Bare Bones Biology 319 – In the Beginning

160522-Canyon-asc_4204RLSsSomething like 13.7 billion years ago, give or take a billion or two, so says the dominant theory of our physical sciences. And after the big bang came the creation of many abiotic (nonliving) systems and subsystems until there was our earth, circling our sun, within our solar system and then something like 4.4 billion human years later — here we are.


4.4 billion years of the creation of an earth system that consists of what modern authors refer to as “nested systems” and old-timey basic biological scientists, who didn’t have a clear vision of what is a system – we referred to this as “levels of organization.” And when Darwin and his kind came along, we realized that levels of organization of the Life of Earth reflect most of earth history, written in the language of DNA and RNA, that is (crudely and incompletely put) the Language of Life. Because of the deep nature of systems – their ability to maintain themselves and to communicate with each other, Life of Earth evolved.


It looks like a miracle to me, and our history justifies the concept that is increasingly heard – I think the famous scientist and writer Carl Sagan may have been the first to say that we are the voice, the eyes, the mind of the universe, and because of us, the universe can now perceive itself.


Elegant idea.


And of course it is not false, but it leaves out a lot of other things that are true about the Creation, and it implies – not to Sagan I think, but to many or most moderns who were raised on sociology rather than physical or biological science – it implies that humans are in charge.


160619-canyon-asc_4417RLSsWe are not. What is in charge is that which created the systems, whether we choose to think of it as God or as the Laws of Nature — what we have here is a set of natural laws that were not created by humans, nor are we the first, and certainly not the last word on its eyes, ears or mind. We are less than a pale image of the Creation and the Creator — only one of the millions of systems so created.


But we have indeed magnificently understood the laws of our own creation, and a beautiful story it is.


Let’s just take the nested systems idea. I’m pretty sure people thought about nested images before we had the science to confirm it’s validity in a fact-based sort of way, but I was not here, so let’s begin with a modern view.

First we saw the “levels of organization.” That is now viewed as the levels of complexity of the nested systems. A man is more biologically complex than a kidney. that is more biologically complex than a tissue, that is more biologically complex than a cell, that is more complex than the abiotic systems of which it is composed. Putting them all together to recognize a system which functions to maintain life is certainly an insight worthy of note. And then we went a step further, in the basic science of embryology, and we thought: that looks like an origin story. Ontogony (individual development) recapitulates phylogeny (evolutionary history). And there is reason to believe that our now did indeed evolve out of our yesterdays – the simpler systems that were.

Not very long after that realization, we began to understand that we are not at the top of that pyramid of developmental complexity. Just as our organs, tissues and cells work together to make a living organism (us) so we organisms function together with our environments to make a larger unit of life, the ecosystem, and yet more inclusive is the whole of the Life of Earth, the Biosystem.


I’m leaving out a lot of steps, to make the overview more clear, but even so, in the light of modern mathematical concepts of complex systems and information transfer, the idea of levels of organization seems now, looking back, quite primitive and two-dimensional. And the idea of nested systems also, because if I am a system and you are a system, clearly we are not only nested, but also parallel systems, and that might be why some mathematicians come up with theories that are expressed as multidimensional.


But still, in the beginning, we each arose, one system out of a simpler system out of a yet simpler system, and we each are systems that are nested, or should I say nestled, in the sweet verdant arms of our same environmental system of Life of Earth, which is the other half of us all together.


If we choose to not destroy it.


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