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

The Spirit of God

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the face of the waters.”

That’s my favorite quote from the Bible.

It doesn’t say exactly how He did it. But here we are in this very fine Garden of Eden, the only living thing within light years, in the midst of a universe of fire and ice. It is indeed miraculous. If a miracle is something that our little pea brains can’t understand, then we are surrounded by miracles and it would be better that we don’t forget it.

Whether or not we can feel the spirit of God moving among the miracles, and even though nobody understands everything, we do know some of the basic natural laws that keep this life alive. Werner von Braun, who I think was a physicist, said: “The universe is hostile only when you do not know its laws. For those who know and obey, the universe is friendly.”

So how do we get to know its laws? I expect he was thinking about the laws of physics, and I expect he was right. We would not get very far trying to pretend we can walk on clouds (even though it makes you want to try sometimes, looking down on them from an airplane) and we wouldn’t get very far without wheels and combustion and all of that kind of technology based in the reality of natural phenomena. And we won’t get very far pretending that life can exist in absence of what it needs to be alive. The word of man is not more powerful than the works of God that lie all around us and proclaim themselves for us to see and understand. And obey — or not. We have the freedom to choose — and as we continue to choose unwisely, the universe becomes more and more hostile.

We are even pretending that we don’t need what we do need for life to stay alive. Right now we need the ecosystem to stay alive. How can we not understand that the ecosystem is a living thing with all the needs of living things? I don’t know the answer to that question, but let’s talk about the needs of all living things. The natural laws of being alive. Boiled rigtht down to the bare bones, they are threefold, and they are the same for the tiniest cell as they are for you and me and for the whole great earth ecosystem that you can see from the moon. If you were foolish enough to go to the moon.

We need food because it requires work to stay alive, and there is a universal law of energy that says no work can happen without energy. We get energy to stay alive from our food. Food does not come from supermarkets or from the sun. It comes from plants, that is from our garden of eden. Once we have eaten the food — we can’t eat it again. Actually we could, but most of the available energy has already been used from the food by the time we defecate it, and energy does not recycle.

We need to recycle materials such as oxygen and carbon dioxide and nitrogen and carbon and all the elements that are part of life. That is another reason we eat. Also it’s why we breathe. And to direct all these activities, every kind of life needs to have the information available that tells it how to use the energy, by digestion and all that, and how to recycle the materials, for example by breathing, in order to stay alive.

All processes require information. We do the processes — we do everything that we do because of our genes. Our genetic code. We can be alive because our genetic code knows exactly when and where to make an enzyme to digest the meal we just ate, and exactly when and where to make a nerve cell or a pigment cell or a muscle cell, or exactly how to think.

These three things — energy from plants, the recycling of elements and compounds, and the genetic code to direct all the whole processes — these are required by every living thing, from the tiniest prokaryotic cell to the entire whole ecosystem itself.

How do we know this? Because without any one of them, life ceases. We do not know everything about anything, but we know that — if God created life — then that’s how he created it to be.