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Bio 103, Fall 2007, Lecture/Discussion Notes

Paul Grobstein's picture
Biology 103, Fall, 2007, Bryn Mawr College



Making Sense of Life


Lecture/Discussion Notes

3, 5, 7 September
Bio 103 as shared process ... making sense of life
  • starting places ... Paul Grobstein
    • complexity and unpredictability
    • successive levels of emergent properties, following similar rules?
    • in process
  • And you ... making us collectively
    • diverse interacting entities exploring new terrain
    • with resulting somewhat unpredictable movement beyond current understandings
    • to be shared among ourselves and with others

Biology -> Science of life


What are genes? What is heritability?
Why are some things more affected by genes than others? What else matters? What role does randomness play?
What is heatlh? Cancer? Why do they occur?
Should scientists look for an aging gene? a cancer gene? Should scientists try and prevent aging? cancer?
How come "The scientific view ... has swung back and forth"?

From the intro forum

  • obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, heart murmur, high blood pressure, infectious diseases, sexuality

Raises further interesting/relevant questions ...

  • What is science? Why can't it "get it right"?
  • What is life? Can one get it "right"?
  • Science = life?

Science as process ... of Story Telling and Story Revision

A traditional perspective
A loopy story telling perspective
Science as body of facts established by specialized fact-generating people and process

Science as successive approximations to Truth

Science as authority about "natural world"

Science as process of getting it less wrong, potentially usable by and contributed to by everyone

Science as ongoing story telling and story revision: repeated making of observations, interpreting and summarizing observations, making new observations, making new summaries ... individually and collectively

Science as skepticism, a style of inquiry that can be used for anything, one which everybody is equipped to to/can get better at/be further empowered by, and contribute to - a way of making sense of what is but even more of exploring what might yet be


The crack

  • Multiple stories for a given set of observations
    • 3,5,7, .... ?
    • 1+1=2 or 1+1=10?
  • Observations in turn depend on stories
  • Science is as much about creation as about discovery

If science is as much about creation as discovery then the "crack"is a feature, not a bug ... and differences among people are an asset to the process rather than a problem or an indication it isn't working

Science as practical tool, continually being adapted and therefore
  • should be expected to keep evolving rather than to get it "right"
  • is as much about creation as about discovery (multiple possible summaries)
  • the crack is a feature rather than a bug; both "objective" and "subjective play essential roles
  • differences among people are an asset to the process rather than a problem or an indication it isn't working



Trying It Out ...

Which of the following two stories do you prefer?
  1. The earth is flat
  2. The earth is round
Because of ...
  • personal observations?
  • observations made by others (personally verified or not)?
  • social stories (heard from others)?
  • usefulness?
Relevant observations:

Is one or the other story true? Have there been others? Will there be?

Which of the following two stories do you prefer?

  1. The sun goes around the earth
  2. The earth goes around the sun
Because of ...
  • personal observations?
  • observations made by others (personally verified or not)?
  • social stories (heard from others)?
  • other?
Relevant observations:

Is one or the other story true? Have there been others? Will there be others?

Scientific stories are frequently efforts to summarize the widest possible range of observations, always motivate new observations and hence new stories, should never be understood as "authoritative" or "believed in", do not compete with or invalidate other stories. Key issues about scientific stories
  • What observations do they summarize?
  • What new observations do they motivate?

Which of the following stories do you prefer?

  1. Existing life forms (including humans) are as they are because of a previous and ongoing process of evolution consisting of random change and natural selection (differential reproductive success).
  2. Existing life forms (including humans) are as they are because of repeated creative acts of a supernatural being with a plan and intent?
  3. Existing life forms (including humans) are as they are because of an initial creative act with a supernatural being with a plan and intent?
  4. Other?
Because of ...
  • personal observations?
  • observations made by others (personally verified or not)?
  • social stories (heard from others)?
  • other?
  • is one or another story "true"? Have there been others? Will there be? Will this story continue to evolve? (NYTimes Science Times, 26 June 2007)
Relevant observations:

Loopy story telling science is a tool to help one become better at thinking for oneself

at using observations and stories (of one's own and other peope) to make stories that motivate new observations that motivate new stories, to create as well as to discover

Science as process rather than thing

  • commitment to "summary of observations", "getting it less wrong", continuing meaningful story creation/sharing/revision/evolution
  • stories are part of science if they are part of the process, not because of any defining characteristics intrinsic to the stories themselves

Your thoughts? ... science as fact or story telling? evolution as "story"?

10, 12, 14 September

Science as .... process (things are "scientific" if they are part of a process of "getting it less wrong"?)

  • I've been taking science forever and being told that there is another way to think about it was kind of mindboggling. the traditional method has been drilled into my brain for years and thinking in terms of the Loopy Story Telling Perspective is a little daunting because its so new! ... Kendra
  • Being accustomed to such science courses, I was a little bit shocked by the unique way this class was conducted. There was Holy Grail of ultimate truth. The only certainty that seemed to exist was that everything is uncertain and science merely exists to classify the likelihood of each prediction ... Andy
  • I like the notion that science is constantly being written. I'm a little uncomfortable with it being "story telling," though I couldn't really say why exactly. I guess I'd like to think of it as a more tangible truth? Maybe that's just because I'm afraid that if science isn't factual and "truthful" then what is? It was always so dependable ... Kaitlin
  • This way of looking at science is like the way I read a book or construct an argument in a paper. In high school science felt like something I had to take, that I should accept that I would never be good at it, but now I'm starting to think that I am able to relate to and understand science ... Rachel
  • science isn't the truth nor is it right, it's just less wrong ... Eurie
  • Even though a summary of observations may be proven false, it does not necessarily mean that it was a bad story, it paved the way for another story ... Samar
  • I am glad to be in a class where it is good to be wrong sometimes. In fact, it's better because then you get to go back and find your mistakes and try to fix them and if you're wrong again, you just have more and more observations to make ... LaKesha


Life as ... process?
(starting where one is, telling a story, getting it less wrong)

  • When i think about my stories of what i think life is, I still can not tackle the notion of what it is? Its proably a set of observations that can never be truth.....but ... Why can't I answer the question with confidence, when i experience what it is every day? ... Shanika


Life is ... ?

