If you were perusing the library shelves and came across this book, the title “Spillover” may leave you a little uncertain in terms of its topic, without reading the subtitle and having some understanding of the processes described in the book, the emergence, evolution and ecology of ‘new’ diseases, human diseases. When we speak of them we understand them as conditions, assaults on our health and human bodies, which result in an array of symptoms, with wide ranging severity, ranging from mild and asymptomatic; to bothersome with knowable, short lived cycles; through chronic and debilitating; to those entailing a series of feverish cycles we simply must endure; to those often painful and fatal which wreck havoc on our systems and organs. Quammen, the author, is as always, an intelligent and thorough researcher able to interpret complex topics for the layman while staying true to the science and the people whose stories he tells as he weaves together the larger narrative. Continue reading
I’m an integrator, a contextual learner and a big picture kind of guy. I am willing to ‘slog’ through the details, the analyses of experts, to understand what is going on, when the details help me understand, in this case, the operation or ‘life’ of the whole organism. What are the processes, how do they influence one another and how does that result in the condition we recognize as the dynamic, animated phenomenon of living. Franklin Harold, a professor emeritus in biochemistry at Colorado State University when he wrote, “The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life”, in 2003, has produced the ‘best’, and most comprehensible, review I’ve found of the life in the cell, to date. This book does not require an advanced degree to follow. It requires an interest in biology. A botanist, horticulturist or even avid gardener pursuing a more thorough understanding of what life is and what is occurring within the plants and animals around will find much that is accessible to them here. This book is not a slog. It is readable and readily comprehensible, though for those with less of a science background, a little more challenging, but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained. The jargon he uses I would say is necessary. Science can be very precise in how it views its subject, necessarily so, because meaning becomes lost when the precision of language is too generalized. I’m adding it to my own library. I include some extensive quotes here to give you a sense of his style and philosophy. I also gleaned much from these particular passages. In school I endured too many professors and lecturers who seemed more interested in impressing their students with their own brilliance, and our inferiority, and came to relish those who were true teachers, who were able to impart to their students, there own love and fascination with their topic. Harold is one of these. He set out to write a book that would reach out to the reader making his topic more accessible, more comprehensible and thus widen the circle of understanding…and he has succeeded.
The cell, scientists would agree, is the smallest fully functional unit of an organism, any organism. It is the basic structural unit that has been joined together to create larger, more complex organisms. If you attempt to reduce it any further, divide it into its component parts, which science typically does in its process of reduction to understand it in its parts, it loses functionality and dies. Single celled organisms, bacteria, archae, and the larger single celled eukaryotic organisms, like amoebas, comprise the majority of living species on earth, by both number of species and by sheer mass. They are as complete as any single organism, like ourselves, a Redwood or Blue Whale, can be. Whether a single celled organism or a massive multi celled organism made up of several billions of many thousand ‘types’ of different specialized cells, almost all cells are capable of all of their essential functions, as long as they are supplied with proper nutrients and flows of energy. Cells, as Harold describes them, are highly coordinated ‘societies’ comprised of many millions of individual proteins, enzymes, lipids and ions, with various forms of RNA, bound within a protective, limiting and self-regulating membrane, often with other internal membranes, which protect and allow other more specialized functions within the cell…and DNA, or in the cases of some bacteria, RNA, which contain the ‘code’ which prescribes the organism. It is within the cell membrane where the particular mixes of their constituent parts are held in dynamic flux, where the ‘work’ of living occurs. Within what was once described as a ‘soup’ of chemicals, suspended within a virtual sea of water, the cell conducts the ‘business’ of life. Today we understand that within a single cell water molecules far out number any other substance. Cells possess a complex internal structure, a cytoskeleton, grown from proteins, that is integral to the transport of metabolites, the regulation of its thousands of internal processes, the structure of the cell itself and essential to its ability to respond and move. The actions within the cell are largely self-regulating, influenced, certainly, by outside, and internal energy gradients. The various reactions influence the rate of other reactions in a complex system of feedback loops, with a ‘logic’ often compared to that utilized by a computer. Processes are chemical, electrical and ‘mechanical’ as one reaction induces a conformational change, a change in ‘shape’, of a particular protein or enzyme, which directly influences what it can do. These changes in ‘shape’ act as effective ‘switches’ within the cell, switches operating amongst thousands of other such switches, creating an intricate system of feedback loops which regulate just what the next step will be. Only functions tend not to be linear. They can be extremely complex, with a redundancy that also allows the cell to vary internally widely, while maintaining itself, overall, in a relatively stable state. Its internal complexity then accounts for its responsiveness and adaptability. It imparts a degree of flexibility, of adaptability to a system within the cell. All of this going on at a molecular level that plays out, with powerful effect, at the organismic level. Continue reading
