Bare Bones Biology 070 – Levels of Organization Again

I’ve done more radio spots on levels of organization than any other one thing, because I think it’s the most important and most neglected law of nature that we know about. The concept has two halves. The first half is that the higher levels of reality are made from combinations of simpler levels.

A simple example would be a pie, that is made of whatever pies are made of. Pie is pie. One level of reality. It is not even flour plus salt plus sugar plus – whatever. It’s made from all those things, but it is a unique and different entity from any one of them or all of them added up. That’s the first half of the concept.

The second half of the concept is that different levels have different characteristics, and also different needs. A mob of people has some characteristics that are different from all of the people in the mob, all added together, or any individual. The mob may have different emotions than its members would have individually. And it may have some different needs. I remember when I stood up for however long on the student side of an Aggie football game, and I’m very certain that group had different characteristics than I as an individual had. And different requirements.

Requirements for well-being are also different, one level to another, of living things. What is healthy for a parasite might not be healthy for the host that it’s living on or in. What makes people feel good might be bad news for the environment, but then the people require the environment for their own well- being. So the bottom line is we can’t have everything we want. If we do get what we want, the results may be a disaster for someone else. This gives rise to moral dilemmas of the tragic kind. What to do when all the options cause pain for someone else – whichever level we choose has tragic consequences for some other level. Or if we decide not to choose that also has its tragic results.

Sometimes I ponder these dilemmas while driving. The other week, while I was driving home from Dallas, I heard Diane Rehm interview Eric Felten about his new book called Loyalty, the Vexing Virtue. I haven’t read the book, but the interview was excellent and spot on. Nobody used the term levels, but that’s what they were talking about, even though Diane Rehm and Eric Felten used different levels from the examples I usually use. I usually talk about the individual, the population, the corposystem and the ecosystem. They talked about, in their discussion of the book, the individual, a friendship, a marriage, a family, an employer, a community, and a country. These are levels of organization, and the same sorts of difficult interactions occur.

Some of their examples, you can be loyal to your friendship, or to your friend, or to yourself, but not always to all three. David Kozinski’s brother had to choose between reporting his brother to the police or letting him continue to terrorize the community.

There is always tension among the levels of organization of living things. Eric Felten believes this is a “tragic flaw.” I think, on the contrary, the various kinds of tension within and between the levels of biological organization help to maintain the natural balance of life. Life might not be possible without this balanced disequilibrium. Levels are an essential element of the resilience that is necessary to the survival of all living things, individually and together.

Download audio at http://www.barebonesbiology.com

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