Bare Bones Biology 041 – Air

The question was: “I don’t understand why the air can be harmful to us.” Good question, big question, and here’s what I think.

Air is not nothing, because if we were outside of our ecosystem we would die from having no air. The air is made and regulated by the living ecosystem, very much in the same way as water also is made and regulated by the ecosystem, and they are both – air and water – a part of the whole giant circulatory system of the whole living earth that lets us live inside it.

Water molecules are made of atoms of oxygen and atoms of hydrogen that are joined together with energy bonds. Air is made of molecules of carbon dioxide and also some water molecules and oxygen and hydrogen and nitrogen. Air and water share their atoms. They both have waves; they both have force when they are moving; they both are necessary for life; and they both recycle throughout the ecosystem including through our own bodies, as they move and flow over the face of the earth.

Pure water is clear as crystal. We can see straight through to the bottom of the pond, but if the water becomes polluted with other molecules that are not water, then we may not be able to see through it. If you would pour a red liquid into water, you could see that you can mix it with the waves and currents of the water. If we stood up over the air and poured a red gas into the waves and currents of the air, we would see that it also mixes. The Texas air that I breathed when I first moved here 25 years ago was crystal clear. Today we are pouring so many kinds of unnatural stuff into the air that now you can’t even see the bottom from an airplane. And we think that is normal. It’s not normal. I rode in airplanes before we poured our junk into the air. It was crystal clear.

The circulation of air and water through the ecosystem depends on all the plants and all the different animals of the ecosystem that exchange atoms and molecules with the air and with the water. Every kind of atom or molecule has a different function in keeping the whole system healthy.

When something unnatural is added to the system, then the whole ecosystem must also change as it tries to rebalance to stay healthy. In the same way and for the same reasons that you require the flow of blood, energized by your beating heart and filtered by your kidneys, the ecosystem requires the flow of the air and water, energized by the sun, and filtered through all the different kinds of living plants and animals to do the myriad of processes that keep us alive.

But the more interesting thing to me personally is that I came here 25 years ago because the air in cities made me sick, and I felt a joy my body those first few years that I will probably never know again. Now my air has poisons from flea spot medicine, the over-ground septic tank, horse worm medicine, all of our cars and other engines, Roundup and other pesticides and herbicides from the corn and cotton fields, perfumes, cigarettes, candle smoke, paint, particle board, asphalt, deodorants, and the media won’t talk about the suffering of the people who breath that air, and are poisoned by it — but only about the drug companies that will give us something to relieve our suffering — and that medicine will then be washed into the water cycle and back to the air.

And the worse thing is, we are trying to fix it with reductionist problem solving. And that only makes it worse.

Bare Bones Biology 041
KEOS 89.1, Bryan, Texas
FactFictionFancy.Wordpress.com

Crash Course

This video by Chris Martensen is kind of boring at the beginning, but I think you will really enjoy the example at the end.

Bare Bones Biology 040-Reductionism

Bitsy and I marched in the parade yesterday, and on the car radio I heard Martin Luther King Jr. saying: “There is more to compassion than flinging a coin at a beggar. Compassion must come to see that a culture that produces beggars must be restructured.”

I remember those times. And how hard all the people worked. That’s why I want to talk about problem solving. I want us to fix our problems in a sustainable way that will stay fixed. So today I’m talking about reductionism and emergent properties.

An emergent property is a characteristic or process not predicted by the natural laws at a lower level – like chemistry or physics would not predict that sulfur would be yellow. Or that life could arise based on carbon compounds. Looking down on them from above, emergent properties seem quite ordinary and necessary. However, looking up from below one cannot predict what properties might exist. Life is an emergent property that arises from a complicated organization of molecules. If you were an atom or a molecule, you would not know about life. And yet, life is made of atoms and molecules, combined with a few other things, that are organized in such a way that life becomes possible. It is the complexity and organization that makes life possible. Not the atoms and molecules. Well, them too. But life is an emergent property.

Life emerges in a universe that operates according to the laws of physics. The laws of physics are far more powerful than life; therefore life must obey the laws of physics in order to survive. However, life is far more complicated than the laws of physics; and therefore physics alone does not explain life. And neither can physicists unless they also understand biology. We can’t understand life by understanding the laws of physics, but we must understand the basic laws of physics to fully appreciate how things stay alive.

Reductionism is the belief that everything CAN be explained by understanding its parts and their properties. For example, neuroscience studies how the brain functions, cell by cell and molecule by molecule. But neuroscience would be meaningless if we didn’t also know that the brain thinks. And that’s why I say reductionism is a very dangerous game to play unless you ALSO understand the emergent functions of whatever you are trying to study or do. Looking down, we can recognize the emergent properties. But if we forget to look back up at how the whole thing must be organized in order to function properly – well it’s like looking at a watch that’s been taken apart, and it has thousands of pieces, and we don’t really know what it is supposed to do so there is no way to put it back right.

Nature solves this problem by trying everything. Nature generates millions of different combinations of things. Then it kills off everything that is not organized in a useful way. Most of the combinations are killed off. That’s what evolution really does. That’s why I called the “try everything and see if it will work” method of problem solving “evolutionary problem solving” or “reductionist problem solving.” I called it reductionist because humans, instead of working together to develop a sustainable whole system with a sustainable human society within it – we do different actions that all are very important individually, but mostly do not also consider the needs of the whole system. We feed the hungry but we do not consider what they need for a sustainable future inside a sustainable ecosystem. We don’t consider what the system needs to do its job.

Humans don’t have eons of time. We can’t fix our world problems using the evolutionary method of trying everything until some day all our individual actions will come together in a way that works to make the whole system sustainable. But we could take a lesson from the corposystem. We could define a common achievable goal; discuss what it will take to achieve the goal; and then each with our own expertise – in addition to the good works we are already doing — go for it.

My goal is to make the future better, not worse, because I was here. What’s yours?

BareBonesBiology 040
89.1 KEOS radio, Bryan, Texas
FactFictionFancy.Wordpress.com

A major foundation of Buddhism is that all actions bring about results. Whatever we do, whether or not we are thinking about what we do, whatever we do is a choice that will take our lives in one direction or another. That is also a major foundation of science. Actions have consequences — the action doesn’t care willynuts about our intentions — the consequences are the ressult of our actions, not our thoughts.

That being the case, and unless someone can offer a better idea, if we want ANYTHING, I believe we should learn to understand the chains of cause and effect that prevent us from obtaining it, and then figure out how to deal positively. Or even if we don’t want anything, I believe it is our responsibility to understand as best we can how our actions affect the future. And stop just plucking mind-candy out of the hands of imaginary gods to tide us over the sleepless nights until the shit hits the fan.