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

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