Practical issue related to some really major "getting it less wrong" issues

Characteristics of a living thing?

What's alive here?Is Langton's ant alive?
from Sahara Meteorite Prospecting from The World of Langton's Ant:
Thinking About "Purpose"


Defining a living thing: Intuitively obvious but surprisingly difficult to make explicit

  • No single distinguishing characteristic
  • Cluster of characteristics, some more "basic", others building on them ("onion")
  • No sharp border between "alive" and "not alive"
  • Changes over time
  • Depends on purpose of definition

Life, like science, a process? Life is those things involved in a process



For most general purposes (life elsewhere?) and to help specify what needs to be explained, a living thing is


Additional defining characteristics of life ... as process


"neither incidental nor detrimental ... instead essential"
Darwin's Voyage Revisited


Change over time

Have to think about not only here/now but also there/then.
Life as process: Interdependent diversity, change over time
  • Scales of space/time
  • Levels of organization
  • Interaction


Something is "alive" because of a collection of nested characteristics that may differ somewhat from instance to instance, and change over time, rather than because of any single characteristic

Life is an improbable assembly of diverse, interdependent of living organisms itself undergoing continual change

Something is "alive"because it is a participant in that process?

Similarities between science and life? Good story? Summarizes observations, raises new questions? Your thoughts in forum?


17, 19, 21 September

Life as .... process?

  • In trying to classify life, I was initially frustrated when I was told I could not use cells as a qualifying characteristic of living organisms. Afterall, years of research and hours spent looking at animals and plants under the microscope clearly showed that this is a characteristic of living things. The problem with it is that it is not a directly observable characteristic. Still, it is an accepted truth. Why can't I use it? ... Then I realized that when applied to life beyond Earth, this characteristic might not hold true. Suppose life on Planet Farther doesn't even use DNA or similar, Earth-like cell structures. Plants aren't even guaranteed to be green. How would we know that these were plants? A definition of life based on what we observe with the naked human eye gives us the flexibility we need to understand new observations in different settings ... Jen Bonczar
  • The last week of class has really had me thinking. Before this class, I never really grappled with 'What is Life?'. I mean, I know whats alive- human beings, animals, plant life etc- but I never really thought about how to define life. I really liked how we were able to classify life based on certain characteristics as an improbable assembly and being bounded. Seriously, I never realized that living things are actually bounded by skin, fur, scales etc! ... Kendra
  • Class this week has really made me think about how often we accept things as real or true without even thinking about it. I think this is because we live in a world that places so much emphasis on facts and "getting the right answers." I found it interesting that when we were asked what life is, we initially tried to answer with what we have been taughtrather than our own simple observations ... I know that there have been miracles where they have restarted someone's heart after a small amount of time but why can't they straight up bring someone back from the dead. I guess the answer to my question relates to what we discussed in class about life as a process. There is not just one thing that a doctor could do to bring someone back from the dead because death, as life, is a process. While it might only take one shot to kill someone, fixing the wound is not enough to bring them back because other parts of the body have already shut down ... cmcgowan
  • I really like the idea of life and science as a continuous process, rather than a state of being. I think people would be happier if they understood life as constant change, growth, decay and renewal, rather than the routine they grow accustomed to from day to day ... Ruth
  • We said that the definition of life should always be changing because of all the questions it creates. Likewise, I think the definitions/genres of art and music should always be open to change ... Rachel Tashjian
  • If something can deal with change and overcome obstacles I am convinced that it is alive ... Shanika
  • When class concluded on Friday we had successfully established a definition that encompassed all the different varieties of life, and I was satisfied. But now I wonder whether or not our definition is too broad. Can something be alive but not have life? Are those that are brain dead or vegetative alive? Is an embryo alive (from the moment of conception)? Is there something or someone that we've overlooked? ... kharmon
  • Our discussion on Wednesday's class about Langston's ant and whether or not it is alive as well struck me because I still can't decide whether or not it is alive. After making some conclusions, one that stuck with me was the idea that maybe there isn't a sharp distinction between living and non-living things. I believe that with the observations made in class in correlation with those of other biologists, one day a more concrete definition of what life is may form ... Samar
  • I thought our discussion of how to classify life in class was very interesting. I had never really thought about this before, so when the question was posed to us in class I thought it would be really easy to answer. After class, I started to think about what seperates humans from other organisms, or even if humans can be seperated ... Paige
  • So the whole time that we were discussing "what is life?" in class, my mind kept turning to one topic: viruses ... Because no one can really decide whether or not those little particles are considered "alive." Yeah, they have genetic material (improbable assembly?), yeah, they reproduce (only in a host cell, but reproduce none-the-less), and, to a limited degree, they respond to changes in the environment when inside an infected cell ... But viruses have no cellular composition and they can't metabolise on their own ... If viruses were considered "alive," would that change everyone's view of life? .... kgould
  • You'd think it'd be easy to classify organisms that have never been documented before. For the lab, the organisms were all from a little patch off the paved road, I can't even begin to think about the entire Galapogos island. It's mindboggoling the amount of detail and consideration you have to put when categorizing the organisms .... (the world is just one big onion) ... LuisanaT
  • I really thought that lab was interesting because there were so many different ways that the groups came up with how to decipher the different plants. When we were all asked to say how many different humans were in the class everyone had a different answer. It all depends on how the person observing thinks about it ... LaKesha
  • I went home this weekend and my little brother (who is in 7th grade) was doing his science homework and he asked me, "is a tree alive?" I really couldn't believe that we were both covering the same subject and I was like "what?!" but then he clarified and said "is a tree a living organism?" His assignment was to put the entities in a picture into 2 separate categories- living and non-living organisms. He went on to figure out that a tree went into the living organism list, but it got me thinking- are categories useful? ... MarieSager
  • Until Friday's class, I continued to have a vague belief that some standard must exist which will allow us to define living things from non living things. Although I had little knowledge in science and biology, I just had this naive belief that soon, smart scientist will be able to come up with the ultimate yardstick to define life and that will solve the ambiguity among what stage of the fetus is it a life ... Kee Hyun Kim
  • it was interesting how during our first lab in finding all the different types of plants, a majority of the groups chose to classify or group the different plants according to shape and size. Is it inherent in humans to always look to some sort of size/spatial scale when it comes to defining differences? and is the human sense of spatial scale distorted because of subjectivity? is it also distorted because we are all different sizes? ... ekim


