Bare Bones Biology Transcript 017 – Emergent Properties

It seems like the hardest scientific things to explain are those that everyone already understands. Like gravity for example. Or emergent properties. My favorite emergent property is thinking, and lately I’ve been thinking quite a lot about emergent properties.

An emergent property — let me warn you, I think some British scientist made up this definition, because it sounds very high-tone, but the reality is amazingly real. In fact it’s fun to know these things, and when I give you some examples it will make more sense. And don’t bother to write it down, you can always go to my blog for double-check.

An emergent property is a capability or function that can not be present in less complicated things because it requires the cooperative and coordinated functions of all its many different of parts. All the parts must work together to produce the property, capability or function. The property may “emerge” as a new thing. Like our brains for example, can think in languages, but to do this it must be very complicated and well organized.

Life is an emergent property. We can define life as the ability to manage itself because it has the genetic information in every cell that directs all the processes of life. Life is not present in atoms or molecules, but it is present in cells. Atoms and molecules are not as complicated as living cells. They don’t have enough bells and whistles, all working together, to do all the functions that are necessary for living things to stay alive. So, even though atoms and molecules and macromolecules are essential components of cells, and they are necessary for the life of the cell, individually they aren’t actually alive. It is the perfectly organized complexity that permits life to be alive. Life is an emergent property of the cell, and the cell is the simplest most basic unit that can do all the jobs necessary to stay alive.

It’s not only living things that have emergent properties. The emergent property of a car would be that you can drive around in it. You can’t drive around in a steering wheel or an engine or a transmission, but when you get these things all properly organized together you can drive around. An emergent property of a kidney is the ability to make urine. An emergent property of our culture is the corporation. Now I’m thinking about a watch, and I can do this because an emergent property of the brain is thinking.

All cells are alive, but cells can’t think, because thinking requires this huge organ that we have in our head that is made out of millions of interconnecting nerve endings, from cells, that all are cooperating to accomplish the task of thinking. Thinking is the emergent property of the brain.

Now the whole earth ecosystem — talk about complicated — talk about organized. The ecosystem is much more complicated than my brain, or even all the brains in the whole world. So there is no way my brain can know and understand the emergent property that is most characteristic of the ecosystem, whatever it may be, any more than a cell in my big toe — or even a cell in my brain — can understand how people think.

So what was that you said about human technology saving us from the ecosystem?

Think again. The ecosystem is already doing what it is supposed to do to stay alive, and there is no way we can make it better. We can’t change these things because they run on universal laws like gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, and the law of cause and effect.

But we sure can interfere with their function if we throw the ecosystem off balance and upset the complexity of her organization by our reverence for growth, growth, growth, when more growth will only throw her works more out of balance by reducing the diversity of all the parts and messing up the organization.

We are not gods, you know. We can not change or control the universal laws of nature.

Bare Bones Biology 017
Produced by FactFictionFancy and
KEOS Radio, 98.1, Bryan

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