Numbers Game

How many are too many? How few are too few? Everyone has an opinion. While numbers may not lie, they don’t necessarily tell the whole story—especially in the biological world.

When it comes to extinct species, the numbers won’t change. Endangered and vanishing species have advocates who seek their increase. Some species, maybe our own, increase so rapidly that dire consequences are feared. When is enough enough?

Right now, for example, I tend to think there are just too many sub-microscopic flu viruses floating around. Many of us, against our will, are harboring and even breeding these invisible creatures.

All life is thought to have arisen from the primordial mixture of elements that came together and formed Earth. The first life as we have come to know it took the form of one-celled organisms that were comprised mostly of water, as all life still is today.

Life developed down the two paths we call plants and animals. Gradually larger and larger collections of cells gathered together and specialized to become larger and more complex organisms. Larger animals came to dominate smaller ones, but longer life-times were needed to grow creatures so complicated. Gains in size meant losses in rapid reproduction.

As animals grew larger and larger, they evolved many adaptations to deal with their size. The fins on the backs of some dinosaurs, like the fins of a radiator, provided a large surface area designed to cool a large animal quickly. Closer to home, the human body with its array of plumbing, heating, and electrical systems offers a pretty amazing array of highly specialized adaptations. It serves us well—when everything is working right.

But then there are those little guys—the bacteria, the fungi, the viruses—so simple yet so complicated. They grow, and the grow fast. And in some ways, they are smarter than we are. They find ways to get around our best defenses., our flu shots, our vitamin C, our cleanliness, our healthy ways. They can produce millions of generations to our one. And with each generation the ones that flourish are the ones that fine ways to get round our latest vaccine, our best research. They multiply to give us the flu or a cold or HIV. They mess up our well-designed systems in ever more creative ways. Will the microbes prevail? Is the course of biological life on Earth circular—starting small, reaching a maximum size and then declining back to infinitesimal again? Or is there a way to find a balance, an equilibrium somewhere in the middle where the gigantic, the middle-sized and the tiny life can all exist?

While science works on this problem, stay well–or at least try to.