When we open ourselves up to the world, travel to other regions and countries, see and live in different geographies, experience other cultures, climates and biomes, we have the opportunity to be intimate with and understand world’s very different than our own. The world is vast and its peoples and organisms, though astoundingly diverse, are closely related. Even if we could travel ‘everywhere’, having a meaningful experience with all of it is simply not possible. It is dangerously presumptuous to assume that anyone of us might understand all of this. Such travel, should we want to, isn’t possible for the large majority of us, which does not mean that there is therefore no point in traveling to where we can. If our goal is deeper than simply ticking off places and experiences, if we are seeking to understand, to ‘grow’ ourselves, our limited travels can still serve us. For the rest of us it is through reading and the sharing of stories that we can gain such insight, as long as the authors, our guides, are themselves astute observers who are engaged in the places and peoples of which they write. There are many such writers…I can think of none better than Arundhati Roy who writes so beautifully, imaginatively and painfully of her beloved home India. Continue reading
This is a book about ‘life’, that which animates particular organic structures, organisms, absent from other ‘structures’ which remain fixed, but for the physical and chemical forces which wear them down. From our human perspective, this sets ourselves, and all other living things, apart from the inert, nonliving, matter that comprises our world and the universe. England, as a physicist, sees the world of nature and all matter within it, differently than most of us. Science has demonstrated that the universe tends to operates under consistent ‘laws’. Organisms, while a special ‘class’ of matter, are still of matter composed of the same atoms joined together in complex macromolecules not found outside of organisms, which are in fact created within organisms. They occupy a different section along a continuum defined by energy, a ‘family’ of complex, shared organic structures. This complexity of structure goes to determining their functionality. Function increases and diversifies as complexity increases, capacities are expanded and the flow of energy through them becomes an effective and sustaining agent in their ‘being’ and evolution. His view is consistent with the many other physicists who have looked into life and view it as an inevitable outcome of the processes, energies and materials that comprise Earth’s particular corner of the universe. Earth appears to be a relatively rare occurrence, but it is extremely doubtful that it is a singular one. Given the particular mix of ‘ingredients’ and energies here, matter has come together over the course of over 4 billion years to form life as we know it because it could and whatever is possible/probable tends to happen with a degree of frequency. Particular patterns precede those to follow, not necessarily determining them, but increasing the likelihood that they will. The flow of energy through matter tends to ‘favor’ a range of outcomes. Those outcomes tend to favor the next, building from one ‘success’ to the next.
Many of these patterns and energy flows occur at molecular levels well below our ability to observe and measure. These patterns are not generally obvious to us. Our perceptions are shaped by our beliefs about the world. We tend to ‘see’ what we expect to see, not necessarily what is there. We shape our perceived world into the commonly shared story that has been passed on to us. Our particular indoctrination, our educations, all go toward determining what we see, then we take our experience and use it to reinforce that understanding. In a sense we ‘choose’ our reality. From the moment we each open our mouths or put word to page, we do this. Our language and knowledge limit us. It requires that we distill our perceptions, our experiences and our understanding into a comprehensible form. We are then limited by our biases, our language, what we already ‘know’. We are all at a ‘remove’ in this sense, apart from the world in which we live, although we are intimately immersed in it. As ‘western’ people we tend to see ourselves as separate from it. In actuality, we can never be so. England looks into this question of what life is by taking our modern and still developing idea of ‘thermodynamics’, our study of energy and the way that it ‘works’ on the stuff of the universe, on matter, as his way into this ‘story’. Energy is transformative. Matter, is arguably, a particular expression of energy. One can be translated into the other.
England is a theoretical physicist. You will not find in this book a detailed explanation of the living organism or even a detailed description of the flow of energy through one. Thermodynamics and his idea of dissipative adaptation are larger concepts that can give us a framework for understanding the bigger picture of an almost unfathomably complex topic. England joins with those today who would argue that any living organism is not so much a thing as it is a process, in a state of continuous change, a process which both follows a probable, understandable, path, and is itself a part of the larger/longer process of evolution, of becoming, building on itself and life’s many patterns, as it moves ahead through time toward something unknowable to us. We exist from moment to moment, a ‘response’, one of a particular and massive set of more or less likely probabilities, each which influences what will follow, within a universe of definable ‘law’. Here England gives us an intellectual framework for understanding the processes at play in this process of living. Living organisms are conductors of a continuous flow of energy through them from outside and back after it has degraded. This flow of energy acts in very particular ways on the molecules, cells, tissues and organs of an organism…until it no longer can. An organism, is in a sense, a conductor, a channel through which energy flows from a higher, more available state, to a lower, less available state. Energy drives them, permits them and enables them so that they are in this sense ‘self’ sustaining…as long as the energy flows and the organism can maintain the integrity of its structure at all levels.
