Biodiversity is the Dynamic Equilibrium of the Earth - The Beauty of Oikos -

Shin-Iichi Fukuoka
Professor, Aoyama Gakuin University


As a biologist, I have thought about the question of “what is life?”  My micro-level research on genes and cells, has always been based on this question.  The understanding of life as a mechanism has greatly progressed since the discovery of the double helical conformation of DNA in the mid-twentieth century.  And we have been able to receive an answer to the question of “what is life?;” the answer being that life is a system for replication. 


However, if I am again questioned about “what is life?,” I would like to answer that “life is dynamic equilibrium.” Not only focusing on the mechanism of self-replication, but also thinking again about life based on its flexibility, variability, resilience and responsiveness, I think that my answer to the question has to be dynamic equilibrium.


Life is moving ceaselessly in order to balance.  The movement is a flow of two combinations; decomposition and synthesis in inner life, and intake and discharge.  The components of life are always updated by this movement, and the relationship is therefore maintained – like a jigsaw puzzle which maintains its picture while changing its pieces little by little.  This is dynamic equilibrium.  As life is in dynamic equilibrium, life can be adaptive to the environment and flexible to changes.


Dynamic equilibrium can be adapted not only to inner life but also to outer life or relationships among lives.  In other words, the global environment is in dynamic equilibrium.


Life on earth is ceaselessly passing materials, energy or information as if a capable soccer team were always passing the ball.  For example, plants breathe in carbon dioxide emitted by other organisms and breathe out oxygen and organic matters using solar energy.  Another organism receives the “pass,” and makes another “pass” for others.  The earth can be in a healthy condition when it has such a good circulation.


The more players exist, the more the making and receiving of passes become complicated.  And accordingly, the dynamic equilibrium of the global environment becomes stronger through such circulation.  This is the reason why biodiversity is important.  The importance of biodiversity is not just the great number of organisms.  An important thing is the interrelationships among the “players.”



Every single organism has its own role.  When I was a boy, I was always raising butterflies.  What the caterpillars of butterflies eat differs from butterfly to butterfly; Papilio xuthus (swallowtails) eat citrus, Papilio machaon eat carrots, and Byasa alcinous eat birthworts.  Since natural resources are limited, organisms survive in their own fields without having meaningless fights.  Living organisms on the earth form the earth’s circulation well and have supported dynamic equilibrium by maintaining their own fields since the birth of life 3.8 billion years ago.


Such fields are called “niches.”  Like “niche market,” the term “niche” is often used as a narrow space between two things, but the term has originally been used in the field of biology.  In biology, niche is a term describing the relational position of an organism's species.  The origin of the term, “nest,” derives from niche.  Organisms repeatedly take and receive passes of materials, energy and information between niches.  Sometimes, such relationships means strained eat-or-be-eaten relations.  Also, such relationships are inter-dependent relationships reducing carbon dioxide through breathing to carbohydrate, or purifying body wastes.  In other words, all living things are dynamics of global circulation, and players supporting dynamic equilibrium.  Therefore, the drastic decrease of the number of players signifies the weakening and turbulence of the equilibrium.


We call mosquitoes or cockroaches “harmful insects,” but the idea of “harmful” is considered only from the perspective of a human urban lifestyle.  A certain species of mosquitoes is related to the malaria vector, however, not all species of mosquitoes or cockroaches have such problems.  They are indigenous and have lived in the earth before the appearance of human beings.  They have played their own roles=niches in the global environment as predators, decomposers, or feed, and have supported dynamic equilibrium on earth.  If the “players” who play their respective roles to maintain niches in the global ecosystem continuously and drastically “leave the field,” the dynamic equilibrium of the earth may encounter catastrophe like blocks being collapsed.


Over the long history of evolution, many new species have appeared and a lot of old species have become extinct.  However, it is considered that the massive extinction of species during the last 10 decades has obviously resulted from human activities.  For example, the extinction of Japanese river otters was mainly caused by overhunting, habitat decrease due to urbanization, and the decline of organisms as their feed.