An Overview: Spatial Scale and Diversity

Spatial scale - at what scales do improbable assemblies exist and how do they relate to one another? alternate

  • protons, neutrons - 10-15 meters (1 fermi)
  • atoms - 10-10 meters (angstroms)
  • smaller molecules - 10-9 meters (1 nanometer, 10 angstroms)
  • macromolecular assemblies - 10-8 meters
  • cell membrane thickness (lipid bilayer), viruses - 10-7 meters (100 nanometers)
  • cell component (mitochondrion), bacterium - 10-6 meters (1,000 nanometers, 1 micron)
  • "typical" cell - 10-5 meters (10 microns) - may be part of multicellular organism or itself a living organism ("cell theory" - a major advance based on new observations from new technology) - 10-5 meters (10 microns)
  • sand grain, blood vessel - 10-3 meters (millimeters)
  • human scale - yard stick, human (female - male) - ~ 1 meter
  • blue whale, large playing field - 102 meters
  • a little more than a half mile - 103 meters (kilometer)
  • distance from BMC to Philadelphia (days walk) - 104 (tens of kilometers)
  • Earth's diameter - 107 meters
  • Earth to Sun - 1011 meters (1 astronomical unit, ~5 light minutes)
  • solar system - 1013 meters (~8 light hours)
  • light year - 1016 meters (v=186,000 miles/second, 3 x 108 meters/second)
  • Milky Way diameter - 1021 meters, 105 light years
  • current universe diameter - ~1026 meters, 1010 light years

Lessons from working up in scale from human ...

  • Technology important to make new observations
  • Bigger things are assemblies of smaller things
  • Living organisms are limited in size
  • Life is bigger but also limited in size?
  • Improbable assemblies still bigger and relevant for understanding life
  • There's LOTS of room to explore (that's nice?)


And from working down in scale ...

  • Scope of observations dependent on technology ... living things smaller than 100 microns
  • Larger things are improbable assemblies of smaller things ... cell theory
  • Improbable assemblies exist at a most scales (though see Alvarez)
  • Different features apparent at different scales; at larger scales, smaller wholes become invisible parts
  • Both very small and very large scales are important for understanding life.
  • There exist lower and upper(?) bounds for living organisms ... as we currently know them. Why?
  • Existing observations are greater than in past, cover large range of scales, but can be expected to be incomplete in other ways
  • Can distinguish smaller, single-celled from larger, multicellular organisms (Why no big unicellular organisms? - need for communication/integration?)
  • Size is not, in general, a good way to classify ... no natural divisions (gaps, spaces, clumps)
  • At smaller scales, things start looking more similar (less diversity)
    • all organisms consist of cells
    • atoms same in different organisms, same in living organisms, non-living things
24, 26, 28 September

Life .... from us to the very large and very small

  • As a human being, I tend to think of things as in reference to myself or the people around me ... Sharea
  • I had never really thought of how the cosmos related to and affected the Earth. To put it more plainly, I had never really thought of Astronomy and Biology as being connected ... Catrina Mueller
  • when things are looked at through different spatial scales, we realize that there is not much difference between anything, and that it is all about the way these small particles are arranged. It made everything in the world seem more beautiful, even a rock. Now the world seems more exciting because of the fact that it is continually expanding, and so we never realy know what can pop up next ... Andrelle (also cmcgown, kendra)
  • We basically found out that we are all made of space and eclectrons, and stardust ... kjean, (also ekim)
  • I simply cannot grasp how space was created from nothing and can continue to expand as we speak ... Andy Kim, (also Samar)
  • The only thing harder to imagine than an infinite universe is a limited universe ... kharmon (also Ruth Goodlaxson, Jen Bonczar, Shanika, Luisana, eharnett, Lakesha, ekoike, kgould)
  • Up until this point, I didn't feel uncomfortable at all with the idea of there being no one "truth," that we can't solve problems and answer questions with one magical idea. But now I've had my first real challenge in accepting that there's something we really don't know (and that I think it's OK not to understand "nothingness"). Hopefully, I'll encounter more of these challenges; having a whole group of them might make me really face the fact that the "truth" is that there isn't a truth ... Rachel Tashjian
  • Observations -> Stories -> Questions -> Observations -> ... : Is Space Finite?, Parallel Universes


Temporal Scales

Human natural time scale - seconds to years, perhaps three generations (100 years)

Longer time scales important for biological systems (change where not aware of it):

  • universe - ~15 billion years
  • stellar evolution (sun - ~ 5 billion years old, of ~10 billion year life span)
  • earth (and life?) - ~5 billion years (150 million human generations)
  • humans - ~100,000 years (?) (3,000 human generations)
  • recorded human history - ~10,000 years (300 human generations)

Shorter time scales ALSO important for biological systems - milliseconds, nanoseconds (change where not aware of it)

At both very large and very small temporal scales, change is the norm rather than the exception. At small scales, have beginnings of some key characteristics of life: sem-autonomy, diversity.