The following is an extensive quote from his book: Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Organisms, pp. 113-116.
“…a plant—for example—has to be thought of as holding steady on a steep [energy] hillside in a constant state of free fall. Much like the chemicals in a battery powering a flashlight, many molecules in a plant are constantly undergoing reactions that convert them into other, lower-energy forms. At the same time, randomizing thermal fluctuations are taking the specially ordered components of each cell that have been assembled in a particular fashion and wreaking havoc with them, either through chemical damage or via larger-scale physical rearrangements. In permanent darkness, a plant is therefore on a slow road to death, for dying in physical terms is nothing more than sliding downhill in a variety of chemical and physical ways. Of course, plants can survive just fine for a while in the dark, but not forever. [Animals, for the most part exist in a much more precarious balance requiring much higher energy flows for a given mass.] Eventually, the twin tendencies to lower energy and higher disorder that are required by the fall to thermal equilibrium will win out, and the pile of matter that was originally a live organism will start to look less and less like one.
Sheldrake, Melvin, “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures”, Random House, 2020.
I have spent most of my life outside amongst, growing, observing or studying plants and yet, every page here has caused me to take at least a moment to reconsider the life I’ve been so involved with. Everything here underscores what I’ve read and learned elsewhere, sometimes casting it in an entirely different ‘light’. While we learn to think of organisms as discrete individuals, fungi, a class of organism separate from the bacteria, plants, animals, even viruses which I’ve been examining, are impossible to consider on their own without looking into their vital relationships with the other forms of life. While all organisms depend in many ways, great and small, upon other organisms for their support and sustenance, fungi are nearly impossible to imagine separately, their ‘bodies’ being literally intertwined in and around those of others.
Relatively early in the book, Sheldrake describes the difference between fungi and animals in this way, animals put food into their own bodies, fungi put their bodies in their food, digesting what they require by secreting acids and then drawing the broken down nutrients back into their mycelial bodies and transporting them to where needed. Continue reading
The titular ghosts here are the long extinct mega-fauna species that once roamed the continents for millions of years shaping the plant species in question here and, in their interactions, shaped the landscapes themselves. Now absent their animal partners, these plants still retain the characteristic structures that evolved in their long dance together, the genetic inertia contained within their DNA. These plants remain today as anachronisms, seemingly misplaced curiosities with no existing, obvious, reason for ever being, mysteries of form and function, that only begin to make sense when we look far enough back.
I only recently came across this book while doing research into my continuing interest and focus on what exactly is ‘life’ and what is it that distinguishes living organisms from other matter. This book is a little outside of this topic, but not by much. Barlow here is concerned with the process of natural selection and how species have come to acquire and retain their physical and functional characteristics, how they’ve retained them long after the shaping forces have disappeared. While there is a somewhat random element in the process of evolution, organic forms follow patterns and particular patterns are ‘selected’ over time through the ‘working’ of shaping forces. Forms are supported or not, Once acquired they remain disappearing with a particular species when it is no longer supported enough and goes extinct. This ‘opens’ a niche for possible other species to fill. Each species is time limited. Each is a process or event that continues so long as it is adequately supported. It in turn fills roles in the lives of other organisms, other species. Natural selection is not some process relegated to the past, but an active, ongoing, one, though we tend to fail to see it around us. We have a tendency to expand the ‘now’ and attribute to it a precedence and persistence that it doesn’t have and so we also fail to see our own role in the continuing ‘work’ of evolution. We all know something of the concept of the ‘survival of the fittest’, a process that suggests that today’s species are the ‘best’ fit given the conditions in the world today. Barlow, and the scientists who support this idea, argue instead that today’s species are the best fit for the past as a result of thousands, even millions of years of evolution. Today is just a moment in time. Our imagining of it as something broader and more stable is a problem. Continue reading
Nurse, Paul, “What is Life?: Five Great Ideas in Biology”, WW Norton and Co., 2021. I’m placing this book out of order here, its American edition just released this year and I’ve only just read it, because I concur that this is an excellent introduction to its topic and should be accessible to a broad audience, one without an academic background in biology. It does what Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”, does for its readers, presents in a compact and cogent way the central ideas for understanding the science of life. Nurse, is a Nobel Prize winning geneticist and cell biologist, who has dedicated his research life to the study of the cell and what sets this class of matter apart and unique, looking into its structure, chemistry/metabolism, reproduction, evolution and the relationships and communication which must occur within and between cells. He looks into what genetics is and isn’t capable of, what it seems to control, the genes for 20,000 some different proteins included within our DNA, while leaving open to question the instructions and detailed directions, how the growth and development of an organism is actually determined.
