Logo IMG


Biology, Society and Machines

George Bugliarello

Imbalance in Agriculture

To describe the dynamics of a biosoma, I shall focus briefly on agriculture. Here, the biological portion consists of farmers, plants and animals. The social elements include a variety of factors that influence agriculture, including property laws, irrigation districts, the industries that produce agricultural implements, the markets for the products, the banks that finance farmers and so on. The machines include the implements that a farmer uses, from hoes and tractors to irrigation channels and weather satellites.

In its earliest forms, agriculture involved very simple machines and social organizations, perhaps nothing more complicated than a stick and some decisions regarding who planted and who picked. Over the years, machines and social organizations have become increasingly important in agriculture. Advances in agricultural machinery, for instance, greatly reduced the number of individual farmers. In the U.S., less than five percent of the workforce is now engaged in agriculture. Moreover, some machines allow farms to be run from a distance, say by using advanced weather-prediction techniques to decide on the timing of sowing and other operations or by using heavily automated equipment, including irrigation systems controlled by soil-moisture sensors. Meanwhile the biological components of farming remain relatively unchanged.

Problems arise in a biosoma when there are imbalances among its elements. If agricultural machines change quickly, a farmer might be unable to cope with their complexity. Some people think this happens more frequently in underdeveloped countries, but it can happen in the U.S. as well; hence the importance of agricultural extension services. Machines also tend to become much more costly or powerful. Rapid technological development can force changes in property ownership, such as the disappearance of small farms in the U.S., or encourage excessive development of monocultures, which are more efficient for machine cultivation but devastating ecologically and dangerous for their susceptibility to disease.

In many cases, the three elements of a biosoma do not stay in balance because of differences in response times. The social element of a biosoma often responds slowly to innovations in the machines element. These frequently require new organizational patterns, new laws, the development of new perceptions or the evolution of new customs. An example of the difficulties in bringing about technological innovation is that of countries of the former Soviet Union, where the remains of the rigid Soviet social structure and the associated frame of mind are major obstacles. As a second example, many educational systems have been very slow in adapting to the new possibilities offered by the Internet.

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist