Saturday, 26 March 2016

Nature Running Rings Around Creationists

'Fairy-Rings' in Western Australia
Discovery of fairy circles in Australia supports self-organization theory.

The two sacred chants of the creation industry are, "You can't get order from chaos, so order implies design!" and "Design needs a designer!" They are careful always to avoid saying 'biblical god' instead of 'designer' because they still like to pretend people don't know this is fundamentalist biblical creationism masquerading as science, of course.

Anyone who has seen a snowflake and knows that all the millions of different 'designs' of snowflakes all arise spontaneously from the chaotic distribution of water molecules in air under nothing more than the operation of physics and chemistry will know that claim is false but, as with so many other claims of the creation industry, being false is never seen as a reason not to keep repeating it.

'Fairy-Rings' in Namibia
There are in fact very many instances in nature of things having the appearance of design. One favourite of mine is the 'fairy rings' we see in lawns, parks and fields as a fungus in the soil spreads outwards affecting the growth rate and the colour of (mainly) grass. A very similar phenomenon was seen in the growth patterns of eelgrass off the island of Møn in the Baltic Sea where the appearance of rings gave rise to all manner of circular attempts to explain them with magical phenomena but which turned out to be something entirely natural; no magic required.

Now we have another of these magical phenomena coming closer to being explained. As published in Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, the phenomenon of patches of bare soil in regular hexagonal patterns in Namibia is almost certainly due to the interaction of soil hydrodynamics and plant biomass. The problem was that if the general principles of this pattern-formation theory were correct, a similar phenomenon should be seen elsewhere where the conditions are similar and regardless of the actual plants involved.

Now that phenomenon has been found in Western Australia too, with completely different flora.

Pattern-formation theory predicts that vegetation gap patterns, such as the fairy circles of Namibia, emerge through the action of pattern-forming biomass–water feedbacks and that such patterns should be found elsewhere in water-limited systems around the world. We report here the exciting discovery of fairy-circle patterns in the remote outback of Australia. Using fieldwork, remote sensing, spatial pattern analysis, mathematical modeling, and pattern-formation theory we show that the Australian gap patterns share with their Namibian counterparts the same characteristics but are driven by a different biomass–water feedback. These observations are in line with a central universality principle of pattern-formation theory and support the applicability of this theory to wider contexts of spatial self-organization in ecology.

Vegetation gap patterns in arid grasslands, such as the “fairy circles” of Namibia, are one of nature’s greatest mysteries and subject to a lively debate on their origin. They are characterized by small-scale hexagonal ordering of circular bare-soil gaps that persists uniformly in the landscape scale to form a homogeneous distribution. Pattern-formation theory predicts that such highly ordered gap patterns should be found also in other water-limited systems across the globe, even if the mechanisms of their formation are different. Here we report that so far unknown fairy circles with the same spatial structure exist 10,000 km away from Namibia in the remote outback of Australia. Combining fieldwork, remote sensing, spatial pattern analysis, and process-based mathematical modeling, we demonstrate that these patterns emerge by self-organization, with no correlation with termite activity; the driving mechanism is a positive biomass–water feedback associated with water runoff and biomass-dependent infiltration rates. The remarkable match between the patterns of Australian and Namibian fairy circles and model results indicate that both patterns emerge from a nonuniform stationary instability, supporting a central universality principle of pattern-formation theory. Applied to the context of dryland vegetation, this principle predicts that different systems that go through the same instability type will show similar vegetation patterns even if the feedback mechanisms and resulting soil–water distributions are different, as we indeed found by comparing the Australian and the Namibian fairy-circle ecosystems. These results suggest that biomass–water feedbacks and resultant vegetation gap patterns are likely more common in remote drylands than is currently known.

Copyright © 2016 National Academy of Sciences.

Although the precise details have still to be worked out, it now looks almost certain that the pattern-formation theory used to explain the Namibian circles is fundamentally correct. It also eliminates explanations such as organised termite activity.

Once again a mystery which tempted people to guess at all manner of magical and supernatural explanations has been shown to be the result of something perfectly natural with no magic and no magical designers, intelligent or otherwise involved at any stage in the process.

What's that I still hear creationists chanting? "You can't get order from chaos, so order implies design! Design needs a designer!" Such a shame about the facts, but facts are tricky that way. If you let them, they often show that things are not how you would like them to be.

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1 comment :

  1. Of course the world is complex. That said, however creationists present their claims it all comes down to an unknowable supernatural being doing things by unknowable means. In other words, wand waving and magic. In a clearly causal universe this is no explanation at all. They really don't get it and never practise science, leastways as I was taught. Regardless of sound evidence they will continue to abide by their stultifying religious dogma. This is not science, but theology. And theology has no place in a science classroom and indeed should have no place in a school which considers itself secular.

    Excellent post by the way.


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