Bare Bones Biology 307 – I Didn’t Do That

Yesterday was not good for me. First I had two doctors’ appointments; second, they were both 100 miles away; third, I drove from my mountaintop to theirs and back, all in one day, stopping for medication on the way back, and then zonked out under my electric blanket by 6 pm. Just before midnight I woke up, went out to my little travel-trailer workshop, turned on the electric space heater, and all the lights went out in our entire subdivision.

I didn’t do that.
160320-SantaFe-asc_3694RLsDid I?

So, using battery power, I checked my emails, which consisted of about 50 political flyers, one of which I read because it did not have any fantastical, tremendous, horrendous, unbelievable, hyperflagulous words in the title.

While I do not write about politics, I do write about how systems function, and these words from Bernie Sanders could have been me – talking about naturally evolved systems that have nothing to do with politics.: “. . . the American people understand that you cannot change a corrupt political system by taking its money.”

And this is my version of essentially the same reality: “When I say that we may not succeed in implementing your mission, I am not referring to what you can do today to help other people who are caught in the system – what I mean is that what you can do today will not accomplish your long-term heart’s desire and frustration, which I believe is to move up one level of systemic organization — from helping individuals, to changing the system that creates these victims — and in fact what you do today could, unawares, enable the system’s creation of victims. “ Bernie said it better, but that’s the way I talk.

About two hours later, the lights came back on and I went out to the little workspace and turned the heater on again. Nothing bad happened, so I plugged in the DVD player to continued my study of “complex adaptive systems” of which naturally evolved systems are evidently a subset – Subset? That doesn’t make sense. How can a factual natural reality be a subset of a human conceptualization???? Ahhh, I get it. If your head is in the Biosystem world view, the naturally evolved complex adaptive systems are a subset of the Biosystem. On the contrary, if your head is in the corposystem world view, you are required to behave as though all of the natural world is a subset of human conceptualization.

Not long now, we will have to choose sides or lose the field of play.

160320-SantaFe-asc_3631RLsI did that. One day in 2006 I sat at the end of my driveway in my old white Ford pickup and realized that we cannot solve our human problems from inside our corposystem worldview that created the problems. I decided then and there, ten years ago, that I would approach my life from that time forward trying to think like a system. As though I were a system. And it has been difficult even for me, with all the background that I have in my life as a scientist and a human person, to get my human head around some of the Biosystem needs for its survival.

So it’s hard, but that is an entirely different subject that has nothing to do with the fact that we will soon have to choos. In fact, we are choosing every day — with everything we do. What do we want more – compassionate recognition of the effect our behaviors have on other people and all sentient beings? Or, like a child, do we want what we want — no matter what?

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Bare Bones Biology 050 – We Have a Problem

Last week I put my foot in my mouth by saying that we all agree (that should have been the clue). I said we all agree that we: “have serious human problems on this earth, and we can not resolve those problems in a positive way unless the ecosystem is healthy, because everything we need is provided by the ecosystem.” That’s what I said.

It turns out we don’t all agree to that. Some of us believe The Creation is perfect just the way it is. I don’t really argue about that, and I wish we could have a good discussion about it, because I don’t think we are disagreeing. I think it’s a matter of definitions. If we could sit down and define our terms, I think we would both be saying more or less the same thing, and then we could get together and spend our energy trying to fix whatever we see that needs fixing.

For example, surely we must agree that our human opinions will not change how God made The Creation. We can’t, for example, change the law of gravity that holds the thing together. The best we can do is try to understand it, so we can use it to make things for our convenience. Pyramids, airplanes and the like. We can’t change how the Creation functions – how it is set up, how molecules and atoms interact with each other, how animals get their energy from food, and all the other basic things of that sort. In that sense The Creation is indeed perfect just the way it was meant to function. Perfect and beautiful and miraculous. But I still think we have problems. I think we are disagreeing because we use different words for the same things, and again – your words or my words won’t change how God made things to function. The best we can do is try to understand.