Noticing/try to make sense of diversity

Is categorization/classification totally arbitrary, simply a "social construction", or does it reflect to some extent characteristics of what is under investigation? are there "natural" categories? and, if so, what might they look like, how might they be defined, what would that imply about life?).

Starting with intuitions (as we did with "life", as one always should, in science and elsewhere): what things LOOK like and do
What is similar to what, how similar, how many relevant axes?
Are there "discontinuities" in life's diversity? Is there a "natural" scale?


Diversity is "clumpy" - the kinds of existing organisms are not randomly distributed among all possible kinds; instead there are lots of variants of a smaller number of more general kinds of organisms?

Some organisms are more "complex" than others?

How does it look to a biologist, summarizing LOTS of observations?

Plants versus animals versus fungi(?)

Autotrophs versus heterotrophs (interdependence)
With cell wall versus no cell wall
Fungi have cell walls, but different molecular constituents (chitin versus cellulose), are heterotrophs but with external digestion
Can use molecules, like any other feature, to evaluate similarities/differences
Get discontinuities/"clumpiness" (diversity itself an "improbable assembly", not either all possibilities of improbable assemblies nor random assortment of them but lots of variants one some kinds of improbable assemblies, none of others)
(Why no autotrophs without cell walls?)

Taking advantage of technology: Eukaryotes vs Prokaryotes (Monerans: eubacteria and archaea) (Why no multicellular prokaryotes?)

Five (or six, or more) Kingdoms:
  • Monera (plus) - single cell, prokaryotic, auto or heterotroph
  • Protists (plus) - single cell, eukaryotic, auto or heterotroph
  • Plants - multicell, eukaryotic, autotrophs
  • Fungi - multicell, eukaryotic, heterotrophs, cell wall
  • Animals - multicell, eukaryotic, heterotrophs, no cell wall
  • ?Viruses?
Discovered some order in diversity: is "clumpy"
  • Most things are variants of a small number of things
  • Some things that can be imagined (BECAUSE we classified!!!!) don't exist (multicellular autotrophs without a cell wall? multicellular prokaryotes?)
Why "clumpiness"? Things like small number of other things, some kinds of things absent?

Clumpiness in plants

1, 3, 5 October

Last week's lab (with appreciation, see Working Group on Introductory Science Education)

  • It was interesting to see how different plants looked similar under the microscope at a smaller scale, thus enabling me to directly experience what we were discussing in class; that there is less diversity at smaller scales ... Jen Bonczar
  • looking at the microscopes brought back all these tedious memories of grid paper and tables and putting things into arbitrary categories (kind of like the movie "Office Space"). But ... looking at the cells was really interesting it was a bit like watching an iPod commercial, or that sensory-overload "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" movie from the 70s ... what was even more interesting to me was what happened during our oral presentations. We were just kind of discussing things, asking and answering questions, and my lab partner almost offhandedly said, "Maybe cell size is in relation to their stages of development." Then each group seemed to come up with more great ideas as to what cell size could correlate with. I just thought it was so cool that the most interesting observations we made seemed to be stumbled on accidentally ... Rachel Tashjian
  • We really got into the topic of how cells may vary for many different reasons including climate/weather, or simply over time changes as their surroundings change. Evolution is all about organisms developing over time, changing as their environment, etc develop ... Sharea (see also kcough, andrelle)
  • The lab this week really got me thinking about how we can view the world differently with the use of technology such as a microscope. Things look completely different when viewed in different manners ... It got me thinking a bit about how humanity's views changed over the ages due to improving technolgy. Everything can be revolutionized due to one tiny observation or the invention of a new technolgy that provides a new scope to things. It's funny how quickly things so set in stone can be changed ... Catrina
  • I was happy to see that this week's lab posed a question that did not have a set answer to it. We, as scientists had the freedom to choose how to approach and test the prompt. We also had the liberty to make up stories for all of the observations made that day. This kind of thing not only leaves us with questions unanswered but with more questions to think about which I feel like is the most crucial difference between this and all labs I have ever done before entering college ... LuisanaT
  • because we were actually trying to create knowledge for ourselves, I think the process of presenting and attacking was actually pretty genuine and helpful ... Ruth Goodlaxson

Last week discussion

  • Class was very interesting on Wednesday! It was similar to our trips in lab to the other worlds. It was interesting to see how everyone placed the cards you gave us differently. We all had similar piles in terms of what we put together but where we put them was different. Some grouped mammals, some did seaplants and animals that live in the water together, etc. I feel that because everyone comes from different places and learned science very differently, that we all have our own ideas about how we classify species. I also feel that we can't disagree with what someone else says because their opinions aren't wrong, just different than the other persons ... LaKesha
  • Looking at how diversity is organized, it seems like such a daunting task. It also, in some ways, seems like an arbitrary task. I mean, the way we look at science, new observations can always be found. And if new observations can be found, then isn't it possible that plants/animals/everything can be classified in new ways based on those findings? ... MarieSager
  • The more we study this, and the more I research my web paper, the more I understand how complex science is. There are no real right answers. Everything is interdependent, including all the information. I'm becoming more comfortable with the idea, though it was nice to have something that I could think of as definitive, but I guess I'll just have to let that go .... kcough
  • I think that things in general has several reasons why they are the way they are, and that it's never one clear cut reason. That's why its hard to group things in definitive categories, there are always going to be overlapping ... andrelle
  • Although there haven't been any clear boundaries or distinctions about living organisms, I think I have learned a great deal about life and what composes them ... Andy
  • i actually like it without sharp boundaries because not everything's black and white...there's always a gray area ... ekim
  • what struck me was the idea that there are no living organisms that connect the gap between the two groups ... samar
  • I thought it was intersting that, after our discussion on Friday, we "determined" that there is not random variation but rather nested clumps of diversity. Because there are so many similarities between organisms at different levels and scales, it seems like this would make sense. However, according to Darwins Theory of "survival of the fittest", shouldn't part of evolution be random variation? Along the way there must have been some sort of variation that allowed for certain organisms to be "fitter" and reproduce more successfully than others and therefore allow for their genes to be passed on. Maybe I am thinking about this the wrong way, but that was what puzzled me after class-there must of been some type of random variation ... eharnett

Clumpy diversity: Look more carefully at animals (metazoans)

More patterns within patterns (level of internal complexity, embryology)

More clumpiness. and more "arbitrariness"

  • Why no ventral nervous system with endoskeleton?
  • Why all humans not the same?
Nested Clumpy Diversity

Humans a small part of life, as life (as we know it) a small part of universe (but humans also steadily, perhaps even explosively, experiencing more and more of universe - is that distinctive of humans?


