[permaculture] Major histocompatibility complex

Toby Hemenway hemenway at jeffnet.org
Thu Mar 20 18:47:50 EST 2003

On Wednesday, March 19, 2003, at 07:11 AM, Marimike6 at cs.com wrote:

> Anyhow, just to return the thread to the "weedy behavior" analogy,

I'm not sure that "weed" is the right term. And this takes us to an 
interesting place.

What we call weeds generally move into disturbed ecosystems: tilled or 
burned sites, clearings left by downed trees, and so on. Weeds (and 
almost all so-called invasive plants) have a tough time colonizing 
intact ecosystems. You'll see a few dandelions in old-growth forest, 
but far more in the clearcut next to it. Kudzu first colonized old 
farms, and then the carved-up forests.

But colonizing humans, unlike weeds, don't favor "disturbed" lands or 
cultures. They move into places already settled by stable cultures 
(analogous to intact ecosystems). There's no equivalent of bare ground 
there. Human colonizers just push out or assimilate the occupants 
regardless of how well established they are. So colonizing cultures are 
less like a weed and more like a vigorous tree that sucks up all the 
nutrients, shades out the other plants, and kills them with 
allelopathic toxins. And trees are a later successionary phase than 

Weeds can only move into a limited set of conditions: disturbed ground, 
where there is little resource competition. But later colonizers move 
into many types of occupied ground, find or create niches, and leverage 
into dominance (there's your East Indian motel owner: not a weed, but a 
late-succession specialist). As a general rule in ecology, the later a 
system's successionary phase, the more specialized or aggressive an 
invader's resource exploitation must be, as all the "easy" resources 
are taken. Only those species able to find resources can move in, and 
as time goes by the niches get smaller or require innovation to create.

This takes me to a politically incorrect place: Perhaps indigenous 
cultures are like early successionary species (hmm, like weeds), 
exploiting resources via a limited array of methods (hunter-gathering, 
digging-stick agriculture) while industrial cultures have evolved a 
diverse array of specialties (smelting, drilling, military logistics, 
accounting, etc.) for exploiting resources unused by the earlier 
inhabitants. I don't much like where this takes us, as it creates a 
justification for the idea of calling some cultures "primitive,"  but 
then, that's only when we view them through the lens of technology or 
ability to exploit certain resources. If we change the criteria to, 
say, plant knowledge, intact families, or integration of spirit into 
culture, then western culture is the primitive one. But this 
successional viewpoint does explain why western culture is colonizing 
most of the planet. We're more effective at turning everything into a 
"resource" and using it to fuel our cultural expansion, regardless of 
the consequences, crowding out the early occupants.

My point then, is that thinking of the spread of certain cultures as 
"weediness" is not as good an analogy as succession and aggressive 
resource exploitation. Westerners convert the whole planet into their 
habitat, but weeds are limited to bare soil.

I'm happy to have this idea battered down, refined, or amended; it 
leaves me a little depressed.

For a look at my book on ecological gardening,
Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, visit
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