Joseph Campbell devoted his whole career to studying our different ways of trying to understand God. In a PBS interview with Bill Moyers, he used the word “myth” when he talked about our religions:

“. . . the only myth that’s going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is the one that’s talking about the planet . . . how to relate to this society, and how to relate this society to the world of nature and of the cosmos.”

Naomi Klein used the term ideology when she said in a recent speech in Totnes, England
Naomi Klein – The Paradox of Crisis:

“ . . . this issue, the climate crisis in particular, affects everybody. We are all in this together, and this is beyond left/right. This is beyond ideology.”

Naomi Klein is willing to see that there are important ideological issues involved, and I certainly know how that feels. I’ve had my dreams shattered, and my world view. This happens in small doses when we live for a time in other cultures. It’s known as culture shock and it’s painful. It happens in bigger doses when one’s own culture abandons the beliefs that it taught us to believe. And the worst kind of culture shock is known as PTSD, when everything you tried to do for good turns out bad. It’s hard. It takes a long time to adjust, and I hope I have been moving my own world view, or you can call it my ideology, cultural myth, religion) a little bit closer to factual reality, at least for solving physical problems, because when we acknowledge factual, measurable reality – that’s when we have the power to fix physical problems.

When man, who was made in the image of God, can not talk with other man, who also was made in the image of God. Then we do have a problem, and the first step to solving it is as simple as listening to other points of view, and the second step is to cut through the propaganda and blame-placing and discussing our world views with compassion and dispassionate common sense. Because only God is perfect, and we are not God.

Bare Bones Biology 050 – We Have a Problem
KEOS, 89.1 FM, Bryan, Texas

Open Letter to Rep. Chet Edwards

Rep. Chet Edwards
2369 Rayburn Building
Washington, D.C. 20515-4311

Dear Rep. Edwards,

You may remember me as a photographer, but I have spent a great deal more time in my life as a professional biologist. I realize there is no real, accurate information available to guide your understanding of the ecosystem, and that’s a major shame because the economists and the oil industry either do not know or do not care what they are doing to our future on this living earth, and I’m sure they are telling you the same lies that they post on TV. Still. It’s fairly simply and logical. — here is the essence of how the ecosystem works.

EVERYTHING must stay in a reasonable approximation of balance or the ecosystem will die. Human people don’t get to decide what the balance will be.

NOTHING can grow forever, and we have reached the limits of resources that we can take out of the ecosystem without putting back.

100 years ago we could grow because the resources of the ecosystem were not yet overtaxed. Now we can not grow as a method of “saving jobs.” Or rather — we can grow, but for every resource that we use in that growth we will pay in future crashes, because we have reached the limits of the ability of the ecosystem to grow more product than we are taking away from it.

I’m sure you believe that you are helping families in Texas.

I tell you that for every family you are helping today there will be multiple families in even greater distress tomorrow unless we choose the health of the ecosystem as our primary priority. That is the choice that remains to us, because we didn’t make the choice earlier to stop destroying the balance of our ecosystem. It is not your fault that no good choices remain, but I am really sorry you are choosing the easy road to hell instead of the difficult task of restoring balance to life, because we all live in this ecosystem and without it we do not live at all. And because I know what that hell is likely to look like, and Texas is particularly vulnerable. What is more important, oil or water? Hay or wilting cactus? The oil will run out in any case; the oil is history. A fossil. Here today and gone tomorrow. Water and food are part of the ongoing, forever cycle of life. If we break that cycle, the earth will grow a new one that does not include human values. The process is already begun.

It would be better to use what is left of the oil to develop a sustainable, balanced relationship with the ecosystem, rather than continue trying to force our will upon her. Because no technology can change natural law; the ecosystem is bigger than we are; and she doesn’t care what we want. She is concerned with her own survival.

But beyond the obvious – it’s not possible to explain the logic of the ecosystem in one page, a fact that is a great frustration to me, so I am writing the book: “Biology for Normal People.” I’ll send you a copy when it is finished.StopWars

In the meantime, I have sent a donation to Barbara Boxer in your name.

And am posting this on my blog

Best regards,

The Glass Half Full

090520TGT_dsc1133sThe glass half full is equally as wrong as the glass half empty. Why? Because the only sustainable reality on this living earth is balance.

