F Rosa Rubicondior: Creationism in Crisis - Order From Chaos in The Namibian Desert

Thursday 21 March 2024

Creationism in Crisis - Order From Chaos in The Namibian Desert

A typical fairy circle on the Kamberg on the edge of the Namibian Desert

Photo: Stephan Getzin.
Information for the Media - Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Scientists are hotly debating how the 'fairy circles' which arise in the vegetation on the edge of the Namib desert actually form. Whatever the process, they are examples of order emerging from chaos by the operation of natural forces. The debate is over what exactly those forces are.

Typical of the mindless parroting that constitutes creationism in the social media, is the claim that 'you can't get order from chaos', which of course is nonsense, since any chaotic system will tend to order if a directional force is applied to it.

Suns and galaxies condense out of the chaos of dust and gas clouds under the directional force of gravity; raindrops form in clouds under the directional forces of gravity and electrostatic attraction; and 'fairy rings' form in grassland under the influence of fungal hyphae and nutrient depletion, and rings form in ell grass because of a build-up of toxic sulphides in the marine sediment, just to cite a few examples

Here's a little bit of fun which you can use to show any creationist acquaintance what nonsense they've been fed. Next time you're playing Scrabble, place all the tiles in the upturned box lid and make sure no tile is on top of another. Ask them to swirl it round to show you're not cheating. Observe that the tiles are in a chaotic arrangement. Now apply a directional force in the form of gravity by tipping the box lid about 15 degrees to produce a slope and tapping it or shaking the lid gently to provide a little energy to the system. Observe now that the tiles have formed themselves into neat rows and columns at one end of the lid. If not, give it a little more shaking or tapping.

Order has emerged out of chaos under nothing more magical than the directional force of gravity.

More examples of emergence of order out of chaos are:
Do you have any examples of order emerging from chaos, together with an explanation of how this happened? Certainly! One classic example of order emerging from chaos is the formation of snowflakes. Snowflakes are intricately structured ice crystals that form in clouds when water vapor condenses and freezes around tiny dust particles. Despite starting from random water vapor molecules in the air, the resulting snowflake crystals exhibit highly ordered and symmetrical patterns.

The process of snowflake formation involves several steps:
  1. Nucleation: It begins with the nucleation of a tiny ice crystal around a dust particle or other impurity in the atmosphere. This initial ice crystal serves as a template for further crystal growth.
  2. Crystal Growth: As water vapor in the cloud comes into contact with the ice crystal, it starts to freeze onto its surface, gradually building up the size of the crystal. The specific arrangement of water molecules on the surface of the growing crystal is determined by the temperature and humidity conditions in the cloud, as well as the crystal's orientation with respect to the surrounding air currents.
  3. Branching and Growth: As the crystal continues to grow, it branches out into arms or dendrites. The branching patterns and symmetry of the snowflake emerge from the molecular structure of ice and the environmental conditions surrounding its growth. Small fluctuations in temperature and humidity during the crystal's descent through the cloud can lead to variations in the growth rate and branching angles, resulting in the unique and intricate shapes of snowflakes.
  4. Final Formation: Eventually, the fully grown snowflake falls to the ground, where it may join with other snowflakes to form snow accumulations.
Despite starting from chaotic conditions in the atmosphere, the process of snowflake formation demonstrates how order can emerge through self-organization and the interaction of simple physical principles with environmental factors. Each snowflake's unique structure reflects the specific conditions it encountered during its growth, resulting in a stunning display of order arising from seemingly random processes.

Any more?