Look at the problem of carbon dioxide.  Now, carbon dioxide is considered as an “enemy” against the environment, but carbon dioxide is neither garbage nor poison.  It is a form of global circulation.  However, the circulation becomes stagnant due to human activities.  We consume too much fossil fuel and decrease green lands.  As a result of these activities, we put a load on the dynamic equilibrium.  This is the problem.


We must take responsibility for the turbulence of dynamic equilibrium caused by human activities.  We can find the reason to conserve biodiversity there.


Do you know the tern, “oikos”?  This Greek term is the origin of the term, “eco.”  Originally, it meant existence, place, home, or habitat.  This term is similar to “niche.”


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“Oikos” gradually came to have the broader meaning of “companions who live there.”  If we suppose companions mean all living things, then, oikos + logos are considered to be necessary, and the term, “ecology” was born.  Also, rules regarding the exchanges among companions were considered to be necessary and the term, “economy,” (= oikos + nomos (rules)) was born.


In short, oikos means to live a life.  And the origin of eco (oikos) is to think about how habitats of all living things should be.


Since the thoughts of Descartes in the 17th century, the thinking has been to espouse the priority of human reasoning and to try to control all causalities.  An extreme thought, that humans can freely utilize all organisms except humans as they are banausic, was also born from these thoughts.  We would not be able to deny that our present way of thinking is based on these thoughts.  We have to say that the paradigm reaches a dead end with no escape.


Neither the global environment nor biodiversity belong to human beings.  Natural resources are not only for humans.  Biological diversity as dynamic equilibrium has existed here on the earth from long before human beings were born.  Nevertheless, humans have had fights over natural resources.


The important thing is to be simple.  What we have to do is to globally rehabilitate dynamic equilibrium.  We have to change our paradigm from “ego (too much appropriation)” to “eco (balanced sharing).”  Sharing (eco) is a good balance and it necessarily has a beauty.  When we see nature and feel beauty, there is a good balance, a finesse of dynamic equilibrium.  I would like to call it the beauty of oikos.



 Profile of Shin-Ichi Fukuoka


Shin-Ichi Fukuoka, born in 1959 in Tokyo, is a Japanese biologist.  After he graduated from Kyoto University, he served as doctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School, USA, and assistant professor at Kyoto University, Japan.  Now, he serves as Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University.  His bestselling book, “Seibutsu to Museibutsu no Aida (in Japanese, Between Organic Matters and Inorganic Matters) (Kodansha Co., Ltd.)”, sold more than 720,000 copies, and was awarded The Suntory Prize for Social Science and Humanities.  As well as this book, his books including “Doutekiheikou (in Japanese, Dynamic Equilibrium) (Kirakusya, Inc.)” have an established reputation for his lucid discussion about “what is life?”  He has also written books such as “Sekai wa Waketemo Wakaranai (in Japanese, The World is not understandable even if it is divided) (Kodansya Co., Ltd.)”, “Doutekiheikou II (in Japanese, Dynamic Equilibrium II)(Kirakusya, Inc.)”, “Idenshi wa Dame na Anata wo Aishiteru (in Japanese, Genes love incompetent persons like you)(Asahi Shimbun Publications Inc.), “Seimei no Hanashi (in Japanese, Tale of Life)(Shinchosya Publishing Co., Ltd.), “Ruriboshikamikiri no Ao: Fuokuoka Hakase ga Dekirumade (in Japanese, Blue of Rosalia batesi: until a boy became Dr. Fukuoka)(Bungeishunju Ltd.)”, “Seimei to Kioku no Paradox (in Japanese, Paradox of Life and Memory)(Bungeishunju Ltd.)”, and so on.

He is also well known as a big fan of Vermeer.  He published travels about oeuvre of Vermeer such as “Vermeer: Hikari no Oukoku (in Japanese, Vermeer: The Kingdom of Light) (Kirakusya, Inc.)” and “Fukayomi Vermeer (in Japanese, Over-interpretation about Vermeer, co-author: Yuriko Kuchiki) (Asahi Shimbun Publications Inc.).  Now he serves as Supervisor and Director of the  Vermeer Center Ginza where oeuvre of Vermeer recreated using state-of-the art digital printing technology are on permanent exhibit.