The glass half full refuses to look at problems that must be solved if we are to build a sustainable culture.

The glass half full will be blindsided by the negative realities it refuses to recognize.

The Ecosystem Defends Itself

You may be aware that the homeland security (or someone) has been prepping us for an epidemic (wash your hands, stay home if you are ill, etc.). As a biologist with no connection to Homeland Security, except possibly as a suspect, I want to say this is a real concern. We have severely challenged the ecosystem. First I’ll tell you how, and then I’ll tell you what ecosystems do when they are challenged. Nothing personal; it’s just how ecosystems are designed — cause and effect. If we acknowledge and accept the laws of nature (that were presumably created by God or some other superhuman power, whatever we call it doesn’t change how the ecosystem functions), then we can exist nurtured within the ecosystem. Otherwise, here is what biology knows about the consequences.

The ecosystem has built in “limiting factors.” As in any web of cause and effect, the limiting factors change all the time depending upon what’s available in the system, but their practical value is to prevent any one species from overtaxing the entire web of life. These limiting factors will depend upon the circumstances, and they include: starvation; war and other abnormal behaviors; lack of water; changing characteristics of the ecosystem caused by us (that would seem to be climate change); and disease epidemics. The important point here is the more the population increases beyond the natural limits of the ecosystem, the more likely and more devastating will be the result.

In the last few hundred years, people are so clever, we have worked our way past a large number of limiting factors. The result is we are at the limit of the earth’s productivity, (even though we are killing each other almost as fast as we can) and the climate is changing, which means many organisms will be less healthy than normal, and we have set up a situation where it is easy for viruses to mutate and to find victims because there are so many people and animals all crowded together. So apparently (based on news accounts, and you know how that is) this new swine flu consists of an old swine flu that has added a piece of human flu virus among its genes. What that means? It means it’s a new disease for humans. Our immune system hasn’t met it before, so will be slow to respond.

And just a note to the unwise. It’s time to stop our reverence for technology as our Savior in this war against the ecosystem. Technology is human — God created the ecosystem. Technology can move us beyond one or more limiting factors, temporarily, and that is what we have been doing — but technology can NOT change how the ecosystem functions. It is time for us to heed the 9-1-1 call of the earth ecosystem and find ways to conform, because there is ALWAYS another limiting factor. The final limiting factor is the one biologists fear most. If we push beyond the fail-safe limits, the system itself could crash like a broken economy, or a broken egg that no longer contains what it needs to survive.

And don’t be fooled by time. It conceivably could happen almost overnight. Or it could be a few generations, but that is not a reason to ignore the reality of how the ecosystem works, because we do know how it works. The bottom line to remember is: Whatever it was like when you were born is NOT normal, and nobody wants to leave a legacy of destruction, even if it was well meant destruction.

How to Fritter Away your Future

Playing silly one-up games with other people’s lives. Also known as fiddling while Rome burns.

Wattsupwiththat is playing games with outdated data about sea level rise, I’m not sure what is the point of the exercise. I sent this to a friend of mine who is a Professor at a major university medical school. Here is the response:

“The site you indicated here has a long series of comments ridiculing the observed and predicted sea level rises and saying they are either nonexistent or not enough to bother about. Maybe you knew that. So it is the out-of-date figure of 0.3 m that they are all laughing at. Even that wouldn’t be so laughable if one lived in Bangladesh or Holland or the Maldives.”

Apparently the glacier melt is not included in the raw data you were trying to interpret, and the current most accurate estimate is 0.8 meters by end of century. Almost three feet.

Now consider the expected population by end of century and wonder to yourself — do you think all those people will go quietly into their black night? Or might they be trying to find a way to benefit from our advantages here above sea level?

Rather than Fritter our time away trying to nit-pick the experts, I think it would be better to spend that time trying to determine what are the REAL facts and considering what is the best way to benefit the most people in the next generations.

Maybe persons who are really interested in projected sea level rise would want access up-to-date, peer-reviewed information about projected sea-level rise.