  • Categories "real", independent of human observers?
  • Categories "useful"?
    • Helps to make sense of things, reduce blur
    • Correlations help to predict based on partial information
    • Raises new questions ... no "essential" characteristics?
    • Problems similar to those in defining "life"?
    • Relevance in other cases?
How make sense of diversity at all levels (including human), of nested clumpiness, what's here AND what's missing, of difficulty in defining categories?
  • Great chain of being - ordering of organisms along some scale?, no "narrative" character, everything has its place, there is a place for everything, but why clumpy diversity at all levels?
Evolution as an alternate way of making sense of diversity? Time/change/variations essential descriptors of life?
  • Descent with variation makes helps to make sense of things being similar to other things, of missing things, of variation at all scales? Add to it natural selection? In turn raises questions ....


  • Has life changed over time in appropriate ways?
  • Was there a first organism? a first organism of each kind?
  • Why the PARTICULAR set of organisms we see, and not others?
  • Progression? Ranking? Adaptedness? Fitness? Natural selection?
  • Time/history as part of explanatory framework? Would it have to come out the same way? Life identical elsewhere? The same here if taped replayed?
  • Similarities between life as process and science as process?
What IS evolution? A good summary of observations? What are the observations?


Human natural time scale - seconds to years, perhaps three generations (100 years)

Longer time scales important for biological systems (change where not aware of it):

  • universe - ~15 billion years
  • ,stellar evolution (sun - ~ 5 billion years old, of ~10 billion year life span)
  • earth (and life?) - ~5 billion years (150 million human generations)
  • humans - ~100,000 years (?) (3,000 human generations)
  • recorded human history - ~10,000 years (300 human generations)

Humans young, as yet restricted experience, small part of life - BUT also have in us record of much of history of universe
LOTS of time for evolution

Evolution helps to account for diversity/clumpiness, also for ... ordering?

Long, slow, inexorable, inevitable continuous change, progressive improvement? (Evoution as a progressive tree?)

Fossil record - Observations

Earliest life (?) - prokaryotes (> 3 billion years, and getting older)

Plenty of time for subsequent development of improbable assemblies, but ...?
Consistent with progression, but changing what adapted to, and persisting

Next steps? How soon?

Eukaryotes - 1-2 billion years ago (last quarter of life's history to date)
much more improbable than prokaryotes? evolve from prokaryotes? - Endosymbiosis - illustration

Multicellular Organisms - ~600 million years ago (last sixteenth of life's history to date)
VERY improbable?

Stasis and change - THEN slow progressive improvement?

Nope, continued fits and starts

8 October

Thoughts on evolution

  • its not a matter of why there is diversity but rather why there isn't homogeneity. The combination of reproduction with variance where there is differential contributuion of genes in the next generation with changes in the environment causes distinctions amongst groups where some will thrive in different ways than others ... Luisana
  • Before this class, evolution was always described to me as "survival of the fittest." For some reason this phrase has become the universal phrase associated with evolution and it never really made sense to me ... I like the idea of describing evolution as a combination of descent with variation and natural selection. I think it makes a lot more sense than "survival of the fittest." ... I don't think that there is one characteristic or even a few characteristics that we could use to determine fitness in this sense ... Life will never stop changing and diversity will never stop expanding and branching out. I like this ... cmcgown
  • It is interesting to think that simple organisms have evolved into more complex organisms. The concept itself is fascinating because it is hard to grasp the idea that we are all different because we are a product of a system that produces with variation but at the same time it makes a great deal of sense ... Samar
  • i like the notion that evolution is a consequence of history 'cause that puts a time dimension to the change which doesn't simply equivocate "change" as necessarily being advancement, which is why there are still the simple living organisms like bacteria and complex living organisms like humans ... but what i don't get is how from simple living organisms...other more complex living organisms came about. are we all essentially related in a sense then? ... ekim
  • The idea that prokaryotic organisms were not better or more advanced than eukaryotic ones was a new concept. It makes sense because they do still exist. What really intrigued was when we began to think about humans and how evolution doesnt necessarily stop .... kjean
  • Using prokaryotic cells and other bacteria as an example, the specimens that were found millions of years ago were not the same as the ones that exist today. They evolved. So, it would make sense to realize that humans are still evolving ... Kendra
  • It is mind boggling to think that 99% of life has gone extinct, and that humans, in all likelihood, will suffer the same fate. What then are the organisms that are still around? Is it just prokaryotes that have survived throughout the ages? If so, why? It seems as though the more complex an organism is, the more difficult a time it has surviving ... kcough
  • I have always found evolution to be a process that was very visible in animals but not much in humans. When the question of, how have humans evolved over the past 60,000 years was asked, it made me think ... asavvanah
  • I have a problem with the notion that the past is an indictation of the future. It is a bothersome statement when i think of it in the content of "HUMANS" ... Shanika
  • i still believe mankind is very special and is at the pinnacle of� living organisms on earth ... Andy
  • Evolution does not have one set "goal"-like we discussed in class, it is not necessarily working to make the "perfect being", so this should explain why humans would still be evolving. I'm just intrigued and curious as to what some of the changes will be to humans in the future ... eharnett
  • For humans to become extinct like the majority of the fossil record's other organisms, something BETTER would have to come along that would prevent us from thriving. I hate to be arrogant, but can anyone think of anything better than us? Not smarter, not more efficient, not bigger, but better? ... kharmon (see also andrelle)
  • An idea that is really controversial is designer babies, or the idea that one day we will be able to pick and choose the best genes for our children. This seems to me like a kind of sped up evolutionary process ... Paige (see also Rachel)
  • I think evolution is a useful story which helps us make sense of our current observations; however I do not think it is the be all and end all; for instance, evolution does not help describe why organisms conform to the Golden Ratio. I also do not understand why those who believe in Intelligent Design theory or those who believe that God created the universe must completely dismiss evolution theory as counter to their religious beliefs. For all we know, God could be the author of evolution, or evolution could be one of many tools He used to create the universe ... Jen
  • I found the comparison of Intelligent Design and Evolution... interesting. It made me wonder what people were thinking when they decided that Intelligent Design was a "science" and should be taught in schools ... kgould

