It’s 7:40 AM

The goat weeds turn their smiling faces to the east, the yellow flowers are just beginning to open, and the dragonflies cruise head height to a horse, their wings reflecting golden sparks from the rays of the rising sun.

(Picture from the Energy Handbook, in press.)

Bare Bones Biology Transcript 010-The Spirit of God

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters.”

My Bible doesn’t say exactly how God did it. But here we are in this very fine Garden of Eden. We are the only living thing within light years, in the midst of a universe of fire and ice. It is indeed miraculous.

Werner von Braun, who I think was a physicist, said: “The universe is hostile only when you do not know its laws. For those who know and obey, the universe is friendly.” I expect he was thinking about the laws of physics, and I expect he was right. We would not get very far pretending we can walk on clouds (even though it makes you want to try sometimes, looking down on them from an airplane) and we wouldn’t get very far without wheels and combustion and all of that kind of technology based in the reality of natural phenomena.

And we won’t get very far pretending we are more powerful than the ecosystem, because we can’t be alive without the ecosystem. So how do we get to know its laws? Whether or not we can feel the spirit of God moving among the miracles, the Bible does not answer this kind of question, but there are other windows on the world, and one of these is biology, the study of the basic laws that permit life on earth, inside the living ecosystem.

The ecosystem is a living thing with all the needs of living things, and we do have a very good bare bones understanding of the needs of living things. The physical laws of being alive. The greatest of these is balance, among all the parts and all the intakings and outgoings required to maintain life. The intakings and the outgoings and the parts are maintained in their natural balance by the flow of information through the ecosystem, and they are of two types.

First, we need food because it requires work to stay alive, and there is a universal law of energy that says no work can happen without energy. We get energy to stay alive from our food. Food does not come from supermarkets, or from the sun. Food for you and me and for the whole ecosystem and also for our cars and trucks and machines — almost all of that comes from plants, from our Garden of Eden, and it does not recycle in the ecosystem. That means the plants must keep busy all over the world, all the time churning out the energy source for all of life, or life grinds to a halt.

Second, all living things must recycle materials such as oxygen and carbon dioxide and nitrogen and sulfur and all the elements that are part of life. That is another reason we eat. Also it’s why we breathe.

These three things — energy from plants, the recycling of elements and compounds, and the genetic information to direct all the processes — these are required by every living thing, from the tiniest prokaryotic cell to the entire living ecosystem.

The cell stays alive because its genes know how to respond to the environment.

We can be alive because our genetic information knows when and where to make an enzyme to digest the meal we just ate, and when and where to make a nerve cell or a pigment cell or a muscle cell, or exactly how to do the process of thinking.

The ecosystem can stay alive because the genetic code of the entire ecosystem directs the behaviors of all its parts, from the plants that make our organic energy source to all the other organisms that distribute the energy throughout the ecosystem and recycle the materials and make the atmosphere and its weather and all the other conditions that are necessary for life.

The threefold requirements for life are the same for the tiniest cell as they are for you and me and for the whole earth ecosystem that you can see from the moon. And we can see it from the moon, only because scientists like Werner von Braun learned how to obey the most basic natural laws.

Mmmmh. Good Morning Sunshine

Happy Summer to Gaia

The Gift of Life

Reductionism and Power – BBB009 Transcript

When science was co-opted by the Government, there was a huge argument among university scientists as to whether having the money was worth letting the Government control our research. Of course, I never would have had my career without that money, but looking to the welfare of mankind, I think it was not a good idea, because the Government then got taken over by big business and it has recently become obvious that neither the politicians nor the business-persons understand the power they are unsuccessfully trying to manipulate.

We have ended up somehow believing that we have the power to change the basic laws of nature that permit life to exist on earth. We can’t, and so this is a very dangerous idea. But even if we could, I don’t know about you but I would not want Bill Gates advising God how to run the world no matter how good his intentions. It would be nice to have a someone in power who understands how God does run the world, but we’re still waiting for that.

Anyhow, the bottom line is the basic science was taken over by the government and then the government was taken over by big business, and now we have mostly technology instead of basic science because the goal of big business is to make money. Basic science is the discipline that figures out what are the basic laws of nature. Technology is the discipline that then uses the basic laws of nature to make things for humans. Originally for making tools and toilets and useful conveniences of that sort, but lately mostly to grow wealth.

One of the results of this is that biology has become overwhelmingly reductionist. That means we spend more and more time and money studying smaller and smaller phenomena. This has been very exciting for me as a basic biologist, because my original goal was to understand how genes regulate pigmentation. I wanted to know every thing from the change in a gene — let’s say to make a mouse be an albino that otherwise would have been black — to the change in the phenotype. The phenotype is what it looks like — either black or albino or something else. And we did learn all of that in one century. We learned it by comparing the specific functions of the genes with the phenotypes they control. The questions, of course, are why and how, but I will not answer those questions today because that also is not the point of what I am trying to say.

My point for today is that trying to understand how the albino/nonalbino gene causes pigmentation is not nearly as important as understanding how genes function in general. And that is not nearly as important as understanding how mice and people are alive and stay alive. I have colleagues who study pigmentation and don’t even know what it looks like. Most of our scientists are looking so hard at the trees that they can’t see the forest. Our questions as responsible basic biologists should be about nurturing life as it was created on earth. Because we can not control life, even though we can control individual lives and individual people, and we can cause enormous pain and suffering by trying to control life.

The early biologists were not reductionists. They were lumpers. Linnaeus’ big understanding was lumping together all the organisms that have the same characteristics. So, all the people are lumped and given a name (Homo sapiens), and all the plants were lumped and classified in the plant kingdom, and all the cats, and so on. Out of this lumping came the most fundamental biological understandings of all human time — and no they are not whether or not the cat in the box is dead. That is not biology. They are the sciences of genetics and evolution that know how information maintains the balance of all of life on earth. And how — if we continue to unbalance the smaller things of life — eventually we do have the power to unbalance the entire flow of information through the ecosystem.

Bare Bones Biology will discuss genetics and evolution for the next few weeks.