W. T. Pfeffer, et al.
Kinematic Constraints on Glacier Contributions to 21st-Century Sea-Level Rise Science 321, 1340 (2008); 10.1126/science.1159099

This article cites 19 articles, 7 of which can be accessed for free:

A list of selected additional articles on the Science Web sites related to this article can be found at:

Green Plants

090329tgt_dsc0072sAlmost everyone knows that animals breath in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide, and the reverse is true of plants. That makes it sound as though the plants actually need us in order to breath. They don’t, because they can also “breath out” carbon dioxide as they do the work of staying alive; but we need them because we need oxygen. Before there were plants on earth the atmosphere did not have oxygen. Also because we need to get rid of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The trick to all of life is balance, and this is one example of how the ecosystem keeps its balance so it can stay alive.

A while ago, talking about energy, I said there is high-level energy and low-level energy (and stages between) and that energy can go from high to low. However, it can not go from low to high level. Light is high energy, chemical energy is medium energy and heat is low energy. The genius of plants is that they can take high level energy (light from the sun) and use it to do the work of making medium level chemical energy (food). And then they can use the chemical energy (food) to do the work of staying alive.

I’ll say that again. The plant takes the energy of sunlight and uses it to make the major molecules of life. You may have heard on Star Trek (or was that before your time?) that carbon compounds are indicators of life. They don’t make themselves. The plant makes them, using energy from the sun. Even though every kind of cell is different, all cells are made up of carbon compounds: carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, DNA and other things. Carbohydrates are sugars and also the wood and cellulose the tree is made of. Lipids are fats. Proteins and DNA everyone has heard about on TV. The bottom line is this: the plant uses a source of high energy from the sun to make the molecules of life. The molecules contain chemical energy. The plant can then use the molecules and the chemical energy to do the work of keeping its cells alive.

carbondioxidelfAnd then of course, we do the same. We eat the plant and use the molecules to build our cells and the chemical energy to do the work of keeping our own cells alive. Animals can not live unless they have plants or other animals to eat because we can not use the energy of light to make carbon compounds. This will not be a surprise to you. The more interesting part is what happens to the chemical energy that the plants have stored in their tissues.

The first possibility is that the plant might die and become fossilized and turned into oil or coal or natural gas. Imagine how many plants and animals were fossilized millions of years ago. Now we mine the oil or coal or gas, because they are carbon compounds that are a rich source of the chemical energy the plants have captured from the sun, and they burn. We burn these to do the work of driving the car, heating the house, burning the light bulbs and running the factories.

Burning is the process of releasing the energy from a carbon compound. Oxygen is required for burning; that’s why we breath it in. Oxygen + carbon compound releases energy and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a waste product of burning. That’s why we (and the car) must get rid of it.

In the car, this burn is controlled and the energy that is released is used to do the work of firing the pistons.

In our bodies, in every cell, the burn is controlled and the energy that is released is used to do the work of sustaining our lives.

And all this energy comes from plants and only from plants because the only kind of energy we can use in our bodies is chemical energy.

If we use up all the oil and gas and coal that were made millions of years ago, we could of course burn wood. In very poor parts of the world people are forced to burn up all the trees — to use them for the same things that we use coal and oil and gas. In other poor parts of the world people are cutting down the forests, just as we cut down vast portions of the North American forests, to plant food for cows to eat. Or for us to eat. If we keep doing this, we will run out of trees to burn. We will run out of oil and coal and gas in any case. Sooner than later.

Before that time comes, many people believe we should try to find some way to use the energy from the sun directly, bypassing the green plant. We could MAKE food, but it would require more energy to make it than we would get back. And where would we get the energy? So that is not practical. We need to find a source of chemical energy that we can not cut down, burn up or use up. So that’s the fuss about sustainable energy.