Evolution = slow progressive improvement ... humans at least?

Nope - diversification and extinction here too (alternate, alternate)

(see more recent article)
Though there are here, as elsewhere, some reasonably slow, continuous changes

Ongoing human evolution?

Different time scales reveal different patterns, just as different space scales do
Clumpiness understandable in terms of evolution, but (and) raises new questions

  • Things similar because of common ancestry?
  • Non-existing things because didn't/can't work? because not tried?
  • Was there a first organism? a first organism of each kind?
  • What accounts for appearance of progression? ranking?
  • Why does "change" happen? - need both differential survival and randomness to explore.
  • Life identical elsewhere?
Evolution includes both slow, continuous change and rapid change
  • The latter because exploring some possibilities depends on having explored prior possibilities?
  • Would help explain how highly improbable things come into existence.
  • Indicates very strong history dependence in accounting for life.
Evolution involves "chance", and hence likely to proceed somewhat differently elsewhere or if repeated
  • meteor collisions (and the like)
  • dependence on random variation within biological systems
Evolution also helps to account for "adaptiveness" and does include some directionality, but is not toward "perfection" or "better" but rather toward having explored more (increased "complexity"?) Images of evolution - "getting it less wrong"?

Evolution as an "(attempt to) describe places and times outside of human scales"

Random variation (reproduction with variance) and natural selection (differential reproductive success) helps to make sense of
  • clustered diversity, geographic variation, interdependence
  • "adaptiveness" (without normative judgement or hierarchy)
  • practical matters, such as plant/animal domestication, the development of antibiotic resistance, human variations having medical and other significances
Evolution (so defined) also raises new questions
  • Was there a first organism? How did it/they come into being?
  • Can the same mechanisms that account for small scale clustered diversity (micronevolution) also account for larger scale clustered diversity (macroevolution)? For the progressive appearance of more complex organisms?
  • How is one to account for large scale patterns of temporal change (eg repeated episodes of diversification and extinction)?
  • How much interaction is there between lineage dependent influences on living systems and non-lineage dependent ones (culture and other "horizontal" interactions, information exchanges)?
  • What implications does the story of evolution have for the likelihood and character of life elsewhere in the universe? for our own sense of what who we are and where meaning comes from?
  • How should new stories and older ones be handled in science classrooms, in education generally?

    Question about evolution is not whether it is "true" but whether it offers new and useful ways to make sense of things

Evolution as undirected, somewhat random, exploration of possible forms of living organisms, lacking purpose/meaning except insofar as we can it those things. is that a good story? Your thoughts?


  • On-going change, exploration
  • No perfection or right answer
  • Observation-gathering, hypothesis generation, testing, and repeat

    And ... ?

  • Periods of relative stasis interspersed with periods of more rapid change?
  • Periods of extensive hypothesis generation with relatively little testing interspersed with periods of extensive testing with relatively little hypothesis generation?
  • Periods of data collection interspersed with periods of data compression and loss?
  • Getting less wrong - in sense of summarizing more and more observations?
  • Strong dependence on history?

22 October


Evolution is a way to figure out what works and what doesn't, not necessarily to find the "best" organism. So if single-celled organisms work for what they need to do, and we work for what we need to do, and elephants work for what they need to do, everything is special, in a way ... kcough

Right off the bat my intuition says yes, humans must be special. But the more I think about it the more unsure I am of my position. I don't believe that humans are superior, but that is not what we are discussing in this debate. So I guess I have to think of what makes us unique. And, as the pro-team discussed in the debate, I believe that art, culture and religion seems to make humans unique to other organisms (as far as we can tell). I don't necessarily believe that these characteristics make us superior, but rather just unique and different ... eharnett

no other species is yet know to posses anything even remotely similar to consciousness nor greed ... andy

The idea of humans being the only beings that can reason is obviously a good point. Why can't other animals reason like we can? Is it that they are not capable? Is it possible that in the future other animals could devolop this skill? What are the brain functions that we have that we use for our reasoning that animals do not have? ... Catrina

how are we to know what animals are thinking? and how are we to know what they do is not out of intention or expression of feelings? ... ekim

Have sense of life as increasing complexity, improbable assemblies of improbable assemblies .... Need to underestand origins of improbable assemblies, of diversity, as well as boundedness, energy dependence, reproduction with variance, homeostasis, autonomy
Will work our way from small scales to large, seeing how much we can account for at each level of organization (improbable assembly), things (including humans) all related but different, building one one another?

