Category Archives: Evolution

Nature as a Model For Society and the Economy

For years now my real interest has been in plants and the life sciences.  This has lead me to better understand the physics and chemistry of life, of the organism, as I attempt to understand the truly awesome and fantastical phenomenon that is life itself.  I find it impossible to ignore the links between all of the sciences and it should not be too surprising that what one might learn in biology can have application for our own human species, including the social aspects of our lives, because whether we talk about art and beauty, economics or the institutions we share as humans, all are an outgrowth of our lives and the forces and cycles that govern us.  Primary among these is the phenomenon of relationship whether between the various ‘nested’ and interlinked cells in our own bodies or the countless organisms we share this world with, with which we in fact evolved, in both competitive and cooperative ways.  John Donne once pronounced in a poem that, ‘No man is an island’ and he meant that quite literally.  Our fate and health are all bound to one another whether we like it our not, in relationships which can be mutually beneficial, or, if we choose to ignore and deny them, in mutually destructive ways.  

Ecology is the study of a shared community of organisms, its description and how it all fits together, its relationships, ‘eco’ arising from the old greek word for household and logos, which speaks to order, purpose and form.  Economy, begins with that same concept of ‘household’ only its suffix comes from the greek word meaning management or distribution and refers to the function of the household, its processes and how it produces, distributes or apportions its resources and products…it refers to the actions whereby the ‘household’ lives, the actions, that characterize its many relationships.  In ancient Greece the economy revolved around the household.  In their world economic actions were not simply those by which a society achieves material ends, the Greeks also constrained it to those activities which resulted in ‘praiseworthy’ outcomes, those which provided a larger benefit to the household.  (Greek society, not perfect, was much like our own, placing women in a subservient role and was dependent upon slavery.  Like American democracy, it was exclusive, but capable of being expanded to include all peoples.) 

The two concepts remain closely linked though today our understanding of economy includes only those parts of the larger community’s operation, the money economy, that produces material benefit and wealth.  Any harm accrued or costs imposed on others is not directly relevant if such costs have been ‘outside’ of the transaction, beyond the responsibility of the buyer and seller’s deal.  Leaders have mutually decided to exclude all else.  We define our economy in a limited way that serves the production of wealth and its accumulation, making profit the purpose and most relevant factor in economic decision making, placing outside it that which we choose to, that which we under value and take for granted.  The two largest examples of this are our exclusion of domestic or women’s work, and the contribution of the environment.  To include them would radically change our economic calculations and the very concept of profit.

Profit is what remains after costs are considered.  To the degree that costs can be excluded then, profit is increased.  This ‘habit’ of exclusion extends throughout society and extends to whole sectors of the human population and beyond, distorting our decision making and the broader social and political structures that govern our lives….Our understanding of economics today exists outside of ethics.  Ethics and ethical behavior, if it is to factor into it, must be imposed.  That is the responsibility of a society through its political processes.  Such decisions lie within the realm of possibility though considerable power is aligned behind our current model and we behave as if they are fixed and unchangeable.   (See this PDF to understand how far our economic ideas have strayed from the thinking and goals of the ancient Greeks.)  The Greeks rightly recognized the economy as the engine of the ‘household’ and society, the system that, through nature’s largesse and human labor, creates that which sustains us.  It is necessary that an economy be regulated through rational decision making.  Such a system ‘freed’ of its responsibility to society to move it in a beneficial direction, is more likely to simultaneously squander its world and resources while failing to meet the needs of its people and the many species that comprise it.  The Greeks understood that by not limiting the pursuit of luxury the capacity of nature to fulfill its demands would be compromised.

This last year has driven this point home for me as the pandemic and our divisive politics, both plagues on this world, work to drive us apart.  These compound the ever increasing gap between the rich and poor, stranding ever more of the middle class on their own as well.  We’ve conflated what we want with what we need and released individual greed to pursue its ends freely.  I have been studying the topics of evolution, natural selection, random mutation and the role of energy in life, acting as a driving, creative, force behind evolution, increasing complexity and the self-organization of organisms, which in the world of physics are recognized as far out of equilibrium, dissipative structures, taking higher quality energy in, utilizing it in their growth and metabolism, before exhausting it outside of their ‘bodies’.  Organisms have the ability to self-catalyze, reproduce and maintain themselves as long as energy flows through them uninterrupted.  These phenomenon lend weight to our understanding that life is not a random occurrence, there is something inevitable about it, the underlying physics and chemistry of the universe pushing the process.  Organisms are living, self-reinforcing, complex ‘nested’ systems, each composed of successful, dynamic patterns, that repeat in innumerable forms, between very narrow limits.  Organisms exist in the ‘moment’ along the energetic cusp between life and death, that sweet spot within which our chemistry and metabolism remain, between sub-critical and supra-critical states, stasis and conflagration.  There are countless lessons for us to learn from biology that we can apply to our own lives, because life is not an accident, nor is it a singular miraculous event…it is rooted within and powered by the forces of nature.