090331_dsc0106sAnd converting light energy to chemical energy is not the only thing plants do for us. Remember where we started. Plants also “breathe in” carbon dioxide. That’s how they make carbon compounds in the first place. Plants can do the reverse process of burning. They use the energy of the sun to make carbon compounds. They take the carbon right out of the air, where it is cycling around and around through the ecosystem. They use light energy from the sun to make the big carbon compounds from the little carbon dioxide molecule (and other molecules that are also cycling around the ecosystem). At the same time the plant converts high-energy light from the sun into chemical energy that is stored in the large carbon compounds the plant is making. The problem here is that the carbon cycles around the ecosystem and has to be got rid of from atmosphere. The other problem is that ENERGY does not cycle around the ecosystem. It comes in as high energy. We use it to stay alive. Poof it is gone away in the form of heat and we can not make more chemical energy.

So we are back full circle. The people (and the cars and factories and power plants and all that) are eating the carbon compounds and using up the chemical energy that is stored in them — and at the same time we are breathing out carbon dioxide because it is a poison to us. The plants breath in the carbon dioxide and breath out oxygen that we require to burn the carbon compounds in our bodies.

Carbon dioxide is released into the air from all the burning in machines and in our own bodies, and carbon dioxide is a waste product that causes global warming.

What will happen as we continue to destroy the trees and other plants and burn them up in our machines and in our bodies? The more machines and the more people, the more carbon dioxide. The fewer trees and other plants — also the more carbon dioxide. And less oxygen and less energy available in the form of chemical energy. Energy is all around us, yes, but the energy of life is chemical energy.

So that’s what people worry about, and it is completely logical that we should worry. This exchange system between plants and animals has created our ecosystem. It is based in natural laws of physics and biology that can not change. Therefore, if we want human kind to survive, we need to understand the natural laws that keep us alive — and behave accordingly.

The point is not to rush out and get more excited than the media over who is wearing what color this year (green is good). The point is, as T.D.Jakes has said: “You can not change what you do not confront.” Of course he is right, but “Confront?” Why do we always think we have to fight with each other and with life? Life is about balance; without balance there is no life. Our success will come when we stop confronting each other about things that none of us can control, and begin the discussion. The point is to talk about it.

Among all the millions of people on earth, I think if we start to talk together -here is an example – about our problems we might actually come up with solutions that work within the natural laws of the ecosystem, and I think that’s better than waiting around for Exxon or Fox News to save us from them.  I think that would be a long wait.

Do you know of any other examples, in addition to simple-green-frugal, the link above here, of people talking together about down-to-earth factual biological reality?

Stop and Think

This sounds all too familiar. (“Enough, population doom merchants,” Dominic Lawson, Sunday Times of London).

Didn’t I write not too long ago about the reactions of the press in response to biological realities?  I said in the mainstream media their usual response, especially to big problems like AIDS and global warming, seems to be denial for a period of about ten years, during which time crises that could have been contained (if the press had fulfilled its responsibility to educate and inform) reach fairly unmanageable proportions. I’m not the first to notice this. For example, Dot Earth.

That’s what happens when we pretend that all of reality is nothing but fun and entertainment — that we should not discuss any other kind of reality.  Then they look around and wonder why the scientists never told them this was coming.

Oh, well, when I went into university teaching (thankfully now behind me) my mentor said:  “Nobody will understand you when you tell them; then when they figure it out for themselves they will come and ask why you didn’t tell them.”  That is indeed what happened, and it’s probably a good thing in an educational setting that the students should learn to think.  But it’s not an intelligent way to deal with real crises.  A much better approach is to listen to a variety of experts in different fields and pool our expertise.

Mr. Lawson’s article in the Times purports to address a report to be issued by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, but he never really discusses the reportand.  He gets off on Optimum Population Trust (OPT), a British organization concerned with issues of population, that held its annual conference last week.  Invitation only.  His article is basically a “bait and switch” attempt to change the subject from discussion of real population issues to the personalities of individuals at OPT for whom he apparently has little or no respect.

080420funeral_dsc6582fs-copyI happen to have it first hand — from a respected scientist who attended — that the OPT meeting was both sane and sensible.  It makes me wonder what are the credentials of this reporter that he is able to so confidently second-guess the real data.  So I looked him up on Google.  Apparently he has quite a lot of money, a cousin who is a biologist, and an iffy reputation with regard to serious journalism.   Unless he has qualifications not mentioned, I certainly would not trust his opinion with regard to scientific or economic decision making.

