Reading 6.2: An animal in its environment
Defining a system as an input–process–output structure enables a new look at the way in which ecologies work.
In Reading 2.1 a model of an animal receiving signals from its environment was developed – interpreting those signals, that is attaching meaning to them, and as a result choosing a course of action and then taking that action. It might be the smell of a predator, the sight or smell of fresh grass, the reaction of a potential mate to its approach, or of course as a human you can invent your own situation.
Whatever the situation you can see here that the animal can be viewed as a system, it receives input signals, processes them and this results in an output action (see Figure 6.1). The animal’s relationship with its environment derives from the precise roles that result from the processes that are the sum of its capabilities. Those capabilities are the difference it makes to the environment, its environmental footprint.
You can see now why it is that the lion in the zoo is a very different system to the lion in its natural habitat. The difference the zoo lion makes to its environment is very different to the difference the savanna lion makes to its environment. For example the first lion as a zoo attraction increases visitor numbers to the zoo, and thereby increases oil consumption and road congestion, sales of ice cream, etc., whereas the lion in its natural habitat is a force to be reckoned with as a predator, playing its natural role in that environment.
Whether the animal learns or not, whether it uses models built over the course of its lifetime, or models built in by its genetic inheritance, whatever the situation, the action taken has an impact on the environment of the animal, and change occurs. So here you can identify a feedback loop, the animal both responds to its environment and changes it. The change can be immediate and short term (e.g. a frog leaping to escape), or longer term (a bird building a nest) or perhaps something not immediately discernable (an animal in conjunction with others depleting their food source).
Having identified a feedback loop the question now arises whether the loop is a positive feedback loop or a negative feedback loop? This depends upon the action that is taken by the animal. For example in the situation of a male lion being faced by a rival for a mate, it may respond to an aggressive display signal with a further enhanced aggressive display signal, reinforcing the situation in a positive feedback loop towards an eventual violent clash. On the other hand, perceiving the superior size and weight of its opponent, it may instead respond with a submissive signal, building a negative feedback loop to avoid the violent clash and being disabled so that its ability to survive is impaired.
In either case, you can think of the person or animal attempting to manage its environment, in playing its allotted role in order to survive. Again, you can think of this in the short term or in the long term.