Bare Bones Biology 028. Emergent Properties

My web site is not a hotbed of activity, but there’s one page that gets hundreds of hits a year, and it’s essentially the same bit that is on pages 32-34 in the Bare Bones Ecology Energy Handbook. The subject is levels of organization, and I continue to be astonished as the numbers of hits rise. I mean it’s a long way from viral, but I’m very happy that we must be teaching this critically important concept in our schools. The concept that every thing in the universe is made of organized collections of smaller things. And more importantly for our lives, every thing in the living ecosystem is made up or organized groups of smaller things.

Cells are made of organized molecules, atoms, macromolecules and organelles, and it’s the organization of these things that allow a cell to be alive.

Tissues are made of coordinated, organized groups of cells.

Organs are made of interacting tissues that are cooperating to perform some important life function within our bodies. Our hearts are a good example.

Higher organisms such as ourselves are made of elegant, coordinately functioning organs, tissues, and cells.

And the most incredible life of all is the ecosystem that is made of coordinately functioning organisms and the environment they generate together.

To the human mind, even the scientific mind, or perhaps especially the scientific mind, it seems miraculous just to know that kind of coordinated complexity exists. There is no chance that we can really understand it all, and of course that’s why technology is dangerous. We can’t do good technology with something we don’t really understand. But that’s a different subject.

What I want to say today is that a topic of even higher importance is discussed on pages 38 and 39 of the Energy Handbook. That is emergent properties.

Emergent properties are new characteristics of things that are the result of the complexity of their organization. So for a couple of man-made examples, the emergent property of a car, when you organize all its parts in just the right way, you can drive around in it. The emergent properties of corporations, we’re just beginning to appreciate that, as they begin to function independently of human values. The amazing emergent property of the cell, which is made of things that are not alive, is life. A cell is alive because of the complexity and the highly organized interactions among its atoms, molecules, and organelles. The emergent property of the heart is its ability to function as an essential part of the whole circulatory system. The emergent property of our brains is thinking.

We don’t know, really, what emergent properties we are messing with when we challenge the welfare of the whole ecosystem.

What we do know is that the entire ecosystem, and all the life forms of which it is composed, we all stay alive by eating organic energy. Organic energy is the energy that is found in organic molecules. Organic molecules are things like lipids, carbohydrates, nucleic acids, proteins, and they are found only in living organisms. Or things that once were living organisms, like coal, oil, gas. The energy to make organic molecules comes from the sun, but the organic molecule is what we need for food. Not the sunlight. And the organic molecule comes only from green plants. That’s it, that’s all there is to run the whole ecosystem.

You will not hear any emergent corporation letting that kind of information out on the airwaves. But then we really don’t want an emergent corporation to lead us into battle against the whole ecosystem, do we? We run on organic energy, the ecosystem runs on organic energy, the corposystem runs on organic energy.

Who do you think will win that head-butting argument?

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