Certainly! Here are a few more examples of order emerging from chaos:
  1. Benoit Mandelbrot's Fractals: Benoit Mandelbrot discovered fractals while studying seemingly chaotic systems. Fractals are geometric shapes that exhibit self-similarity at different scales. They are generated by simple mathematical equations iterated over and over again. Despite their simplicity, these equations can produce highly complex and intricate patterns. Fractals can be found in nature, such as in coastlines, clouds, and fern leaves, demonstrating how order can emerge from seemingly chaotic processes through iterative mathematical transformations.
  2. Spontaneous Synchronization: Spontaneous synchronization occurs when a group of oscillators, such as pendulum clocks or fireflies, spontaneously synchronize their rhythms over time. This phenomenon emerges from the interaction between individual oscillators without any external control or coordination. Through a process known as entrainment, where weaker oscillators adjust their rhythm to match that of stronger oscillators, the entire system gradually synchronizes. Spontaneous synchronization is observed in various biological, physical, and social systems, highlighting how order can arise from the collective behavior of individual components.
  3. Self-Organization in Biological Systems: Biological systems often exhibit self-organization, where complex patterns and structures emerge from the interactions between individual components. For example, in embryonic development, cells differentiate and organize themselves into tissues and organs without external guidance. Similarly, in ecosystems, diverse species interact and adapt to their environment, leading to the emergence of complex food webs and ecological niches. Self-organization in biological systems relies on feedback loops, nonlinear interactions, and energy flows, allowing for the emergence of ordered structures from initially chaotic conditions.
  4. Traffic Flow: Despite the apparent chaos of rush-hour traffic, patterns of order can emerge in the form of traffic waves or "phantom jams." These traffic jams can arise spontaneously from minor disturbances, such as a single driver braking suddenly. As nearby drivers react to the slowdown, the disturbance propagates backward, creating a wave-like pattern of congestion. However, researchers have found that simple adjustments to driving behavior, such as maintaining consistent speeds and leaving adequate following distances, can mitigate these traffic waves, demonstrating how order can emerge from chaos through coordinated actions.
These examples illustrate how order can spontaneously emerge from chaotic systems through self-organization, feedback mechanisms, and the interaction of simple rules or principles with environmental factors.
For more information on how order emerges from chaos, see John Gribben's excellent book, Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity

The debate over the cause of these mysterious circles in the Namib desert revolves around disagreement about the role of 'sand termites' in eating the roots of seedlings so preventing them growing inside the circles, but a team led by Dr Stephan Getzin of Göttingen University’s Ecosystem Modelling Department have developed a model showing how the plants at the edge of the circles created a desiccated zone in the circle by transpiring the water following rains, so depriving newly-germinated plants of essential moisture. The team explain their findings and confront the 'sand termite' theory head on in a paper published in the journal Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics and in a news release from Göttingen University. Incidentally, this is a good example of how a civilised 'heated debate' can be conducted in the scientific community.
Fairy circles: plant water stress causes Namibia's gaps in grass

Researchers describe topsoil as "death zone" for fresh grass in the fairy circle

Namibia's legendary fairy circles are mysterious, circular, bald patches in the dry grasslands on the edge of the Namib Desert. Their formation has been researched for decades and has recently been the subject of much debate. With extensive fieldwork, researchers from the University of Göttingen in Germany and Ben Gurion University in Israel investigated how freshly germinated grass dies inside the fairy circle. Their results show that the grass withers due to a lack of water inside the fairy circle. The topsoil, comprised of the top 10 to 12 centimetres of the soil, acts as a kind of "death zone" in which fresh grass cannot survive for long. The new grass dies between 10 and 20 days after the rain. According to the researchers, the fact that it shows no signs of termite damage disproves a competing theory. The results were published in the journal Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics.

For the study, the scientists analysed 500 individual grass plants in four regions of the Namib by taking measurements of root and leaf lengths, carrying out statistical analyses, as well as collecting and comparing photographic evidence. They also took several hundred measurements of soil moisture during or after the 2023 and 2024 rainy seasons.

This showed that the topsoil is very susceptible to drying out. During and after the rainy season, the soil moisture here is three to four times lower than the soil at a depth of around 20 centimetres. In addition, the topsoil is significantly drier within the fairy circle than outside during the period of grass growth after ample rainfall. Under these conditions, freshly germinated grasses cannot survive in the fairy circle: they dry out because they cannot reach the deeper, more moist layers of soil with their roots, which are on average 10 centimetres long.