We exist within a complex network of organisms, a network of self-sustaining systems, made possible and animated by the flow of energy as it moves from low to high entropy, from order to randomness, sunlight ‘becoming’ living tissue, feeding successive trophic levels, endlessly cycling.   All of life exists in this singular moment entirely dependent upon the health and vitality of the whole, the process of which each individual is a part, with a role to play, which effects every living thing and of what will follow.  Through our broader economic behavior we have set ourselves outside of this essential process of nature.  We cannot know ultimately where this will take life, but we do know, with some confidence, that if we interrupt or compromise it, we put everything at risk.

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The Flowering of Monte: Going ‘Viral’ During a Pandemic

 

When will it actually flower?  Once people got passed the, ‘What is ‘that’ question?’, this is what they wanted to know.  When would it actually flower? by which they meant the individual petalous flowers open.   More than a few times I responded snarkily…it’s flowering right now!  Agave are among a wide ranging group of plants whose flowering includes a relatively large inflorescence, a supporting structure, which can rival the rest of the plant in terms of size.  An Agave montana flowering here is foreign to our experience.  The idea that such a large structure  could arise so quickly, is to most people’s minds, strange, if not surreal…but for experienced gardens, who observe and strive to understand, there are links and connections, shared purpose and processes with all flowers.  Gardeners and botanists, horticulturists and evolutionary scientists, they see the wonder in it all.  When does flowering begin?  When a plant commits to its purpose.  Flowering should not be taken for granted.  It does not occur to meet our aesthetic need.  It is also much more than a simple result of a plant’s life.  It is a fulfillment of one well and fully lived, projecting oneself into the future.  Flowering and the production of one’s seed is a commitment to a future that will go on beyond oneself…and it begins from where every plant begins. Continue reading

What Do We Do When the Whole World Feels Like its Falling to Pieces?

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

COVID-19, Pandemics and How They Will Change the World For the Better

I’m not a biological ‘fatalist’, but there are several reasons why epidemiologists were attempting to plan for a pandemic and why the Obama administration was empowering institutions, creating protocols and organizing resources that could be mobilized quickly, before the COViD-19 outbreak, not for this one specifically, but one of some kind. Viruses, bacteria, mycoplasma and other microbes fill the world at a microscopic level…they are everywhere, all of the time. Our own bodies contain far more of them than we do of our own some three trillion cells. Fortunately, most of them do not cause us disease, at least as long as we remain healthy. Many of them, in fact perform valuable functions in us, beneficial ones, without which our lives would be the poorer. Disease too is part of life’s ‘plan’. Its agents are dynamic. Today’s diseases are not those of the past. We evolved together. They mutate and sometimes ‘leap’ across species boundaries. A study of biology and disease reveals a function of disease or at least a consequence to the health and evolution of a species. It may sound heartless to put it this way, but disease is very much a part of living. With this new disease, COVID-19, as with others, it is selective, affecting those whose health is compromised in some way disproportionately, killing those most susceptible, the weak and those may include those surprising to us. As in most things concerning life, nothing is so simple as our concept of strong and weak. Disease is a part of the process of natural selection that has always been in effect in the world. Continue reading

Viruses in Plants: Life, Disease and Evolution

Gardening for most of us is more than just a distraction, but these days, in light of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, the disease it causes, COVID-19, the conflicted messaging we’re getting from our ‘leaders’ and the insecurity many or most of us are feeling around our own financial situations, we are likely more in need of one than we had been. This post will be a bit of that, while at the same time an attempt to shed a little light on the issue of viruses in the plant world. Yes, viruses plague plants as well, but they are also thought, by more than a few scientists, to have played other roles as well, such as in evolution, a process that continues to and beyond this day! In some ways they parallel those of bacteria. Both viruses and bacteria can cause disease. The disease that a virus can cause is generally very limited to a narrow range of species, even to one, with notable exceptions. Most, however, perform other tasks as they go about their ‘business’, within the bodies of bacteria and larger multi-celled organisms. In fact most viruses, like bacteria, play no direct roll in our health…and they are everywhere.

It is important to understand that science has its own biases and that our perspective as mortal human beings affects how we view things as well…viruses included. Science builds on experience. It requires that new science, and its theories, be consistent with what is ‘known’, but it must also be open enough to avail itself to new understandings when it better explains previously accepted theories. What do I mean? Viruses ‘cause’ disease, but might they also be something else? If our biases set us up to see them agents of disease, reservoirs for future disease or inconsequential, we will fail to see what they may also be…and there are some who would assign a much more important role to viruses and see them not just as disease agents, but as far more, as essential ‘elements’ and players to life today and the processes that made today’s form of it even possible! First, though, what do we ‘know’ of viruses. Continue reading

What is Life, Biology and the Non-equilibrium State: The Quantum World of the Organism

Sometimes art does a better job of conveying ‘reality’ than does our direct experience as it forces us to look through the eyes of others. The swirling, blurred edges of Van Gogh’s work begins to show us something of the immateriality of the world out there as images bleed over their edges into others with a visual energy that a photograph cannot provide.