Remarkable generalization from small scale looking - dissociate ANYTHING, get out elements = atoms

  • Anticipated by Greek atomists (who also inferred life elsewhere in universe)
  • Very important advances in 1600's; see Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer, Free Press, 2004 ("life essence" is ... matter)

ElementSymbolAtomic numberPercent in universePercent in earthPercent in human
(typical of living organisms)
hydrogen H 1 91 0.14 9.5
helium He 2 9 trace trace
carbon C 6 0.02 0.03 18.5
nitrogen N 7 0.04 trace 3.3
oxygen O 8 0.06 47 65
sodium Na 11 trace 2.8 0.2
magnesium Mg 12 trace 2.1 0.1
phophorus P 15 trace 0.07 1
sulfur S 16 trace 0.03 0.3
chlorine Cl 17 trace 0.01 0.2
potassium K 19 trace 2.6 0.4
calcium Ca 20 trace 3.6 1.5
iron Fe 26 trace 5 trace


  • no hand atom, foot atom, human or elephant atom, no "live" atom
  • nothing BUT atoms?
  • therefore ... life is particular (improbable) assemblies of atoms
  • of which there are many fewer kinds than there are living organisms
Living, non-living assemblies not distinguishable by identity of constituents at atomic level
Nor are different kinds of living things
Living assemblies are distinctive in proportions of atomic constituents (improbable assemblies)
Fewer kinds of constituents than of assemblies


What are atoms? How get more from less?

Atoms -themelves combinations of still smaller and fewer constituents
  • protons, neutrons, electrons
  • assembly rules
  • combinatorial explosion
Periodic table - another related remarkable generalization


Game of Life

Assembly rules:

Each green location must have either three or four red neighbors and no red location has exactly three green neighbors.

Construction rules:

  • Start with any distribution of red and green squares
  • Turn red square green if it has exactly three green neighbors
  • Turn green square red if it has fewer than two or greater than three green neighbors
  • Repeat
"Assembly rules" as a concept

Assembly rules = what is allowed, construction rules = how to make allowable things
  • Defines possible buildings/organizations
  • Can yield pattern, improbability not obvious in the rule
  • Can yield infinite but bounded set of possibilities - combinatorial explosion
  • Can account for one level of organization, how get more?
Assembly rules for atoms into molecules by covalent bonding (electron sharing), see periodic table


Vastly more possible different molecules than numbers of different atoms -
Diversity by combinatorial explosion
  • Hydrocarbons ... and on and on
  • Begins to help make sense of/support idea of life as assembly of atoms, with molecules as intermediate step ... can at least begin accounting for diversity
Combinatorial rules also create 3-D shapes, central to biological processes

Electron, electron affinities key to many biological processes

  • covalent bonds - electron sharing
  • ions, ionic bonds
  • polar bonds, polar vs. non-polar molecules, (molecules with polar, non-polar regions)


Water, central to living system as known, example of "emergent properties"

29 October
  • When we began to incorporate the periodic table and talk of the different molecular bonds in class discussions, I panicked. This was because I decided to take a biology course in order to avoid any chemistry, which was my worst nightmare last year. But now I realize that the two are, of course, interconnected and that studying the periodic table helps us to better understand the molecular diversity of living organisms ... I thought the point that 'there is no atom that makes us alive, rather a group of atoms' is a good one to recognize ... Kendra
  • Diversity seems to be a strong factor in many of our class discussions. The idea to actually relate the word diversity with structures of molecules explains that the word diversity can be used in many ways, contexts ... Shanika
  • if it's all made of the same thing, doesn't that mean that at the most basic level, the "clumps" we see in, say, species, is not present at the most fundamental level? ... Rachel
  • The one thing that I found especially interesting was the when we discussed the 3-D shapes of atoms in relation to diversity. I had never really realized that two things could be made out of the same atoms, yet end up being completely different depending on the order of their assembly. It is intruiging to think that thephysical differences of two things are possibly the result of just one small difference in their biological assembly ... Caitlin
  • I was really interested by the statement that elephants and humans consist of the same atoms. I had never thought of it like that, and it brings up the question of how we are different? In class, everywhere really, the answer to that question (of why humans and animals are different) has always been hard to answer. But, according to class this week, the difference lies in assemblies of atoms. And even the differences between a person's hands... it all comes down to differences in composition. And then to think that composition, which implies some kind of order can and does originate out of randomness... and at such a small scale... its all mind boggling ... Marie
  • Not having a "human" atom or an "alive" one really struck me. Before, I had thought carbon as being the "alive" atom. Carbon, however, does not make the compound "alive". It just happens to be the things that are/were alive, but it is in other stuff also. Before, I would have said that carbon was the key to "life", but now that I think about it, there cannot be any specific "life atom" ... Catrina
  • The fact that all living - non living organisms are created of same atoms and cannot be distinguished provided some comfort to my confused state of mind. Now that we know that living and nonliving things are composed of the same atoms, I would like to find out more about the difference of composition between living and non living things ... Andy
  • This week's discussion really fueled interesting conversation in the class that made me fully realize the importance of "improbable assemblies" (on a molecular and minute level) that make up various organisms ... Erin

combinations of simple parts (atoms, elements) yield in assemblies (molecules) new properties

  • diversity
  • beginnings of autonomy, homeostasis, boundedness
keep eyes on electrons, oxygen, charge
on polar vs. non polar
on water
remember three-dimensionality, flux
Overwhelming diversity of molecules (like life)
Any way to make sense of it? Any other useful things to learn at this level?

Functional groups help to make sense of both small and large molecules

  • polor/non-polar
  • acidic/basic


"Inorganic" versus "organic" molecules?

