Bare Bones Biology Transcript 011 – Life?

The redbird sings over his mate who is nesting in a tree by my driveway. It’s life. We’re talking about biology, the study of life. But what is life? What is it really?

Well, to make a long story short, one definition of life is the ability to reproduce one’s kind and to respond to the environment. That’s a good definition, because rocks, for example, do not reproduce in kind. And if they get too hot or too cold. They just sit there. Putting on a coat when we are cold, making antibodies if we run across a disease. All these things are responses to our environment.

The most basic unit of life on earth, the smallest unit that can do these things for itself, is the cell. Cells can respond to their environment, very much as we can, and they can reproduce their own kind. Cells are alive, we are alive, because we are made of cells.

Living cells are made of organic molecules. The molecules are not alive. They can not reproduce themselves outside of a cell. And living cells are also made of water and some other things. We are made of billions of cells, therefore we also are made of organic molecules and water and a few other things. The organic molecules, such as genes, proteins, carbohydrates and lipids are absolutely necessary to life, and they are made by living cells, but as I said they are not of themselves alive. The cell is the most basic unit of life. Still, it’s the genes inside the cell that make that cell capable of being alive. Not only the genes, the genes and all the other organic molecules working together.

But primarily the genes regulate the functions of being alive. So. How do they do this? One way they do this is to regulate the proteins inside your cells. Another way is to regulate when and where each different kind of protein is made.

So if you need a protein in your brain (probably you have heard of serotonin, but there are a lot of proteins in your brain) then some specific gene is responsible for making each of the different proteins. And some other gene is responsible for turning the first gene on at the right time and place in your brain, and not in your big toe or someplace else it is not supposed to be. Or you can think of enzymes. These are proteins that cause chemical reactions to happen. Each enzyme regulates a specific function. Enzymes control nearly all the functions of cells, from, photosynthesis to cell division, and they also control the different behaviors of all the different species — how to make a spider web, how to make babies — all these processes are directed by multiple enzymes and the enzymes are regulated by the genes.

And genes even control ecosystems, by controlling the behaviors of organisms. It is the interacting behaviors of all the species on earth that make it possible for ecosystems to survive, and to respond to their environments, and to reproduce themselves. Ecosystems are the largest units of life on earth.

But, you say, surely humans are different. And yes indeed we are different.

While the spider weaves its web, over and over again the same, generation after generation. We, on the other hand, can learn from our language and our books and our mathematics, from people on the other side of the globe or from people who lived 2500 years ago, and we have been given the awesome responsibility to decide for ourselves how we choose to behave within the ecosystem that gives us life. We are all making decisions of this sort every day, usually without knowing it.

I think it’s better to know.

Letter to Tom

Letter to Tom Englehardt on the occasion of his imaginary graduation speech.

Dear Tom:

Of course, everything you say in your graduation speech is true; the problem is that all the little graduates, to the extent that they lack the drive and enthusiasm you admire — they know you are beating a dead horse. Only they don’t understand why, how or what to do about it. Of course there remain those outrageously energetic ants among the graduates, who still try to move rubber tree plants in the belief that high hopes can trump physical facts (or if you don’t get Frank Sinatra, try tilting at windmills). The fact is that nothing can change physical facts. That’s why they are called facts.

“How can it be that these fine people don’t hear the most straightforward facts?” I kept thinking, over the past ten years, as I tried to engage them in a logical discussion about the facts of ecosystem life and got back only stock denial phrases of one sort or another.

“Why can’t they listen to the facts? It’s not rocket science.”

So I looked all around the world and in my own community, where there are a goodly number of youthful clones of the failing American belief system, and I watched TV (aaaaacccchhhhhhhhh) and public TV, and read the media. And I found — surprise or no surprise — that our people have not been told the facts of life on earth; the real physical facts are not available in a logical, believable form, to people in our new world. At least I could not find them.

So I took care of that problem, and now they are available. Here attached is (if you are reading the web page, I am sending you) the Bare Bones Ecology Energy Handbook. Please read it and educate yourself as you ask the graduates to do.

To the best of my ability this little handbook contains the logic of the illogical battle we are fighting against the whole earth ecosystem. If you are willing to believe what I say, you can skip the 2 chemistry sections and still get the logic. This logic, based in well-established real facts, is missing from our fights and debates and discussions about the energy problem, climate change and the ecosystem. It is absent from all sides of these debates. So I stopped engaging those debates. What is the point of fighting about opinions and propaganda, when the real facts have been available since before I was born?

You are a good reader. It won’t take more than an hour or so to read this.

Telling students that they should do something, and not telling them what will work, is not useful. Our graduates do not need to be exhorted about hopes and efforts and actions. I have lived a generation longer than you, and I have never seen so much frantic, fragmented, ill-advised action. What our people need is good advice about the behaviors and technologies that might actually succeed, because it is not helping the situation to continue behaviors, no matter how romantic and self-sacrificing, that caused the problem in the first place. We need to step outside of our dream and give the people the facts of life and tell them what they CAN do that might actually work.

Stopping war is a good thing, but it will not stop the problem, because human war (at least in the present day) is a symptom of a much larger attack on our ecosystem life support. We are no longer fighting only with each other. We are now fighting against the ecosystem herself, and against the second law of thermodynamics that rules the whole of the universe. We will not win this fight. Fighting wars is not the best way to win anything, as you know. But it is especially ill advised when the thing you are trying to bring to its knees is the living earth ecosystem within which we all have our life and breath and being.

Politics can be a good thing, and is in any case necessary, but it will not solve our problem until we recognize the problem. No human person can politic the laws of physics into compliance.

After the past few years, I don’t need to explain that our economic growth ethic is a Ponzi. Or maybe I do. It is.

But the greatest of our denial gimmicks is our sad, sad belief that we can use technologies to change the universal (and I do mean universe) laws of physics, while we have in our hands exactly the technology that is needed to help ourselves. But we won’t make it available to the people who need it.

NO kind of human political or economic power or technology is more powerful than the first and second laws of thermodynamics as they apply to life on earth. No kind of human power is more powerful than the power of the living ecosystem. A friend once told me I don’t have to worry about the ecosystem. She said: “God gave the ecosystem a set of checks and balances so it can take care of itself. “ That is true. We will conform or we will go extinct. It’s not so very sad once you get used to the idea, because it is the law of life.

The tragedy is the extent to which we human people are willing to let other people suffer rather than to change our win/lose worldview so that we can begin to use our power and our brains and our technologies to really help those who are suffering as a result of our misdeeds — as we help the ecosystem to survive in some measure of health — so that our children may have some measure of hope. That process will require good politics based in real facts.

Until we figure that out, no matter our flailing efforts, our position will continue to worsen as we use more and more of our children to feed the wars and starvation engendered by our American denial dream. It is indeed a tragedy because it was preventable, but in my mind now it’s more like criminal, because we do know the cause of the problem and the actions that must be taken if we are to fix it.

So please read the attached Bare Bones Ecology Energy Handbook. I wrote it for you.