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Genetic Diversity in Forestry

Tim Harford’s superb new book explores hidden benefits of randomness and disorder across multiple disciplines. In Chapter Eight, “Resilience: Broken Windows, Stomach Ulcers, and the Dangerous Belief That Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness,” the story opens with  the story of forestry professor Richard Plochman. In a 1968 paper, Plochman pointed out that “the German forests were dying.” Two centuries before, Johann Gottlieb Beckmann had been tidying up messy ancient woodlands into neat rows of Norwegian spruce.

Generations of trees take centuries to play out – and the tidy, mono-species forests that had shown promising yields were declining rapidly:

What was happening? The single-minded focus of German foresters on timber was backfiring. According to the ecologist Chris Maser, merely removing fallen logs and dead trees would result in the loss of almost a third of non-bird wildlife species in a forest. These losses seemed irrelevant to scientific foresters, who targeted maximum “sustained yield” and, tellingly, “minimum diversity.” Yet over time they altered the ecology of the forest and exposed the trees to fungi and other invasive species. The new, tidy forest, with each tree the same size and the same species, was easily exploited, not just by foresters but by parasites.

Harford, Tim. Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (p. 206). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

No word whether they kept all their data on the same RAID system… but the underlying concept of Society’s Genome is the importance of Genetic Diversity; we see it in nature, we cannot ignore it in persisting data. The forests were saved by re-introducing the diversity which occurs naturally without forced consolidation:

The mess and diversity of the old German forests had to be painstakingly reconstructed, reintroducing dead logs— and leaving dead trees (“snags”) standing— a more varied set of trees, woodpeckers, even certain species of spider. It is too early to tell whether this artificially created mess will prove a successful replacement for the original. Yet what is perfectly clear is that the attempt to map, quantify, and ultimately tidy the German forests not only transformed them but nearly killed them.

Ibid (pp. 206-207).

On one level, this is just another genetic diversity story – and there are several in Society’s Genome. But the impetus for “tidying” up the forest resonates with today’s data centers: efficiency, yield, costs, management  and maintenance are arguably optimized by introducing monocultures. But organizational resilience,  persistence and, ultimately, survival, may be compromised.