Bare Bones Biology 052 – Emergent Properties

I expect you know what I am doing in this current mini-series of audiocasts. I’m following the outline of the “simplest solution” that I proposed a few weeks ago.

Having spent my life trying to figure out how things work and then squeezing the result into a five-minute spot – well, I was quite proud of that, and now it seems useful to expand it a little and talk about how it applies to real life. Today I’m thinking about the human tragedy that results from our failure to understand emergent properties.

Last time I talked about levels of organization – the way in which the universe is organized so that bigger things are made of smaller things that are made of smaller things that are made of smaller things. It wouldn’t have to be that way, you know, but in our universe it is that way. The most important aspect of that kind of organization is that new things and new qualities and characteristics appear – it seems that they appear magically, and that’s why they are called emergent properties.

Where there was no life – life appears. You know this was not so obvious to people a couple hundred years ago. They thought life emerged from – for example that mice and cockroaches were born out of piles of rags and trash. But they are not. Life comes from life, and life is much more complicated than a pile of trash. The simplest kind of life, the cell, with all its hundreds of different kinds of molecules that each can do it’s special function when and where it is needed – anything less complex could not be alive. If you take a cell apart – poof! Life is gone and all you have remaining is a pile of thousands of different kinds of molecules. Life was in the emergent property generated by the special way those molecules were organized.

A more complicated life form, such as a person who is made of trillions of intricately organized cells, also has emergent properties. For example the ability to think – or to make urine, or blood, or to express compassion – that a cell cannot do because it doesn’t have all the necessary parts to make those characteristics possible. How we came to have those characteristics is another question. The physical reality is that emergent properties do exist and they explain a great many things.

Emergent properties explain water, that is a liquid at room temperature but results when two different gases are bonded together in a particular way; emergent properties explain life, that is, the ability to use energy to move and grow; it explains the human capacity for compassion that is inherited from one generation to the next; and it explains the tragedy of our human relationship within the ecosystem. That we have come to express our human compassion in a way that is harmful to our host. Through our care and compassion for each other, expressed in medicine and food shared and hundreds of other shared elements of our shared livelihood, we have grown our presence on this earth until our very growth is unbalancing the life force of the ecosystem, you might say the Garden of Eden, that gives life to us. That greater life force, just like yours and mine, must stay balanced to stay alive. It is the balanced complexity of all the interacting functions that maintains its life and all our lives together.

We have enough power — through our intelligence, our science, our humanities, and our technologies – we have enough power to save and nourish and grow our Garden of Eden, the ecosystem, in a sustainable balance with our own human welfare. Nothing is stopping us but ourselves.

Bare Bones Biology 052 – Emergent Properties
KEOS radio 89.1, Bryan, Texas
Transcript at
Audio at