Think about it.  What is our best response here?  Should we just wait and see what happens?  Or might it be better to pool our expertise, discuss the issue, and make some plans just in case the scientists are not as crazy as Mr. Lawson thinks they are.

To Be Prepared

So now I see we are all in an uproar about global warming again, trying to pretend that politicians yelling at each other can change the way the ecosystem functions. (Dot Earth, BBC, BBC) But does anybody come right out and tell us how the ecosystem functions? Of course not, because it’s quite too complicated to describe in five paragraphs, and besides nobody knows all about it and we won’t until after it finishes happening. But by that time we will have lost the power to respond to the situation, and we could be talking about the basic laws of nature and life on earth that we do understand.

So what is this problem once referred to as global warming and now renamed climate change? Not surprisingly, the problem relates to energy, so it is probably best to begin with energy. One reason we worry about energy is that burning fuel to get energy causes global warming; the other is that we are worried about running out of energy. Today I have some comments about the latter. Why are some people so upset about energy shortage, while others tell us not to worry about it?

Logically, it seems like we could never run out of energy. We look around and it’s obvious to everyone, even scientists, that the universe is full of energy. The sun is almost pure energy. Radio waves are flying around, atoms are exploding, children are running and screaming, birds are flying, the heat of the day is warming the ground and the scientists are talking about kinds of energy nobody can see. There is energy everywhere. So what is all the fuss about?

The bottom line answer is that there is only one kind of energy that keeps the earth ecosystem alive, and that is chemical energy. The energy of food. When we use it, we can’t use it again. We must go back and get more from the only one source, and that is plants.

Here is how it works, according to the “laws of nature.” The “laws of nature” obviously are not “laws” that people made — people did not make nature. My guess is that God did, but however it got made — we describe the way it functions as the “laws of nature.” If it were not for the characteristics we describe as laws,  it would not function.

Energy is the ability to do work; that is it’s definition. Work, basically, is when anything moves or changes. One of the energy laws is this: Energy can change from one form to another form — from a higher (more energetic) form to a lower form, and it does this when it is used to do work. However, energy can not change back to a higher form. One example of this is — if you burn something you can use some of the chemical energy of burning to do the work of running your car or making your muscles work, or anything that happens in the living world. But at the end the chemical energy changes to heat energy that you can’t use again for more burning.

The energy of life is chemical energy. Our food provides all the vitamins and minerals that people are always talking about, but more important than that, our food provides the chemical energy that makes everything in our bodies do the work of staying alive. Lungs breath, legs move, brain thinks. All of that is “work” and so it needs energy, and chemical energy is the energy of life.

We can’t use a lower form of energy, like heat, to make a higher form, like chemical energy because the process uses up more energy than what we get back, and we end up with less than we started with. We also can not use higher forms of energy, such as light energy, for food, because our living bodies require chemical energy for food.  But Plants can change light energy into chemical energy, and that is the reason ecosystems are alive.  Plants change light energy into chemical energy and then use the chemical energy to do the work of living — technically the plant “burns” the chemical energy to do the work of living, and at the same time it stores energy in it’s plant body in the form of chemical energy – that is the energy bonds of molecules.  And then we can eat the plant and use the chemical energy to do the processes of our living. Or we can cut it down and burn it up to make heat with our fires. Or we can take fossil plants and animals (coal and oil) that are very high quality purified chemical energy and burn them to run our cars and factories.

But the bottom line fact is that we will run out of coal and oil, because it takes a few million years to make fossils. We can use green living plants to make biofuels. But those green living plants are our food. The more people we grow the more we need our corn for eating.

So what is the energy problem? The real core of the problem is that the energy for us to live requires plants — and we are now using up the plants faster than they can grow. (I’m not giving statistics here, but this is not an opinion – it is a measurable fact that can be confirmed.)

And so why do some people say we should prepare for the future and other people tell us not to worry about it? Because some people think it would be better to face facts, and other people imagine how much money they will make as the coal and oil become more and more scarce and people begin to panic.  The power of being prepared for the future argues with the power of being rich now.