Explaining Ecology with ‘Ecosystem Engineering’ Explanations: Evolutionists Learn Ecology Better, Yet Fail to Recognize the Real Engineer of Earth’s Ecosystems
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2nd Timothy 3:7)
The ancient Philistines were embarrassed when Dagon, their favorite idol, was knocked over, so they propped Dagon back up again.(1) Maybe today’s evolutionary ecologists feel like those Philistines, as they repeatedly try to fix failings of their favorite idolatries, such as closed-Bible explanations of Earth’s ecosystems.
Meanwhile, real-world ecology research continues to impeach the Darwinist assumption that animals are passively “shaped” (and redefined) by nonliving geophysical forces, as if the inanimate environment itself was the creator and “origin of species” on Earth.
A new analytical concept in ecology, called “ecosystem engineering”, illustrates how secularists are both “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2nd Timothy 3:7).
How so? Ecosystem engineering analysis does represent an increase in “learning” about nature, yet it simultaneously represents a failure to reach the true target, genuine “knowledge of the truth”, namely: Who is the real “engineer” of Earth’s ecosystems?
Regarding that critical shortcoming, the Darwinists’ own words betray them, as they misapply the term “engineer”—to mussels and mole-rats, walruses and woodpeckers, fungi to funnel worms—in their quixotic quest to comprehend nature apart from truths revealed by God in Scripture.
Why are secularists afraid of learning big-picture facts from Scripture, as they investigate and correlate creation’s many puzzle pieces? Studying God’s creation, with a closed Bible, is like trying to piece together a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle, without looking at the “answer” (photograph) on the puzzle box cover!(2)
However, before critiquing the conceptual defects of “ecosystem engineering”, the term will be described (mostly by illustrations), with recognition of its limited usefulness for analyzing how different creatures change habitats.
When analyzing ecological relationships and habitat-changing activities, how do secularists define “ecosystem engineering”?
The ecosystem engineering concept was introduced in 1994, by Clive Jones and colleagues, in a seminal article titled “Organisms as Ecosystem Engineers”.(3)
Ecologists have long recognized that organisms [such as plants and animals] can have important impacts on physical and chemical processes occurring in the environment. While some influences invariably arise from organismal energy and material uptake [i.e., eating and drinking] and waste production, many organisms alter physical structure and change chemical reactivity in ways that are independent of their assimilatory [i.e., uptake] and dissimilatory [i.e., output] influence….
[But] ecological textbooks have rarely included such effects among the roster of important forces structuring ecological populations and communities or influencing ecosystem functioning; instead, [ecology textbooks] have traditionally focused on interactions such as competition and predation, or emphasized metabolically regulated nutrient [i.e., “food chains” and biogeochemical cycles] and energy flows.(3)
In other words, ecologists have largely discussed food chains, the water cycle, biomass production, and other topics that link to the Darwinian fascination with survival-and-reproduction “competition”—using evolutionist Herbert Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest”.(4)
Also, because Darwinists assume that inanimate environments are actively “shaping” and “sculpting” (i.e., selectively redefining) organisms on earth, they imagine organisms as primarily passive lifeforms, when analyzing creature-habitat interactions. How wrong! Organisms are quite active in pioneering and dealing with their habitats, sometimes aggressively so.(5)
Accordingly, the mental “blind-spot” of Darwinists (to recognize the activist impacts of lifeforms, to their habitats) has retarded Darwinists’ sensitivity to and appreciation for how animals (and non-animal life) impact their own geophysical environments, in big and small ways.(4),(6)
Some examples are too conspicuous to ignore, of course, such as dam-building beavers (or exterior-“decorating” elephants, or reef-forming mollusks), but the habitat modifications produced by other creatures often went unnoticed, because it occurred underground, or underwater, or was “hidden in plain view”.
Yet eventually, the activist traits of many animals, big and small, visible and invisible (to the naked eye), would be recognized by ecosystem investigators.
It was to incorporate this variety of abiotic environmental modification by organisms, along with its numerous consequences, that [Dr. Clive G.] Jones and colleagues (1994) proposed the concept of ecosystem engineering. Inn their first article on the topic, they defined ecosystem engineers as “organisms that directly or indirectly modulate [i.e., alter] the availability of resources (other than themselves) to other species by causing … state changes in biotic [i.e., living] or abiotic [i.e., nonliving] materials. In so doing they modify, maintain and/or create [sic] habitats” (Jones et al. 1994).
This and a subsequent article (Jones et al. 1997a) laid out the concept of ecosystem engineering, providing models, initial formal definitions, illustrative examples, postulates, general questions that needed to be answered, and a challenge to the ecological community to develop and refine these ideas.(3)
What are examples of “ecosystem engineering”, at big and small levels?
What are some animals that drastically modify the abiotic (i.e., nonliving) environments in which they live?
