Teaching Ecology- Was Thanos Right

Was Thanos Right?

 Thanos

 

I know it’s not anime, but I wanted to share something that I tried in the classroom recently.  While I like to end with an ecology/environmental science unit, as I find it is a unit that is very adaptable to the hectic end of the year schedule, the new curriculum I am using in CA has it as the first unit of the year.  It’s not a bad idea as it is a nice way to ease into the school year, but the order of units during the school year is a discussion for another time.

 

Background information

Now let’s get to the reason that this post is titled “Was Thanos Right?”  The first topic of the ecology unit was carrying capacity, which in biology is the maximum number of organisms that an ecosystem can support.  This is due to the fact that an ecosystem has a limited amount of resources available (i.e., food, water, air, habitat).  An example I like to use to explain this concept is to ask the students why aren’t there a lot of plants in the desert?  The answer is a lack of water.

 

You might be wondering what this has to do with Thanos, but let’s take a look at his dialogue from Avengers Infinity War.

 

            Gamora- “I was a child when you took me.”

            Thanos- “I saved you.”

            Gamora- “No, no, we were happy on my home planet.”

            Thanos- “Going to bed hungry. Scrounging for scraps. Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I was the one who stopped that. You know what’s happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It’s a paradise.”

            Gamora- “Because you murdered half the planet!”

            Thanos- “A small price to pay for salvation.”

            Gamora- “You’re insane.”

            Thanos- “Little one, it’s a simple calculus. This universe is finite, its resources, finite… if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.”

            Gamora- “YOU DON’T KNOW THAT!”

 

It is Thanos’s last line that is the most telling in the exchange.  “This universe is finite, its resources, finite… if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.”  If you know anything about carrying capacity, you will realize that this is what Thanos is referring to.  An ecosystem, planet, and even the universe, does have a limited amount of resources and there is a limit to the number of organisms an area can support.  After hearing Thanos’s little speech, my first thought was Thanos is Thomas Malthus, the supervillain.

 

Thomas Robert Malthus was a 17th and 18th century scholar who focused on the fields of politics, economics, and demographics.  His work was often influenced by religion and he often intermixed politics, economics, and demographics, but there is one key element that Malthus talked about:

 

That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence,

That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and,

That the superior power of population is repressed by moral restraint, vice, and misery.

 

Leaving out the last line about moral restraint, vice, and misery, the key element of Thomas Malthus’s work and the one he is most known for today is the idea that a population was limited by the availability of food.  Malthus’s ideas were at least partially inspired by the overcrowded and poor living conditions experienced by the poor living in the slums of London at the time.  This is not all dissimilar from what Thanos said he experienced growing up on Titan.

 

The big difference is, of course, their solution to the problem.  According to Malthus there are two types of solutions, positive and preventative.  Positive solutions to population growth are things that actively kill off individuals of the population.  In nature this is accomplished by predators, but humanity does not have any natural predators.  So the only real positive checks on human population growth are things like disease, famine, and war.  Or exactly what Thanos did at the end of Avengers Infinity War, killing off half of all intelligent life in the universe.

 

Thankfully for us, Malthus liked the preventative solutions a lot more, which included things like birth control, delaying marriage, celibacy, and smaller family size.  While not associated with the movement, some of Malthus’s ideas were used in the degrowth movement that began in the 19th century.  The movement never developed much traction, but it is still around today with the goal of trying to reduce the human population through non violent methods.

 

How I used it in the classroom

I began the lesson by showing the students this picture and asking the following question-

 

What prevents the deer from reproducing to the point where they completely overrun the ecosystem?

 

I highly recommend that you give the students at least a minute to think of an answer, and I’ve been using this new method that the school calls a DYAD.  Now I don’t know what it stands for but, the process is simple.

 

1- Pair off the students

2- Allow student 1 to explain their answer to student 2 uninterrupted for 1 minute

3- Repeat, only now student 2 explains their answer to student 1 uninterrupted for 1 minute

4- Allow the students to have a discussion about their answers for a minute

5- Ask some of the pairs to share their answers to the question.

 

The students will more than likely stumble across the idea that there is a limit to the population of an organism in an ecosystem aka carrying capacity.  I follow this up with another image and question.

 

What happens when you put too many fish in a fish tank?

 

You can use the DYAD method again or just ask the students directly depending on the amount of time you have or want to spend on this.  The students will probably come up with the correct answer, which is that some or all of the fish will die due to the water becoming very dirty.  I followed this up with another question.  What are some possible solutions to the problem?  The answers will vary from increasing the water filter, getting a bigger fish tank, to removing some of the fish.  If you are lucky, one of the students will say to kill some of the fish.

 

This is when I bring in Thanos, because killing the fish to save the environment is a small-scale version of what Thanos does in the movie.  I then show the Thanos quote from the movie.  This can be used to lead into further discussions on limiting factors, population growth, over population, environmental degradation and possible solutions.  I like to highlight how the science behind his quote is on target, but his solution clearly isn’t.

 

FYI- As of May 2018 the human population on earth is 7.6 billion people and if you wiped out half of the life on Earth the population would fall to 3.8 billion.  If the population growth rate of 1.1% remains unchanged the population would return to 7.6 billion people in 64 years.  Hardly an effective long-term solution.  Also, this is assuming that Thanos’s finger snap removed an even distribution of ages across the population.  The growth rate would change dramatically if more women, or men were removed, or the very young, or old were removed instead of the other.

 

Conclusion

I those of you who are teachers out there find this helpful, and can help to make your lessons more interesting for students.