The reader will benefit from having some basic understanding of chemistry to fully grasp what he writes here, but this is an excellent starting point. At 143 pages this book shouldn’t scare off the reader. This is a window into life and should peek the readers interest as Nurse reveals what he still finds so fascinating about life and this world.
Al-Khalili, Jim and Johnjoe McFadden, “Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology”, Broadway Books, 2016. In the world of science, quantum biology is a toddler. Quantum mechanics itself only began a hundred plus years ago and quickly began redefining the way that physicists look at the world. Today most branches of science are transforming themselves, aligning themselves with this new reality of physics. This may be impacting none of the sciences more than it is biology and the life sciences. What was once limited to the quantum world of elementary particles so much smaller than we can see even with technology’s assistance, today we are finding quantum actions behind even the most simple processes up to and including the energy and origins of life. Mass and energy lie at the heart of everything and life is a very particular case of highly complex ordering of that mass and energy, intricately linked in coherent relationships, borne out of seemingly random, chaotic, actions at a subatomic level. In these systems/organisms life has evolved effective patterns that ‘feed’ on themselves, self-regulating, self-maintaining, able to reproduce with great ‘fidelity’ to one’s parent organisms, energy dissipating structures, dynamic, balanced between stasis or death and a runaway consumption of one’s self,, a conflagration. Patterns built on more basic patterns, conformed into very particular resonant structures which are additive and transformative, never perfect, evolving towards greater complexity and capacity, structures that ‘live’ in relationship to one another in a supportive manner, dynamic, time limited and ‘stable’ in a self-reinforcing sense…existing in different states, simultaneously. Follow Al-Khalili and McFadden down part of a ‘proven’ path. Continue reading
In this blog I focus on plants. Any gardener, botanist or horticulturist knows that plants, all living organisms, live in an incredibly complex, interwoven network of systems, each affecting the others, the health of anyone, in large part determined by the health of the ‘whole’. Life does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. We humans are also very much living organisms and subject to the same kind of limits as any species. What we build and produce, including those more abstract things like our social and economic systems upon which we are very much dependent, are subject to the same natural laws and limits, whether we recognize them or not. Very much a part of this is how we value other life collectively. Just because many may say other people and species are of less value, does not make this fact. The laws and ways of ‘man’ must remain within, and consistent with, the laws of nature. We are not at liberty to treat other life as expendable. We owe a debt and responsibility to all life. Life permits and supports us so it is incumbent upon us to do the same for it. Such is the natural law of reciprocity. Continue reading
The Basic Code of the Universe: The Science of the Invisible in Physics, Medicine and Spirituality, is not an ‘easy’ read…such should be expected when a book challenges not just our understanding of the world, but even the accuracy of our perceptions of itI This is leading edge thought in the sciences today coming at a time when the basic precepts of science are being called into question by the political and religious right. The last several decades have seen an accelerating rate of scientific advancement at the same time that the general public’s understanding of it is dropping ever further behind. Today while advocates press to re-emphasize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in public education, another segment has been working in opposition demanding a return of public education to the ‘3 R’s’, in keeping with the ‘fundamentals’ of Christian conservatism. This vocal minority rails against our acceptance of a science that questions their ‘world view’ arguing that science’s ‘valueless’ methods poison our ways of thinking raising doubt, putting people in conflict with their basic beliefs and the dogma they espouse. These people question science’s relevance and wish to look no further than the fundamentalist thought of their religion. Such doubt and rejection should be raising red flags around the world as people, drawn to their own ‘righteous’ paths, find themselves increasingly in conflict with others on their own separate path.
I, myself, have always been drawn in many directions, fascinated by one topic then another, but over time forming a rather comprehensive overall interest in the world…more wholistic. I will never become ‘expert’ in one thing, finding life and our place in the universe endlessly a wonder! So, I find myself drawn into such topics as evolution, quantum biology and the physics of life, fleshing it out with studies into the particularity of place, places like South Africa, Chile, the Canary Islands and our own Pacific Coast region of North America, with their particular geologies and living communities. I find the ‘big questions’ the most interesting and will sometimes put considerable energy into trying to understand their possible ‘answers’. I ‘intuit’ and combine, finding that our world has been so committed to the narrow and fractured views of our countless experts that our understanding of the world and our place in it has become ever more ‘confused’…so again, I am drawn to this and books like this. Continue reading