In contrast, the large, perennial clumps of grass that grow at the edge of the fairy circle benefit from being able to access the soil water to a depth of 20 to 30 centimetres and below. These clumps of grass quickly turn green after the rain. "With their well-developed root system, these clumps of grass soak up the water particularly well. After the rain, they have a huge competitive advantage over the freshly germinated grasses in the fairy circle. The new grass only loses a small amount of water via transpiration from its small leaves, resulting in insufficient ‘suction power’ to pull new water from deeper soil layers," explains first author Dr Stephan Getzin, Göttingen University’s Ecosystem Modelling Department.

The measurement data also show that the physical conductivity of the water is high in the first 20 days after the rain, particularly in the upper soil, and decreases with depth. As a result, the clumps of grass primarily draw water from the top 10 to 20 centimetres of the soil. Getzin says: "This is the cause of the death of the new grass in the fairy circle. Continuous soil moisture measurements over several years support this conclusion. This is because the soil water in the fairy circle only decreases noticeably quickly with the strengthening and regrowth of the surrounding grass after rain." According to the researchers, this testifies to the basic function of the fairy circles as water sources for the drought-stressed grass of the Namib. The round shape of the fairy circles is formed by the grass itself, as this creates the maximum supply of soil water for itself. "This self-organisation can be described as ‘swarm intelligence’. It is a systematic adaptation to a lack of resources in arid regions," say Getzin and his colleague Dr Hezi Yizhaq.

In their study, Getzin and Yizhag also comment on the theory that termites shorten the roots of fresh grass in the fairy circle by feeding on them, causing the new grass to die. "In an extensive discussion of the publications on the sand termite theory, we show that so far not a single field study with systematic measurement data on the root length of dying grasses has shown that termite feeding on the roots of newly germinated grasses create the Namib fairy circles," the researchers say.

They also highlight a concern in that the supporters of the sand termite theory cite other research as “evidence” for the killing of fresh grass due to termite herbivory on the roots, but in fact the cited articles do not even deal with this specific subject matter.

Getzin's findings from his research into the fairy circles can be found at www.fairy-circles.info. The research findings are explained in this video: https://youtu.be/KoWyV01wR7o.

Original publication: Stephan Getzin & Hezi Yizhaq. Desiccation of undamaged grasses in the topsoil causes Namibia’s fairy circles – Response to Jürgens & Gröngröft (2023). Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics (2024). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ppees.2024.125780
Schematic representation of plant growth and soil water distribution in a fairy circle over the first few weeks after ample rainfall.

GIF: Bauhaus University Weimar, Faculty of Art & Design/Animation Art & Design
More technical detail is given in the team's paper in Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics:
  • The sand termite theory and proposed mechanism of root feeding on green germinated grasses lacks fundamental field evidence.
  • During the rainy season, the topsoil inside the fairy circles is significantly drier than the topsoil in the matrix outside.
  • The freshly germinated grasses with their 10 cm long roots die in fairy circles due to lack of water in the upper topsoil.
  • The hydraulic conductivity is high up to 20 days after rainfall. The uptake-diffusion feedback is supported by field data.

In a novel study, Getzin et al. (2022) have excavated 500 grasses at four regions of the Namib to systematically investigate the temporal process of how the young grasses die in fairy circles. Based on measurements of the root lengths, statistical testing, and comparative photo documentations the authors showed that sand termite herbivory did not cause the death of the freshly germinated grasses within fairy circles (FCs). Roots of those dead grasses were initially undamaged and even longer than those of the living grasses outside in the vegetation matrix, which is contrary to termite herbivory. The dying annual grasses within FCs had significantly higher root-to-shoot ratios than the vital grasses in the matrix, both of which can be attributed to the same grass-triggering rain event. This indicates that they died from water stress because the desiccating grasses invested biomass resources into roots, trying to reach the deeper soil layers with more moisture, but they failed.

Jürgens and Gröngröft (2023) commented on our research findings. Here, we shed light on their statements by investigating the existing data evidence on the Namib fairy circles, which includes a thorough literature review about the proposed termite-feeding mechanism, as well as describing the properties of soil water within and around the FCs. Our review shows that there is no single study to date that has demonstrated with systematic field evidence in the form of root measurements and data from several regions of the Namib that the green germinating grasses within the FCs would be killed by root herbivory of sand termites.