[Dear reader, if this seems a bit rambling, I’m sorry, but my first purpose here is understanding the role of Quantum Physics in the life of the organism.  This is me trying to make sense of it and I do this by writing.  In writing our errors become most obvious.  I have read and reread this many times, rewriting and editing sections, throwing others out I later decided were just wrong.  I suspect I will come back to this over time as I continue on this quest to understand this post’s central question and that should be okay, because my understanding, like the science I am reading continues to evolve.  I read fairly widely across the several branches of science and rarely find those who can integrate these ideas.  Quantum Biology is a real thing, but the work of synthesis or joining the pertinent work and theories from the separate sciences has really just begun.  Quantum mechanics, biochemistry, cell biology, enzyme action, evolution, metabolic activity, the unique role of the water molecule in life and the study of life as an integrated, complex system, is not something done.  It is my belief that to understand the miracle of life, one must have a grasp of the related sciences and their various complimentary and competing theories.  The story they each tell individually is, unsurprisingly, incomplete.  We will never understand life if we continue to examine it only in its isolated parts and functions.  Life is quite the opposite.  If you reader are able to gain some clarity from my struggles here…then all the better!]

What, some of you are likely thinking, does quantum physics have to do with biology and living organisms?  Physics’ realm, after all, is that of apples falling, billiard balls ricocheting off of one another, a planet orbiting around its sun, the electricity that powers many of our devices and nuclear explosions.  Yes, it is that, and so much more.  It examines and seeks to explain the physical properties of matter and energy in all of its forms and at all of its scales…well, at their most basic, tiniest scale, organisms are composed of this same matter, the stuff of planets and stars.  Quantum physics looks at this ‘behavior’ at unimaginably tiny scales, that of quanta, those tiny bits that physicists, like Max Planck discovered cannot be further divided, that contain fixed and set amounts of energy, that when multiplied by billions, gain enough size that we can directly perceive them.  At the tiny scale of quanta, of sub-atomic particles, the laws of matter change, those used to calculate the trajectory of a much more massive rocket or explain the movement of heat in water, no longer hold.  Such tiny bits of matter behave differently and such tiny bits play key roles within living organisms. 

At that level, all of these particles exhibit what physicists describe as quantum motion and uncertainty; they are capable of ‘tunneling’ and ‘walking’; of being in two, binary, states, particle and wave, at the same time; of having the potential for what physicists call ‘super-position’ or having the capacity to possess different properties at the same moment until they are caused to ‘collapse’ into a single state, a single position; and they do this at a scale well beyond our ability to directly perceive, that of nanometers and time frames of nanoseconds, billionths of a meter, billionths of a second.  These are the scales at which we could examine single atoms.  At such scales quanta, the component bits of atoms, the smallest atoms, like hydrogen, common to virtually every ‘organic’ molecule, ‘behave’, can do these things, coherently, as if they were directly linked and coordinated.  This is a ‘world’ in which velocity and location become problematic, in which a particle/wave cannot have its velocity and location known at the same moment, a world in which quanta could be in more than one place, at the same time, no, ‘are’ in any of several possible positions at a given moment, a world of ‘probabilities’, where in a very real sense all things are possible.  Physicist’s speak of ‘wave forms’ which are predictive tools to help them determine the probability of one’s velocity and location….What?  Such ideas boggle the mind.  At such an unimaginable level, matter does not exist, not in the kind of solid, fixed, massive sense that most of us tend to think anyway.  At that level matter consists of energy, that is ‘informed’, structured in such a way that through its energized action, its ‘behavior’, ‘wave forms’ collapsing in and out of ‘fixed’ position, manifest at our scale as the ‘stuff’ we know and can perceive.  This is pretty bizarre and ‘weird’ stuff.  Some refer to this as the quantum weird.

….This might be a good place to take a break…then reread the above.  The reader might do well to take this approach as your ‘work’ your way through this, bit or bite by bite.
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Here Comes the Sun: Latitude and its Seasonal Effect on Life and Place

Read to the Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun.”

