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.

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Bare Bones Biology 028. Emergent Properties

My web site is not a hotbed of activity, but there’s one page that gets hundreds of hits a year, and it’s essentially the same bit that is on pages 32-34 in the Bare Bones Ecology Energy Handbook. The subject is levels of organization, and I continue to be astonished as the numbers of hits rise. I mean it’s a long way from viral, but I’m very happy that we must be teaching this critically important concept in our schools. The concept that every thing in the universe is made of organized collections of smaller things. And more importantly for our lives, every thing in the living ecosystem is made up or organized groups of smaller things.

Cells are made of organized molecules, atoms, macromolecules and organelles, and it’s the organization of these things that allow a cell to be alive.

Tissues are made of coordinated, organized groups of cells.

Organs are made of interacting tissues that are cooperating to perform some important life function within our bodies. Our hearts are a good example.

Higher organisms such as ourselves are made of elegant, coordinately functioning organs, tissues, and cells.

And the most incredible life of all is the ecosystem that is made of coordinately functioning organisms and the environment they generate together.

To the human mind, even the scientific mind, or perhaps especially the scientific mind, it seems miraculous just to know that kind of coordinated complexity exists. There is no chance that we can really understand it all, and of course that’s why technology is dangerous. We can’t do good technology with something we don’t really understand. But that’s a different subject.

What I want to say today is that a topic of even higher importance is discussed on pages 38 and 39 of the Energy Handbook. That is emergent properties.

Emergent properties are new characteristics of things that are the result of the complexity of their organization. So for a couple of man-made examples, the emergent property of a car, when you organize all its parts in just the right way, you can drive around in it. The emergent properties of corporations, we’re just beginning to appreciate that, as they begin to function independently of human values. The amazing emergent property of the cell, which is made of things that are not alive, is life. A cell is alive because of the complexity and the highly organized interactions among its atoms, molecules, and organelles. The emergent property of the heart is its ability to function as an essential part of the whole circulatory system. The emergent property of our brains is thinking.

We don’t know, really, what emergent properties we are messing with when we challenge the welfare of the whole ecosystem.

What we do know is that the entire ecosystem, and all the life forms of which it is composed, we all stay alive by eating organic energy. Organic energy is the energy that is found in organic molecules. Organic molecules are things like lipids, carbohydrates, nucleic acids, proteins, and they are found only in living organisms. Or things that once were living organisms, like coal, oil, gas. The energy to make organic molecules comes from the sun, but the organic molecule is what we need for food. Not the sunlight. And the organic molecule comes only from green plants. That’s it, that’s all there is to run the whole ecosystem.

You will not hear any emergent corporation letting that kind of information out on the airwaves. But then we really don’t want an emergent corporation to lead us into battle against the whole ecosystem, do we? We run on organic energy, the ecosystem runs on organic energy, the corposystem runs on organic energy.

Who do you think will win that head-butting argument?

Bare Bones Biology, on , and
KEOS radio, 89.1, Bryan, Texas

Butterflies, Bugs and Birds

ButterflyThe butterfly, symbol of our own awakening life, the first to find the first yellow blossom that pushed up out of the mud at the edge of my pond.

The pond teems with life this year after the long drought. Enough to feed the huge white heron, enough to feed the butterfly, enough to feed whatever it is that breaks the surface to slurp up some unwary bug or baby bird and drag it back below. And when I drove in I knew immediately the baby killdeer had arrived.

birdinflightIn their effort to drag us away from their babies, the mother and father flashed their white wing patterns and their orange rump feathers as they swooped — across the surface of the pond and over the new-mown grass along its edges — around our advancing threat to their young, just far enough away to tempt, and not close enough to get caught. They settle onto the grass, looking back over their shoulder, they squat and flag the orange rump feathers, flutter their wings and roll over on the ground as though maimed and unable to escape, but if we approach they do escape, again just out of reach, time and again until they have lured us away from their new hatchlings, and then soar into the morning sun. This works with the dog, who dashes across the pasture in pursuit.

