Gaia and the First Forest

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Quotes of the Day

It is at a surface where many of our most interesting and useful phenomena occur.
We live for example on the surface of a planet.
It is at a surface where the catalysis of chemical reactions occur.
It is essentially at a surface of a plant that sunlight is converted to a sugar.
In electronics, most if not all active circuit elements involve
non-equilibrium phenomena occurring at surfaces.
Much of biology is concerned with reactions at a surface.
— Walter H. Brattain, 'Surface properties of semiconductors', Nobel Lecture (11 Dec 1956). In Nobel Lectures, Physics 1942-1962 (1967), 377
Even when correctly balanced,
there is no guarantee that the model would reproduce
the correct adjacent possible exploration pattern.
However, in case of success, such a model could confirm (or discard) our findings
and could provide several answers
about how creativity works and, maybe, can be improved ...
— Crossing the horizon: exploring the adjacent possible in a cultural system P. Gravino, B. Monechi, V. D. P. Servedio, F. Tria, V. Loreto, Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Computational Creativity, June 2016

Contemplation for the Day

Let us imagine

You are riding your elephant along a narrow path through a tropical rain forest. On a whim you take out your phone and say, "Hey Gaia, tell me about the earliest forests."

Gaia's green face mask appears on your phone screen and says, "According to Gaiapedia, Little One, the first forests arose in the late Precambrian."

"What?" you cry, "That doesn't make sense! Land plants didn't arise until the Ordovician, let alone trees."

Gaia laughs, "The first trees were not plants, Little One." And suddenly your elephant has fallen into the ocean. The water splashes violently up around you, and to your surprise, it closes over you and your elephant is swimming underwater. You are chilled by the frigid sea water. Your phone is gone and Gaia is swimming beside you. Bubbles of steam appear from where Terra's skin shows between the pieces of Gaia’s blue wet suit. Her wet suit is patterned with animations of primitive animals, jelly fish, worms, sponges and bacteria. She hands you a breathing mask which you pull over your head. Its radio crackles to life.

You look at Gaia and speak into the radio, "But trees are plants by definition."

You hear Gaia laugh through the radio, "No trees are polyphyletic. Obviously, a Maple tree is more closely related to a dandelion (they are both angiosperms) than to a pine tree which is a conifer." Your elephant also has a breathing mask and you are swimming beside it toward a bright and multicoloured bank ahead.

"Well of course." you reply.

"So, the term "tree" is not cladistic, Little One." Gaia says as you close in on the bank and see that it is made mostly of stromatolites.

"What defines a tree then?" you ask.

"A tree is a sessile organism," Gaia swims in among the stromatolites, pointing to them as she speaks, "which gives structure to a three-dimensional space such that its reactive surface area and volume are increased through the introduction of folded surfaces." She waves her hands to indicate the bulbous shapes of multiple stromatolites growing beside each other.

Your elephant feels a calcareous sponge with its trunk. The sponge looks like it is hanging loosely from the edge of a stromatolite, but it is actually as hard as concrete and dotted with divots and each divot is pockmarked with tiny filter holes.

"So, these lumps of bacteria, " you ask indicating the stromatolites, "are trees? Does that make this reef a forest?"

"Yes, Little One, " Gaia replies doing a joyous summersault in the warm water between the stromatolites. "A zone of space the character of which is determined more by its biological contents than its geographical environment."

You glance about and then say, "Well, I called it a reef, but I don't see any coral."

Gaia laughs, "Coral is still very rare, Little One. We are early in the Cambrian and corals are rare commensal organisms, which take advantage of the microclimates of reefs mostly built by microorganisms like the bacteria in these stromatolites." She points between two stromatolites.

You swim toward her until you can see where she is pointing. You see a little flat red coral the size of a toad stool. "So coral isn't necessary in order to build a reef?" you ask.

"Eventually Corals will learn to build the most impressive reefs," Gaia caresses the little red coral, "But as yet they aren't even very good at it. The earliest reefs were built by bacteria."

Your elephant runs its trunk over the smooth surface of a stromatolite, "So corals took over reef building from stromatolites?"

"No, Little One," Gaia points to a hanging sponge like the one your elephant explored earlier, "Sponges took over from stromatolites." she waves a hand and the sun suddenly sets, and then instantly rises again and accelerates across the sky setting again moments later. When it rises again a fraction of a second later, it is moving so fast that the sky only flickers and soon days and years and millennia are passing in the blink of an eye.

Below you the reef blurs, its details changing too fast to see, but as a whole it moves like a writhing snake, rising up, breaking the surface, then slipping below the surface, the water flooding back over you gently. Then the reef arks its body sideways, carrying you, your elephant and Gaia out to sea, its lagoon filling in behind it, and you know that below you and on its seaward side, it is filling the depths of the sea with the broken remnants of millennia of calcareous secretions.

Then Gaia makes a slicing motion with Terra's gloved hand and time returns to its normal rate of passage. You glance around you and see that the reef has indeed changed. The stromatolites are gone, replaced by calcified sponges, growing on calcified sponges. On the edges of the sponges, drapes of algal mats hang also protected by secreted carbonate minerals. This time you can see what the carbonate is protecting the sessile organisms from; the reef is crawling with trilobites, nibbling on any exposed soft tissues of sponges or algae. But as you examine the reef more closely, you notice a diversity of animals living among the sponges and algal mats. A large armoured predator looking like a cross between an eel, a stegosaurus and a lobster swims by gobbling trilobites as it goes.

Gaia points out a few corals in a greater variety of forms now, but it is clear that they are living on the reef not building it. "So, did the corals take over from the sponges?" you ask.

"Not directly, Little One." Gaia says and, with another wave of Terra's hand, sets off the accelerating Sun, flickering sky, writhing reef sequence again. This time the reef once again breaks the surface but rises up many meters above the surrounding ocean. The lagoon goes completely dry and becomes a barren desert of sand dunes and algae clogged ponds.

Then the reef crumbles beneath your feet, massive blocks tumbling gently into the ocean, one after another and then many at the same time until the reef is gone. As it goes the sand in the dry lagoon blows away and only a rounded barren island remains which slowly sinks back into the sea.

As Gaia returns time to its normal rate of passage you find yourself swimming high above the sunken island watching it disappear into the dark depths. "How could the reefs have just died out!" you cry in despair, "Why didn't something, some creature, appear out of that diversity to continue the building?"

Gaia looks at you sadly, and you feel your elephant's eyes well with tears, "The Adjacent Possible does not guarantee anything, Little One." She says, "Sadly, sometimes nothing appears with the right characteristics to save the day. The reefs mostly died away and did not reappear for tens of millions of years."

Suddenly, you find yourself looking at the Wikipedia article on the Cambrian Period on your phone as you sit on city bus as it waits at a traffic light. As you return to your normal life, you reflect on the fact that the Adjacent Possible is not a promise but only a source of hope.

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