Beavers build dams (sometime taller than humans!) that change waterflow in freshwater streams, as well as felling riparian trees, removing tree canopy obstacles to sunlight.(7)
Termites radically alter soil with interconnected tunnels, as well as air columns above ground, with mounds that can reach 8’ high and 30’ in diameter!(8)
Reef-forming mollusks construct underwater structures (in some places comparable to forest groves in size) that provide physical shelters for marine life, as well as obstacles to underwater currents.(9)
Walruses disturb sea sediments (and subsurface seafloor) as they hunt clams, reshaping large patches of benthic invertebrate community “real estate”.(10)
Earthworms recycle nitrogen-fixed compounds in soil, increasing subsoil aeration and water drainage, forming networks of underground burrow-tunnels.(11)
Other examples could include alligators, bison, caddisflies, corvids, elephants, ghost shrimp, mole-rats, mycorrhizal fungi, periwinkles, pikas, salmon, etc. — but such details must wait another day to report!(12)
How have “ecosystem engineering” concepts helped to advance ecology?
Unlike the overly simplistic “keystone” approach (to understanding ecosystems), which assumed that one super-influential animal was the essential foundation needed to facilitate a local habitat, the ecosystem engineering approach recognizes that many organisms simultaneously play different yet interdependent roles in influencing the ingredients and interactions of a habitat’s community of lifeforms—as well as impacting the nonliving geophysical ingredients located within a given habitat.(3) This is similar to how simplistic notions of “food chains” have been replaced by analysis of complex “food webs”.
Also, this new (ecosystem engineering) approach to examining the geophysical impacts of organisms, on their own environments, has highlighted how animals are not primarily passive products of inanimate geophysical “sculptors”, as if environments were selective “potters” and animals were malleable clay pottery.
Dr. Randy Guliuzza’s “Engineered Adaptability” series, in Acts & Facts, has repeatedly documented how animals actively “fill” new and changing habitats, by detecting and self-adjusting to new geophysical conditions.(5)
But the term “ecosystem engineering” points to a different kind of non-passivity practiced by God’s living creatures, as they adjust the habitat to accommodate their own activities within their habitats.
These habitat adjustments include both the modest impact of a bird’s nest in tree branches, as well as the enormously influential picoplankton-filtration impact of Chesapeake Bay oysters and mussels, preventing algal bloom and low-oxygen ‘dead zones’ in estuarial waters!(3),(6)
How do “ecosystem engineering” concepts fall short of the target?
The term “ecosystem engineering”, however, is misleading—it distractingly accredits the habitat-changing animals as if they were intelligent “engineers”– like humans with engineering expertise, purposeful planning, and technical ambitions—who inventively utilize mechanical solutions that impact geophysical environments.(13)
In short, the engineering genius involved is God’s genius, not that of the animals that He creatively preprogrammed and gave life to.
Even early critics of the ecosystem engineering term faulted the phrase as implying humanlike engineering “intent”.(3)
Christians should recognize the engineering “intent”, in each of these scenarios (where animals modify their habitats in physical ways, in order to live their lives there), as staging an ongoing drama of God’s creatures “filling the earth”,(5) because it was always God’s “intent” that His creatures fulfill that purpose.
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- 1st Samuel 5:2-4.
- Johnson, James J. S. 2010. Tackling Charges of Biblical Inconsistency. Acts & Facts 39 (7): 8-9, posted at https://www.icr.org/article/tackling-charges-biblical-inconsistency/ . Secularists, consciously and/or unconsciously, don’t like to be told by God how to understand creation, so they try to solve nature’s “puzzles” without ever consulting Scripture for facts or insights.
- Jones, C.G., J.H. Lawton, and M. Shachak. 1994. Organisms as Ecosystem Engineers. Oikos, 69:373-386, cited in Justin Wright & Clive G. Jones. 2006. The Concept of Organisms as Ecosystem Engineers Ten Years On: Progress, Limitations, and Challenges. BioScience, 56(3):203-209.
- With all the Darwinist emphasis on antagonistic “competition” between species, the ecological realities of mutualistic neighborliness, in biotic communities, was downplayed and/or dismissed. Johnson, James J. S. 2010. Misreading earth’s Groanings: Why Evolutionists and Intelligent Design Proponents Fail Ecology 101. Acts & Facts, 39(8):8-9, posted at https://www.icr.org/article/misreading-earths-groanings-why-evolutionists; Johnson, James J. S. 2018. Grand Canyon Neighbors: Pines, Truffles, and Squirrels. Acts & Facts, 47(10):21, posted at https://www.icr.org/article/grand-canyon-neighbors-pines-truffles-squirrels ; Johnson, James J. S. 2017. Cactus, Bats, and Christmas Gift Giving. Acts & Facts, 46(12):21, posted at https://www.icr.org/article/cactus-bats-christmas-gift-giving .
- E.g., see Guliuzza, Randy J. 2018. Engineered Adaptability: Fast Adaptation Confirms Design-based Model. Acts & Facts, 47(9):18-20, posted at https://www.icr.org/article/fast-adaptation-confirms-design-based-model; Guliuzza, Randy J. 2018. Engineered Adaptability: Sensor Triggers Affirm Intelligently Designed Internalism. Acts & Facts, 47(2):17-19, posted at https://www.icr.org/article/engineered-adaptability-sensor-triggers .