“But you can’t fool me,” I say, turning my back on the birds and scanning the shores of the pond. “I’m the one with the brain!” And sure enough, this time I spotted them, two babies, but then I remembered these birds have been living here for about five years and produced several sets of eggs each year. I have looked before, but this is the very first time I have found the babies, and that’s probably because I just mowed the grass where their nest has been — wherever that was.
So who is smarter here? How do these birds “know” what to do to protect their chicks? Why do Killdeer behave this way and other birds choose other methods of protection? When we ask those kinds of questions, we are asking about the information component of the ecosystem. The information the ecosystem needs to survive through time and across the different sorts of environments of which it is composed.

The survival information is encoded in every cell of every organism that exists in the ecosystem. The plants know how to do photosynthesis, the cells know how to do cellular respiration, the muscles know when and how to contract, the eyes know how to see, everything knows how to breath, though everyone does not breath in the same way. Fishes are rather different from us, but they get what they need.

The brain knows how to think, and Killdeer birds know how to draw predators away from their babies. How does the heron know to fish? The flower to attract just the right butterfly that will carry its male fertility to the appropriate female flower? How does the butterfly know which flower is the right flower? How did the flower know that the right kind of butterfly would be available just when it opened?

The kinds of behaviors that are involved with survival inside the ecosystem are encoded in the genes of all the organisms, each kind of organism with it’s own instructions. This information flow includes genes, and is studied by geneticists, but it is more than only genes. It includes predator/prey interactions, parasite cycles, and all of the other elements of the ecosystem reality as it is this day in this year, and the interaction of all those factors with the genomes of all the other organisms that live in the ecosystem and with the inorganic environment.

If I were to refer to it as the intelligence of the ecosystem, you would immediately want to give it an IQ test and compare with human intelligence. That would be a misleading metaphor, and so I will not. But it is a very real flow of information through the ecosystem from the origin of life on earth until this very day. It is in you; it is your heritage; and you are in it.
Look at those little legs go, faster than mine. The parents are having fits, off to the side, trying to distract me, and I will back off as soon as I get a picture, because I know there are big fish and turtles in the pond, I doubt the little thing knows how to swim, and a Copperhead roams the shore. I don’t want to be responsible. The parents, I think, can do a better job without me.


Hi Folks,

(Oh, maybe I should stop saying that, some folks on the west coast think I’m trying to be folksy, talking down, but that’s not really it. I’ll tell you what it is, even though that’s not what I started out to talk about. What it is is “levels of organization.” Everybody knows the entire universe is made up of levels of how things are organized together. Otherwise, the whole thing wouldn’t work. There is us, to begin. We are made of tissues that come together in a miraculous way; the tissues are made of living cells that come together in a miraculous way; the cells are made of molecules that come together in a really miraculous way to perpetuate life; the molecules are made of atoms that etc., etc. But we are not the top of the miraculous heap. Above us are populations, above that are ecosystems and I don’t care very much about the rest, but there are more. God maybe. The point is, the rules are different for every different level, so the discussions and explanations area different at different levels, and usually what I talk about is populations or ecosystems. But then there is us folks. So if I say “Hi Folks” I’m talking about people and not ecosystems.)

So I started out to tell you folks a true, people-level story.

Day before yesterday I was playing with the neighbor dog that had previously been playing with a (now deceased) skunk. The dog’s tooth scratched my finger. Skunks in this neighborhood often carry rabies.

First I went to talk to the neighbor to find out if the dog had its rabies shots. The neighbor was concerned about the dog.

Then I went to my vet to find out how long after a dog is bit by a skunk does the dog survive if it has rabies. The vet was concerned about the regulations that had been violated by not reporting the skunk.

Then I went to the doctor to find out if I have to go and disrupt the entire county — health service, animal control, medical reports — over a tiny scratch on my finger that happened 30 days after the skunk incident. The DOCTOR said: “Don’t worry about it the dog would have been dead in ten days if it had rabies.” So I stopped worrying about it.

And it’s really nice to know someone who can tell the difference between MY big picture and everyone else’s little pictures.

Of course, we still don’t know if I will die of rabies. Or swine flu. Or something else.
Photo by Mary Ann