Energy and Information Drive the Cycles

It’s not easy to think about levels of organization as real things. It’s much easier to think of ourselves as real and everything else as a thing, but in fact we are only one cog in the wheel of life — from the life of a cell that perhaps makes up part of your body to the interacting behaviors of organisms, from plants to animals to fungi and other organisms that all interact to spread the food of life throughout the ecosystem.

What would it feel like to be an ecosystem? Or a cell? We can’t know things like that; the only thing we can know is what it feels like to have a brain. They don’t. But we do have the advantage that we can use the brain to figure out what we should do or should not do if we want to stay alive. One thing we should do is to think about our relationships with the other parts of the creation. If we believe in God, then it is a certainty that these other parts of the creation were put here so that we could survive and thrive; if we don’t believe in God, these other parts of the creation are still necessary for our survival. If we want to survive, then, the God question is not nearly as important as the responsibility question. If we only think about what we want today, we have now enough power to throw the ecosystem off balance forever. That’s what the scientists mean by the “tipping point.”

We talk about the tipping point as though we could see it or measure it. We can not. If you were a scientist, you might say: “We don’t want to do that experiment.” It’s no different from experimenting with human lives. Why on this living earth would we want to “wait and see what happens” before we do what we know is necessary to our survival into the future of life on earth?

So let’s try to think about levels of organizations again, and how they relate to the flow of energy and the cycling of materials through the ecosystem, and the flow of information through space and time. Because those are the three requirements for survival of any living thing. Materials recycle, energy flows throughout, information directs all the processes through time.

Let’s begin with the materials that cycle through the whole, because that is relatively easy to imagine. Materials are made of atoms. Atoms are the basic units of elements, or you could say the basic units of matter. Elements are the building blocks of matter. Molecules are made of atoms. Your desk is made of atoms and molecules. If your desk is wood, it’s made of organic molecules. If your desk is metal, it’s made of inorganic atoms and molecules . The difference is the organic molecules are carbon based and were made by trees.

Wood is mostly cellulose. Cellulose is a carbohydrate that was made by a tree using energy from sunlight to bond together carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a particularly strong configuration. If you burn up your desk, that sun energy is released as heat, the carbon atoms combine with oxygen from the atmosphere to make carbon dioxide, and the hydrogen atoms combine with oxygen from the atmosphere to make water (or actually steam at this temperature).

We do not eat wood because we can’t digest wood. That is, our bodies do not have the necessary enzymes to break apart the molecules of cellulose. If you eat sawdust, for example, it will come out pretty much as it went in. But if you eat a potato that is made of other kinds of carbohydrates, it gets all broken up in your gut into glucose molecules, and then the glucose molecules are transferred from the gut into your blood and they are pumped around your whole body so that every cell in your body has some glucose to burn. Just like you burned your desk, except the cells are able to burn the glucose ever so slowly and capture the energy to do the work of staying alive. The work of staying alive is mostly making other kinds of molecules. All of that is controlled and directed by your genes. Humans don’t have genes that will direct the digestion of sawdust. Quite a few different kinds of organisms do. They can digest sawdust and recapture the energy that is in wood and use it as food to stay alive.

Why do we not have the enzymes to digest sawdust? Enzymes are proteins. For every different kind of protein produced in a living body there is a genetic code. The human genome (all the genes) is not set up for us to eat wood. However, there are genes in fungi, for example, that do make enzymes for digesting sawdust. In the entire ecosystem, there are genes that permit every function that is required for the flow of energy through the ecosystem. This is necessary for keeping the entire ecosystem alive.

Think what happens if you cut off the flow of blood to one part of your body so it can not receive the glucose or the oxygen it needs. That same sort of thing happens if we prevent one part of the ecosystem from getting the organic molecules (food) that it needs to stay alive.

So, basically, food is organic molecules that are burned inside the body. Most of the energy is then used to do the work of staying alive. All of the functions of staying alive are directed by the genes

Notice, this has nothing to do with burning trees or burning gasoline, and this is one of the very important things the media do not want to tell you about. We are talking about using organic molecules to stay alive, not to drive cars. Burning the organic molecules inside our cells and breathing out the carbon dioxide and urinating the water. Not putting them in a big pile and destroying them. Either way, the result is carbon dioxide and water into the atmosphere, and the energy is gone away as heat.

Global warming.

When the ecosystem is in balance, then the carbon dioxide and water would be breathed in by the plants and used to make more organic molecules, under the direction of the plant genes, so all the related cycles of life could be repeated, over and over again, directed by all the genomes of all the organisms.

Similarly, all the other kinds of atoms and molecules that we need to be alive are recycled by the ecosystem. We don’t need to describe every different kind of cycle, because that information is available on the internet. The important point is that all the animals and plants and other organisms are involved in this kind of recycling. Different kinds of organisms have different tasks in the various cycles. They all work together to keep the cycles of materials balanced so that nobody ends up poisoned and nobody ends up deficient in some kind of atom or molecule that is needed for life to stay alive. The energy to do all this work comes from the sun and is not recycled. (Contrary to what you may have heard in the media.) It is changed into heat. The genetic information that directs all these millions of processes and keeps them in balance is not recycled. It is carried forward by sexual and asexual reproduction from one generation to another, changing a bit over time in response to changes in the conditions of the whole of life (we will describe this next post). Materials recycle; energy flows through and is lost; information, if lost, is forever gone.

This sort of thing does not happen on the moon. It does not happen on Mars. It does not happen on the sun. Because none of those places are alive. It will not happen on the earth if we throw it so far beyond the tipping point that it can no longer recover its balance.