it’s been reckoned to be roughly .25 per million species-years. This means that, since there are about fifty-five hundred mammal species wandering around today, at the background extinction rate you’d expect—once again, very roughly—one species to disappear every seven hundred years.[3]

But now, species extinctions are much more common because we voracious humans do not know how to curb either our growing numbers or our consumption of both other species and the Earth’s natural resources, while we alter, whether intentionally or not, the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and its oceans, besides causing many other significant changes to the physical environment.

The truly remarkable genius of Nature is that it enables a huge variety of different species – literally millions and millions of them, and even vastly greater numbers of individual organisms – to exist by taking what they need from other species and the environment in order to survive and reproduce, but it limits the harm that any one species can do to another through a variety of natural processes, including predation, disease, famine, and war. It is this extremely ancient equilibrium that we have profoundly violated by our thoughtless and selfish actions – actions that are now causing so much harm and devastation around the world.

Before human beings appeared on the Earth and, following their rise to technological dominance, began rearranging the world to suit their very peculiar, artificial preferences, every self-contained terrestrial ecosystem was in equilibrium. This is because, with so much time to do so, relationships were sorted out between the living and non-living elements in each system so as to achieve a balance. This is not to say that changes did not occur periodically. But when changes did occur, a new balance was gradually achieved, a balance that may have been different from the one that had existed previously. This continual rearrangement of living and non-living elements has taken place innumerable times during the Earth’s very long history.

However, it should not be naively assumed that all these rearrangements are equally desirable or beneficial. Many of the rearrangements that have been caused by human activities have resulted in far less total life than existed before these changes occurred or were deliberately produced. An example is chemical industrial farming. Where there was formerly a rich diversity of plant and animal life in an area, this diversity has been deliberated suppressed, often by poisoning and killing it, in order to grow only a few plants and raise a few animals that we humans like to eat.[4]

Another fundamental natural principle that must be respected in order to ensure the survival of the greatest number of species is that living systems that are separated geographically by natural barriers such as oceans and mountains must remain separate, otherwise biological contamination can cause havoc to certain species by introducing into a system an organism that has no natural predators or other forms of population control in its new environment. Human beings, with their artificially-enhanced mechanical mobility – our artificial wings and legs, or rather wheels – have violated this important principle in every single part of the world.

In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert presents examples of transplanted fungi that are presently wiping out the entire bat population in northeastern North America and numerous frog and toad species in Central and South America. The belief is that these deadly fungi were brought inadvertently to these places by human beings from other parts of the world, where the native bat and frog species have developed a resistance to them, but which their American cousins tragically lack. This is a recurrence of the human decimation that occurred when disease-infested Europeans arrived in the Americas following their discovery of these so-called “new” lands and, after infecting the natives with these diseases, caused millions and millions of them to die.

Although there are many plant and animal species that have been more or less safely introduced into a foreign ecosystem, meaning that they have not greatly upset the ecosystem’s balance, it is impossible to determine a priori which species will coexist harmoniously in their new environment and which ones will multiply unchecked. This simple fact – that, despite all our vaunted scientific knowledge, we are wholly incapable of knowing what will happen in an environment following the introduction of an alien organism, and what effect it will have on the other organisms – shows how limited is our knowledge and how complex are the systems that we presume to fiddle with and remake in our conceited and foolish ignorance.

Darwin was so concerned about the microscopic details, where competition between individual organisms or species is most evident, that he wasn’t able to see the overall picture, where cooperation rather than competition is the dominant principle. That Darwin was wrong, and that the holistic view is right, is shown by the catastrophic effect which the unchecked proliferation of human beings has had on the planet and its many other inhabitants. Our scientific and technological success is the clearest proof of the very great dangers of violating the Law of Balance. We have, by our cleverness and our manifest lack of wisdom, gravely violated the primordial wisdom of Nature, which seeks to maintain a balance in all its systems, thus creating an enormous and critical imbalance in the Earth’s systems that, unless we change our ways, will ultimately lead to our destruction, as the only possible solution to our increasingly evil and destructive presence on the Earth.


[1] If you are one of those persons who will object that the vast majority of species have become extinct in the course of evolution, you merely show that you don’t understand the difference between decades or centuries – mere tens or hundreds of years – which is the period during which human-caused extinctions have occurred at an accelerating rate, and the thousands, millions, and billions of years during which natural extinctions take place. In this case, the difference in rate or scale is very important. For example, a harmful microbe, insect, or parasite that reproduces at a relatively slow rate will pose little or no threat to its host organism or organisms; it is only when its rate of reproduction and survival increases that it has the potential to overwhelm the host organism and cause its death. This is essentially what has happened in the case of humans: for most of their history, they were not significantly numerous or sufficiently destructive to be able to cause the extinction of other species; but starting several thousands of years ago when they began making tools and weapons and cultivating food crops, and especially in the last several hundred years, they have multiplied with fewer and fewer natural checks on their growth, while increasing dramatically the amount that is consumed by each individual, so that we are now in serious danger of overwhelming the Earth’s regenerative capacity, at least in the short term.

[2] If the rate of extinction were greater than the rate of speciation, then there could never be an increase in the number of different species. Hence, it is only if, over long periods of time, the rate of speciation is significantly greater than the rate of extinction that there can arise the extraordinary diversity of species that we observe in the world, both presently and in the fossil record.

[3] The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, chapter 1. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2014.

[4] Ironically, chemists and food scientists have produced an artificial diversity from these few ingredients by modifying, concentrating, and manipulating their constituent parts in order to make the seemingly vast bounty of different food products which one finds in supermarkets today, but which are in reality derived from a very small number of plants and animals, some of which are genetically identical, meaning that they possess very little genetic diversity. This is because of the increased uniformity and conformity that we humans are imposing on the natural world.