All the small things

History, just one damned thing after another.

With the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II, we have had plenty of summaries of the big events during her life. There were tragedies, wars, inventions, politicians, jubilees, corgis and so on. Society when she was born was incredibly different to when she died. It’s tempting to ascribe the overall change in the world to all of these big events. But should we?

In evolution, we tend to focus on some of the big transitions; water to land, cold-blooded to warm-blooded, quadrupedal to bipedal, small brain to large brain. However, if we know one thing about evolution, it is that it occurs in populations not individuals. Yes there was an individual that was the first to be fully terrestrial, but they lived in a population where almost everyone else was 95% terrestrial. And for generations afterwards there would still have been a range of commitment to this completely dry new lifestyle.

Small and steady wins the race… Termites make up for in numbers what they lack in size. Image by Adrian Paterson.

Evolutionary change involves hundreds to thousands of interactions each day in a local population of a species (and with just as many individuals of other species in the local ecosystem). It is the outcome of all of these small interactions that ultimately adds up and leads to change. The same applies to human history.

I have just started watching the show It’s always sunny in Philadelphia. The first season was filmed in 2005. What is really noticeable is the lack of phones. 2005 was two years before the iPhone was released. Scenes of people walking down Philly streets are quite unnerving to modern eyes as there are no phones in shot – everyone is looking up and around. There is a scene at a university where students are walking around with sheets of paper! And pens!

The origin of smart phones was a big event. But it was the small actions of billions of people using smart phones in thousands of different ways (not envisioned by the inventors) that have created our current world.

Central Christchurch was wrecked by a series of earthquakes in 2010-11. Image by Adrian Paterson.

Closer to home, the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010/11 were Big Events. However, it was the responses of all of the people in Canterbury for the last decade that have created the new buildings, infrastructure, a generation with heightened anxiety, different views about what’s safe and so on. All these small things add up to large changes.

Tim Curran and Azhar Alam from Lincoln University joined 107 colleagues from around the world to look at how termites might respond to climate change scenarios. You don’t get a lot of things smaller than an individual termite. The life of one termite seems fairly inconsequential in the big scheme of things. However, termites have an important role in breaking down wood in ecosystems. At 133 sites around the world, the decay of pine woodblocks was measured over four years by this great gaggle* of researchers.

New Zealand has only nine species of termites, from four families (and five of those are likely to have been introduced). So they are not as dominant in their role here as in many parts of the world. Still, they can be in large numbers locally where they are found.

‘Termite-y’ – a pine tree is eaten one bit at a time! Image by Adrian Paterson.

Climate features at each site in the study were measured by local researchers (hence the gaggle!) and there was a clear link between increased wood decay and warmer temperatures. Decay from termites increased by about 7% for every increase in 10 degree C. A consequence is clear. As the world warms, termites will be more likely to expand their ranges, expand their numbers, and decompose more wood.

That sounds great for the termites, and it is. In a warming world they will do very well. But every single tiny termite wood meal will ultimately unlock carbon safely stored in wood so that it is back in play. Multiply that by a trillion snacks and a large amount of extra carbon will end up in the atmosphere and temperatures will continue to increase. All these small meals add up to large changes for an ecosystem and the world.

Big events are really just markers along the way. They are typically no more important than road signs are to a journey. In the end it’s all the small things that really matter.

* not sure on the collective noun for researchers…. a reach of researchers? an N of scientists? an explosion of experimenters?

Leave a Reply