We emphasize that the top 10 cm of soil in the FCs is very susceptible to drying out. In this topsoil layer, the freshly germinated grasses with their 10 cm long roots die quickly after rainfall due to lack of water, because these small plants cannot reach and utilize the higher soil moisture content, which is only found in deeper soil layers below the dry topsoil. Based on 400 measurements of soil moisture during the rainy season 2024, we show that the topsoil in the FCs is significantly drier than in the matrix outside. Finally, we show that the soil physical conditions allow a very high hydraulic conductivity that supports the “uptake-diffusion feedback” during the first weeks after grass-triggering rainfall. During the first two weeks, the soil moisture at 20 cm depth ranged for several rainfall events between 9% and 18% within the FCs, hence way above the 6–8% threshold below which the hydraulic conductivity strongly declines. Even 20 days after rainfall, soil moisture was still above 8%. During this biologically active period, new grasses germinate after about five days, the large perennial grasses along the FC edge resprout and strongly draw water with their established root system at 20–30 cm depth, and the freshly germinated grasses in the FCs desiccate and die within 10–20 days. With our continuous soil moisture measurements, we argue that the quickly greening and competitively superior grasses on the FC edge, as well as the vital matrix grasses, draw soil water from the FCs. This rapid depletion of soil water and drying out of the topsoil leads to the death of the new grasses in the fairy circles.

1. Introduction

The fairy circles (FCs) of Namibia are a mysterious phenomenon for quite a long time. The two theories about their origin that enjoyed most popularity are the sand termite hypothesis and the plant self-organization hypothesis (Sahagian, 2017). The sand termite hypothesis suggests that the species Psammotermes allocerus causes fairy circles by “foraging on the roots of freshly germinated grasses” (Jürgens, 2013). The plant self-organization hypothesis argues that the grasses within FCs die of plant water stress “arising from resource competition and facilitation” (Cramer and Barger, 2013.1) with “positive biomass-water feedbacks involving water transport towards growing vegetation patches” (Getzin et al., 2015a). During the years 2020–2022, Getzin et al. (2022) undertook detailed fieldwork and they excavated about 500 grass individuals at four regions of the southern, central, and northern Namib to document for the first time systematically how the freshly germinating grasses die within FCs after grass-triggering rainfall. If termite herbivory were the cause, the roots of the dying grasses should be shorter according to Jürgens (2013, Fig. S9B) and show signs of biomass consumption, compared to the vital grasses in the matrix away from the FCs. However, Getzin et al. (2022) found the opposite: in the study plots that received grass-triggering rainfall most recently, the roots of the dead grasses in FCs were in 100% of the cases undamaged, root-shoot ratios were significantly greater inside the FCs than outside, and the roots were as long or even significantly longer as those of the surrounding matrix grasses outside of the FCs. Such long roots contradict the termite herbivory theory but indicate that drought stress caused grasses in the FCs to invest resources into roots to reach the percolating water in deeper soil layers (Cramer et al., 2017.1). Getzin et al. (2022) even showed for new emerging FCs at NamibRand Nature Reserve that the quickly dying grasses had undamaged roots. Jürgens and Gröngröft (2023) published a comment on our paper with the title “Sand termite herbivory causes Namibia´s fairy circles – a response to Getzin et al. (2022)”. In that paper, the authors make four different statements. Here we make explicit reference to these statements.
Fig. 1. Two FCs from the Kamberg area in the Namib-Naukluft Park, photographed on 7th March 2022. The inner area remains almost entirely devoid of vegetation right from the beginning of the rainy season while dead grasses are mostly near the edge (arrows), where they suffer from competition of the large peripheral grasses.

Things to note here for creationists is that both the competing theories for how this order emerges from chaos are perfectly natural with no hint of magic being involved. Whether it’s the way sand termites seek out and eat the roots of newly-germinated grasses or the way older, more deeply rooted grasses dominate the water resource, the cause is something entirely natural. Just like the formation of galaxies, planetary systems or black holes, magic is never required to bring order from chaos.

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