Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Donald A. Windsor
Post # 5

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) found it "interesting to contemplate an entangled bank" (1).  So too do I.  However, I see something that Darwin did not.  I see the actions of parasites.  For without parasites, our entangled banks would be uninteresting monocultures.  Sometimes monocultures do take over banks; Kudzu, the invasive alien from Japan, is a splendid example (2).  But not to worry, because eventually pathogenic parasites will strike and once more the bank will regain its entangled diversity.

I was first exposed to Darwin's entangled bank while a grad student in 1959, when our department celebrated the centennial of the Origin of Species.  About two decades later, when I began serious investing, the stock market seemed to be an entangled bank.  Adam Smith (1723-1790) invoked his "invisible hand" as a very apt metaphor to depict market activity (3).  I put Darwin and Smith together and then wondered what Darwin's invisible hand might be.

Almost two decades later I was studying systems science (math and computers), so I saw Darwin's invisible hand as an emergent property of ecosystems, a case of the whole being more than the sum of the parts.  End of story.  Or so I thought.

But then I experienced a powerful epiphany.  My dissertation research in the 1960s involved blood-feeding parasites (4).  Unfortunately, I had to give up parasitology to earn a living.  I worked as an information scientist in pharmaceutical research.  When I retired in 1994, I tried to catch up with the past three decades of parasitology literature.  I rapidly read through it in a year and a half.  This fast-forward approach led me to this epiphany moment.

I realized that parasites actually ruled the biosphere and that parasitologists were so preoccupied with their day to day activities that they were not seeing the big picture.  That was when I created the concept of biocartels (5) and then realized that most of the species on Earth are parasites (6).

However, I still wondered why.  Now (finally) I think I know.  Parasitism is an inherent property of life (7).

I also now realize that the invisible hand managing Darwin's entangled bank is the vast insidious handiwork of parasites.  Without parasites, biodiversity would be much less diverse.

References cited:

1.  Darwin, Charles.  On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.  First Edition. 1859.

2.  Niering, William A. ; Olmstead, Nancy C.  Kudzu vine (Pueraria lobata).  In:  The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers.  Eastern Region.  New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.  1979.  Page 538.

3.  Smith, Adam.  ["Invisible hand."] In: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.  1776.  Everyman's Library version by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.  1991.  Page 399.

4.  Windsor, Donald A.   Faeces of the medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis, are haem.  Nature 1970 September 12; 227(5263): 1153-1154.

5.  Windsor, Donald A.  The basic unit of evolution is the host-symbiont "biocartel".  Evolutionary Theory 1997 Aug; 11(4): 275.

6.  Windsor, Donald A.  Most of the species on Earth are parasites.  International Journal for Parasitology 1998 December; 28(12): 1939-1941.

7.  Windsor, Donald A.  Parasitism as a property of life.


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