Choose only one master: Nature.

//Nature is multilayered. It’s simultaneously a patchwork of ecosystems, the interactions between individual organisms within ecosystems, and the cooperation of trillions of single cells that create an ‘individual’.

//In other words, although nature is composed of individual organisms, some with multicellular bodies that we can understand on their own, what we call the natural world bears little resemblance to these 'components' of which it is made.

//The patterns we can see at this level of complexity are incredible.

Ecosystems are complex networks of codependent living organisms and their physical environment. But most ecosystems have a fundamental framework:

The food web

An ecosystem’s physical environment provides sunlight, water, nutrients, shelter, and gasses like oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Elaborate multicellular structures called ‘plants’ filter the nutrients and gasses that flow past them (Technically organisms that fill this role are called ‘autotrophs’, as we needed a different word to try and cover all the variety and exceptions in the world’s diverse ecosystems).

Using the energy provided by sunlight, they chemically reconfigure these materials into their own structures for growth and reproduction, like roots, leaves, branches, sap, and flowers, honey, pollen, seeds, and nuts.

Plants who successfully grow to maturity use sexual reproduction; mixing their genes with other successful plants and passing them onto the next generation. This allows their population to rapidly adapt to a changing environment.

In many environments there is such an abundance of plants and the concentrated materials and energy they’ve collected, that they support populations of other, radically different creatures.

Technically they’re called heterotrophs, but we know them as animals. They’re different types of elaborate multicellular structures, and they rely on putting plant matter through baths of stomach acid and a long digestive tract. This is a destructive process which extracts nutrition and energy from the plants and utilises them to build their own bodies.

Many animals eat other animals, sometimes instead of plants entirely, creating a multilevel ‘trophic pyramid’.

Each level on the tropic pyramid is supported by the levels below it. Just as the first level of animals are entirely dependent on plants to transform nutrients from their surrounding environment into digestible material they can use, so ‘higher’ levels depend on that level of plant eating animals, and so on. Ecosystems therefore depend on the theft of energy and materials.


This fundamental dynamic of the trophic (or food) web underscores every ecosystem. The availability of food creates niches that species evolve to exploit, often radically altering their bodies to better exploit that niche. It also creates interdependence between all of the 'players' in an ecosystem, but not just as predators and prey.

So most ecosystems are a more of a complex web than a simple hierarchy.


So every ecosystem is a kind of extremely elaborate flow of nutrients of which its creatures are entirely comprised. However, all of the fuss is not just for its own sake. Each creature has one single, overriding purpose in mind: to maximise its own genes in its species gene pool.


Reproduction creates competition. Many organisms don’t survive to maturity, and the ones that do compete with each other to maximise the prevalence of their own genes in the next generation of offspring.

This kind of competition between genes is reflected in fierce competition between individuals of a species, which forms the second fundamental framework around which ecosystems are based.

[Two stories of sexual selection in species]

[Perhaps tell the story of how plants developed flowers as a means of accelerating fertilisation]


[Another story of animals warning each other about predators]

[Perhaps finally a story on how plants release a chemical when being eaten to signal predators that herbivores are nearby]

Some of the most successful species are actually the ones that are in symbiosis with humanity. Agriculture and pets particularly. By accident they have jumped on the winning bandwagon.

Nature is constantly in flux.

When we go out into nature we see just one frame in a movie that is millions of years in duration.


Know someone who'd like this article? You can easily share it by clicking the share icon, then 'Copy link'



Extras Thanks for reading this big idea. Join our email list ✉️ to get the latest ones in your inbox. We also offer a Patreon Membership 🏅 where you can get tons of other Discover Earth benefits.


Say hey to Owlbert Einstein

Curator of the Big Ideas Network

Email Newsletter

Learn about the entire universe with the Discover Earth email.