It’s a bright sunny morning here in Portland…in January, not a real common occurrence in a place where we typically have some kind of cloud cover due to our climate with its strong maritime influences…but today it is sunny, and I’m thinking about the annual cycle of changing day length as we move from our shortest day, on the winter solstice, toward our longest day, on the summer solstice.  The solstice result from the tilt of Earth’s axis, which remains more or less fixed, though there is a bit of a ‘wobble’, as the Earth follows its annual orbital path around the Sun, spinning like a top, effectively changing the surface it presents along the way. Continue reading

Agave montana: Monte’s Flowering Attempt…and What’s Behind It

It’s October in Portland and my Agave montana is in the process of flowering…I know, we’re heading toward winter, with its rain and average low down into the mid-30’s with potentially sudden damaging temperature swings from mid-November into March dropping below freezing to the low twenties, with extremes some years, generally limited to the upper teens, though historically, some areas have dropped into the single digits, those Arctic blasts from the interior….Winter temps here can be extremely unsupportive of Agave’s from ‘low desert’ and tropical regions.  Combined with these cool/cold temperatures are our seasonal reduction in daylight hours and its intensity (day length and angle of incidence varies much more widely here at 45º north) and the rain, ranging from 2.5″ to 6″+ each month here Nov.- Mar., resulting in a ‘trifecta’ of negative factors which can compromise an Agave, even when in its long rosette producing stage.  Any Agave here requires thoughtful siting with special consideration for drainage, exposure and aspect.  For an Agave, conditions common to the maritime Pacific Northwest are generally marginal, yet I am far from alone in my attempts to grow them here.  Previously, in April of 2016 I had an Agave x ‘Sharkskin’ flower, a process that spanned the summer months, taking 7 until mid-October to produce ripe seed.  I was initially a little pessimistic this time about A. montana’s prospects.  Why, I wonder, if plants are driven to reproduce themselves would this one be starting the process now? Continue reading

Life Inside the Cell – Waking Up to the Miracle, part 1a

[This is the first in an extended series of three posts, this one on life within the cell, the second, on the evolution of plants, and the third on the New Phylogeny and Eudicots.  Some time ago I began this ‘theme’ with an extensive post on Monocots. This first ‘installment’, concerning life within the cell, is divided into two parts, the first, with the ‘a’ in its title, covers the growth and function of the cell itself and, importantly, the role of water within it.  The second, with the ‘b’ in its title,, will examine the concept of quantum biology and its explanative necessity for life beyond the ‘simple’ construct of cells, tissues and organisms. While trying to understand the ongoing reorganization and classification of plants, I found it necessary to better understand these other topics, what it is that we are ‘messing’ with! ]

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I begin here with the cell, what I’ve learned about what makes the cell, its existence and life within it, so amazing, something which should give us all pause, when we consider our own lives and what we do.  When scientists ‘split hairs’ in their arguments on which group to assign a species, when they attempt to link them to their ancestors, so many of which are now long extinct, to understand their relationships with other organisms, they have a purpose.  They are often looking much deeper into what a plant is, what constitutes life and how it evolved.  Phylogeny, the science that attempts to establish relationships between different organisms, different species, to link one to the other across time, is about both the history and the continuing journey of life on this planet.  It promises to tell us much about our own place as well as that of the hundred’s of thousands of other species with which we share it.  Ultimately, if we choose to understand this, it will change the way we garden and our relationship with the many landscapes that cover the Earth.  Our gardens are our own personal expressions, works of ‘art’, and must live within the parameters life has set for them on our little pieces of ground.  They reflect our understanding of the limits and possibilities at work here.  The better that we understand this the ‘better’ our gardens will be, the more in synch they will be with life.   Continue reading

An Introduction for Gardeners to the Eudicots and the New ‘Phylogeny’ of Angiosperms: Genetics and the APG, Part 1

 

 

While working on a blog posting over the spring of ’17, Palms, Bananas, All Monocots…Oh My! Their Similarities and the Differences that Distinguish Them From Dicots…and why this should matter to you! discussing Monocots, I necessarily said much about Dicots, those vascular, seed producing, Angiosperms (flowering plants) with two cotyledons or ‘seed leaves’.  These were the two major groups of Angiosperms that I grew up with in the gardening world…but, while I was working in my career, this began to change, beginning  some 25 years ago.  I’d been aware of the term Eudicots, or ‘true’ dicots, and knew that all Eudicots also fit within the older category of Dicots, while a small portion of the latter, are left outside.  I was unsure how these differentiated and so, ignorantly (not a bad word), blurred the two together as many have been doing since the concept of Eudicots was first put forward.  The differences between these two for me seemed very ‘arcane’ and fussy, focusing on the tiny pores or furrows, colpi, on pollen grains.  But it is more than just that.  To really understand what is going on in the esoteric world of taxonomy, the naming and organizing of plants and their relationships to one another, you need to look at the genetics, the DNA ‘fingerprints’ of a plant which allows us to follow evolutionary paths back from the plants of today through their ancestors to the earliest forms of life on Earth.  It is about the phylogeny, the ‘history’ and relationships that tie plants together. Continue reading