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Out of Control

Life keeps rising. It rose again and again inside Bio2. The bottle was fecund, prolific. Of the many babies born in Bio2 during its first two years, the most visible was a galago born in the early months of closure. Two African pygmy goats birthed five kids, and an Ossabaw Island pig bore seven piglets. A checkered garter snake gave birth to three baby snakes in the ginger belt at the edge of the rain forest. And lizards hid lots of baby lizards under the rocks in the desert.

But all the bumblebees died. And so did the hummingbirds, all four of them. One species of coral in the lagoon (out of forty) went "extinct," but it was represented by only a single individual. All the cordon bleu finches died, still in their transition cages; maybe they were too cold during an unusually cloudy Arizona winter. Linda Leigh, who was Bio2's in-house biologist, wondered ruefully whether, if she had let them out earlier, they could have discovered a warm corner on their own. Humans make such remorseful gods. Furthermore, fate is always ironic. Three uninvited English sparrows who snuck into the structure before closure thrived merrily. Leigh complained that the sparrows were brash and noisy, even vulgar in their pushiness, while the finches were elegant, peaceful, and melodious singers.

Stewart Brand once needled Linda on the phone: "What's the matter with you guys that you don't want to go with success? Keep the sparrows and forget about the finches." Brand urged Darwinism: find what works, and let it reproduce; let the biosphere tell you where it wants to go. Leigh confessed, "I was horrified when Stewart first said that, but more and more I agree with him." The problem was not just sparrows. It was aggressive passion vines in the artificial savanna, and savanna grasses in the desert, ants everywhere, and other creatures not invited.

Urbanization is the advent of edge species. The hallmark of the modern world is its fragmentation, its division into patchworks. What wilderness is left is divided into islands and the species that thrive best thrive on the betweenness of patches. Bio2 is a compact package of edges. It has more ecological edges per square foot than anywhere else on Earth. But there is no heartland, no dark deepness, which is increasingly true of most of Europe, much of Asia, and eastern North America. Edge species are opportunists: crows, pigeons, rats, and the weeds found on the borders of urban areas all over the world.

Lynn Margulis, outspoken champion and coauthor of the Gaia Theory, told me her prediction of the Bio2 ecology before it closed. "It'll all go to Urban Weed," she said. Urban Weeds are those bully cosmopolitan varieties of both plants and animals that flourish in the edges of the patchwork habitats that people make. Bio2, after all, was a patchwork wilderness par excellence. According to Margulis's hypothesis, one expected to open the doors of Bio2 at the end and find it filled with dandelions, sparrows, cockroaches, and raccoons.

The human role was to prevent that from happening. Leigh said, "If we didn't tamper with it -- that is, if no humans weeded the ones that were highly successful -- I agree that Bio2 could go towards what Lynn Margulis is talking about: a world of Bermuda grass and mallard ducks. But since we are doing selective harvesting, I don't think that will happen, at least in the short run."

I harbor personal doubts about the ability of biospherians to steer the emergent ecology of 3,800 species. In the first two years, the fog desert became a fog thicket -- it was wetter than expected, and grasses loved it. Weedy morning-glory vines overran the rainforest canopy. The 3,800 species will sidestep, outmaneuver, burrow under, and otherwise wear down the "keystone predator" the biospherians hope to be, in order to go where they want to go. The cosmopolitan types are tenacious. They are in their element, and they want to stay.

Witness the curved-bill thrasher. One day an official from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department showed up outside a Bio2 window. The death of the finches had made the TV news and animal-rights activists had been calling his office. They wanted his service to check if the finches inside Bio2 had been collected from wild exotic places and brought in there to die. The biospherians showed the officer receipts and other paperwork that proved the late finches were mere captive-bred store pets, a status that was okay with the Wildlife Department. "By the way, what other birds do you have in there?" he asked them.

"Right now, only some English sparrows and a curved-bill thrasher."

"Do you have a permit for that curved-bill thrasher?"

"Uhhh, no."

"You know that under the Migratory Bird Treaty it's against federal law to contain a curved-bill thrasher. I'll have to give you a citation if you are holding him deliberately."

"Deliberately? You don't understand. He's a stowaway. We tried very hard to get him out of here. We tried trapping him every way we could think of. We didn't want him here before and we don't want him here now. He eats our bees, and butterflies, and as many insects as he can find, which isn't many by now."

The game warden and the biospherians were facing each other on either side of a thick airtight window. Although their noses were inches apart they talked on walkie-talkies. The surreal conversation continued. "Look," the biospherians said, "we couldn't get him out now even if we could catch him. We are completely sealed up in here for another year and a half."

"Oh. Umm. I see." The warden pauses. "Well, since you aren't keeping him intentionally, I'll issue you a permit for a curved-bill thrasher, and you can release him when you open up."

Anyone want to bet he won't ever leave?

Go with success. Unlike the fragile finches, both the hearty sparrows and the stubborn thrasher liked Bio2. The thrasher had his charms. His beautiful song wove through the wilderness in the morning and cheered the "key predators" during their sunrise routines.

The messy living thing knitting itself together inside Bio2 was pushing back. It was a coevolutionary world. The biospherians would have to coevolve along with it. Bio2 was specifically built to test how a closed system coevolves. In a coevolutionary world, the atmosphere and material environment in which beasties dwell become as adaptable and as lifelike as the beasties themselves. Bio2 was a test bench to find out how an environment governs the organisms immersed in it, and how the organisms in turn govern the environment. The atmosphere is the paramount environmental factor; it produces life, while life produces it. The transparent bottle of Bio2 turned out to be the ideal seat from which to observe an atmosphere in the act of conversing with life.