- Pipkin, Whitney. 2018. “Freshwater Bivalves Flexing their Muscles as Water Filterers”, CHESAPEAKE BAY JOURNAL, 28(7):1; Keryn B. Gedan, Lisa Kellogg, & Denise L. Breitburg. 2014. Accounting for Multiple Foundation Species in Oyster Reef Restoration Benefits. Restoration Ecology, 22(4):517, cited in Virginia Institute of Marine Science, “Study Puts Some Mussels into Chesapeake Bay Restoration”, ScienceDaily.com (posted 9-8-2014), at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140908121538.htm . See also James J. S. Johnson, “Have You Thanked God for Mussels Lately?” Bibleworld Adventures, November 12, AD2018, posted at https://bibleworldadventures.com/2018/11/12/have-you-thanked-god-for-mussels-lately/ .
- Regarding beavers, see Wright, Justin, Clive G. Jones, & Alexander S. Flecker. 2002. An Ecosystem Engineer, the Beaver, Increases Species Richness at the Landscape Level. Oecologia, 132:96-101; Naiman, R.J., C.A. Johnston, & J.C. Kelley. 1988. Alteration of North American Streams by Beaver. BioScience, 38:753-762; Naiman, R.J., G. Pinay, C.A. Johnston, & J. Pastor. 1994. Beaver Influence on the Long-Term Biogeochemical Characteristics of Boreal Forest Drainage Networks. Ecology, 75:905-921; Wright, Justin P., Alexander S. Flecker, & Clive G. Jones. 2003. Local vs. Landscape Controls on Plant Secies Richness in Beaver Meadows. Ecology, 84(12):3162-3173.
- Regarding mound-building termites in Brazil, see MacFarlane, Drew. 2018. Thousand-Year-Old Termite Mounds Span an Area the Size of Great Britain and Can Be Seen from Space. The Weather Channel News (weather.com), November 20, AD2018, posted at https://weather.com/news/news/2018-11-20-hidden-termite-mounds-size-of-great-britain .
- Regarding reef-building mollusks, see J.L. Gutierrez, Clive G. Jones, DS.L. Strayer, O.O. Iribarne, 2003. Mollusks as Ecosystem Engineers: The Role of Shell Production in Aquatic Habitats. Oikos, 101:79-90.
- Regarding walruses, see Ray, G. Carleton, Jerry McCormick-Ray, Peter Berg, & Howard E. Epstein. 2006. Pacific Walrus: Benthic Bioturbator of Beringia. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology & Ecology, 330(1):403-419.
- Regarding earthworms, see Johnson, James J. S., Thank God for Earthworms. 2017. Acts & Facts, 46(6):21, posted at https://www.icr.org/article/thank-god-for-earthworms .
- More examples of “ecosystem engineering” include alligators, bison, caddisflies, crayfish, corvids, elephants, ghost shrimp, mole-rats, mycorrhizal fungi, periwinkles, pikas, pocket gophers, salmon, river-dwelling tubificid worms, etc. For example, regarding tubificid worms, see Navel, Simon, Florian Mermillod-Blondian, Bernard Montuelle, Eric Chauvet, & Pierre Marmonier. 2012. Sedimentary Context Controls the Influence of Ecosystem Engineering by Bioturbators on Microbial Processes in River Sediments. Oikos, 121(7):1134-1144. Regarding soil-dwelling mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, see Van der Heijden, Marcel G. A., Richard D. Bardgett, & Nico M. van Straalen. 2008. The Unseen Majority: Soil Microbes as Drivers of Plant Diversity and Productivity in Terrestrial Ecosystems. Ecology Letters, 11:296-310. Regarding salmon, see Moore, J.W., D.E. Schindler, & M.D. Scheuerell. 2004. Disturbance of Freshwater Habitats by Anadromous Salmon in Alaska. Oecologia, 139:298-308. Regarding caddisflies, see Cardinale, B.J., E.R. Gelmann, & M.A. Palmer. 2004. Net Spinning Caddisflies as Stream Ecosystem Engineers: The Influence of Hydropsyche on Benthic Substrate Stability. Functional Ecology, 18:381-387. Regarding crayfish, see Statzner, Berhard, Eric Fièvet, Jean-Yves Champagne, Robert Morel, & Eric Herouin. 2000. Crayfish as Geomorphic Agents and Ecosystem Engineers: Biological Behavior Affects San and Gravel Erosion in Experimental Streams. Limnology & Oceanography, 45(5):1030-1040. Regarding European periwinkles on New England rocky shores, see Bertness, M.D. 1984. Habitat and Community Modification by an Introduced Herbivorous Snail. Ecology, 65:370-381.
- Regarding the usage of misleading terminology, when analyzing scientific topics, see Johnson, James J. S. 2012. Bait and Switch: A Trick Used by Both Anglerfish and Evolutionists. Acts & Facts, 41(1):10-11, posted at https://www.icr.org/article/bait-switch-trick-used-by-both-anglerfish . See also James J. S. Johnson, “Charading Crabs and Creationists”, Bibleworld Adventures, October 23, AD2015, posted at https://bibleworldadventures.com/2015/10/23/mislabeling-crabs-and-creationists/ .