Carbon based versus non-carbon based, but inorganic/organic no longer a good distinction for small molecules (large?) Biological molecules distinctive?: macromolecules
  • proteins
  • nucleic acids
  • carbohydates
  • lipids
  • not mysterious: generally polymers of smaller molecules
Enzymes: Essence of Life?
  • Speed up breakdown, are not themselves broken down
  • U-shaped temperature, pH senstitivies
  • highly specific in what breakdowns they facilitate
  • little men?
  • something in and of itself, not to be explained?
  • specific catalyst that is sensitive to environment?
  • might also account for distinguishing left and right handed molecules?
Proteins, from amino acids via peptide bonds (alternate)

Nucleic acids , from nucleotides

  • improbable assemblies of matter, energy content, play variety of roles
  • Linear polymers (like proteins, but simpler)
  • DNA: information as concept, relation to history dependence of life, human genome project
  • "explains" sequence of amino acids in proteins - DNA -> RNA -> protein
  • double helix: intergenerational transmission of information, mutations "explain" reproduction with variance `
  • remember also improbability (polymerization be dehydration, energy source)


5 November


Macromolecules: proteins, nucleic acids
  • The idea of randomness and mutation also intrigued me. It left me with a lot of questions that I thought I knew. For example what does cause a mutation is it interior or exterior? Is it the surrounding atmosphere. I don't know but it intrigues me how random combinations can make so many different people ... kjean (see also kgould, Andy, Luisana)
  • It’s amazing to me that with the number of possibilities for genetic defects and disorders that so many people’s genes actually work. Given that it only takes one small change in one tiny base pair for a mutation to occur, and there are so many different reactions that have to happen perfectly, it’s incredible we work at all ... kcough
  • I remember learning in ap biology that there are certain mechanisms that could possible correct for these errors (dna polymerases?). what makes some errors able to be corrected, but makes others unable to be corrected ? ... eharnett
  • it's incredible how our personality traits, fitness and likelihood of disease can all be determined by how our molecules fit together ... Jen Bonczar
  • It's crazy how something as small as a change in a chromosome can cause a person to have fatal disorders later on in life. I was also wondering how much of a role mutations played in evolution? DO mutations help species to evolve? ... LaKesha
  • These mutations mean that life is constantly changing and even more, always has the potential to change. I was thinking about this in relation to life, and more specifically in relation to evolution. Maybe mutations are the foundation of evolution and adaptation, in that they occur randomly and create situations and changes that are conducive for life to adapt ... Marie
  • Isn't it interesting that something so random (an accident, really) is turned into something that can, potentially, have a somewhat positive effect on someone's life? ... Rachel T
  • Randomness is also an active word" played" within our Biology ourse. If many things are random then how can one make sense of things!Is randomness an important Notion in ''Biology"? As of now, I am convinced it is! ... Shanika
  • all of this was, apparently, randomness ordered by a set of rules ... It just seems a little hollow to me ... Ruth
  • I understand that the bigger the chain of atoms, the less probable that they will come together as such, but clearly they are uniting on a much higher rate in organizims' bodies. I wonder if there is something fueling these strains to come into existance or it is just coincidence ... Catrina
  • if macromolecules are organic chemicals that are naturally made and found in living things, then...why do we need to consume more of it (i.e. carbs, protein, lipids/fat) in the food we eat? do we need to consume more macromolecules in order to produce more within our body? ... ekim


Water solubility and energy yield (given availability of O2) is (relatively) easy to predict from a characterization of the improbable assembly of atoms in sugars. Sweetness is not. Why? (relevance to the tree falling in the forest problem?)

What one can eat depends on what proteins one has ... see The gastrointestinal system: an introduction and Animal nutrition and digestion for more on ruminants

Carbohydrates, sugars (monosaccharides to polysaccharides) - alternate



From hydrocarbons to lipids

Living systems are molecules, macromolecules constantly in flux ...

Accounting for change ... and stability
(and their relation to order, chaos, etc)


  • Matter: what one can feel/touch, what IS (down to levels of atoms, molecules)
  • Energy: everything else (almost), including what accounts for change
    Energy = motion/change (kinetic energy), capacity to cause motion/change (potential energy)
Some other versions of thermodynamics:
  • You can't win
  • You can't break even
  • You can't get out of the game

For Newton's Laws of Motion

For Thermodynamics:
First Law of Thermodynamics - in any isolated sytem (the universe) the total energy/matter remains constant
  • Organisms don't "use" energy, they transform it (ditto for matter)
Second Law of Thermodynamics - in any isolated system (the universe) change is always from less probable to more probable states (entropy increases)

Diffusion as the archetype of life - improbability and flux (increasing disorder) driving increasing improbability (increasing order)

  • movement from less probable to more probable (less organized), over varying time courses, things all fall apart but critical thing is rate
  • beginnings of "autonomy" and dynamic stabilization ("homeostasis"), with fluctuations - "equilibrium"
  • energy flows (things going from improbable to probable) can create improbable assemblies
  • improbable assemblies themselves (high "free energy") can be used to create improbable asemblies (order)
  • chemical reactions have same characteristics as diffusion

  • Random change underlies all biological organization, with "order" resulting from it
  • "Only in the co-operation of an enormously large number of atoms do statistical laws begin to operate ... All the physical and chemical laws that are known to play an important part in the life of organisms are of this statistical kind". "Order" (improbable assemblies) are forms of stability within flux
  • Things "spontaneously" fall apart, at different rates (probability increases)
  • One set of things falling apart can cause other sets of things to get together (probability decreases)
  • "Order" depends on continuing production of disorder (with more falling apart than getting together)
  • "Stable" order may reflect
    • dynamic equilibria (purely statistical)
    • slower rates of falling apart

  • remember also improbability (polymerization be dehydration, energy source)


12 November
Macromolecules, genes .... "energy"


  • the Pandora's box of genetic discrimination ... Andy
  • No one's perfect, and no one should be perfect. The idea that someday parents might be poking around their child's genome to make them "better" makes me rather ill ... kgould
  • "In DNA Era, New Worries About Prejudice" - NY Times, 11 November 2007 (read for discussion on Friday)
  • The way macromolecules are used in the body paralled very well with the way my sister and I use to play with legos. We would first build the legos according to the directions. After a while, however, we would get bored and deconstruct the parts. We would then construct new creations, often combining the legos from many sets to form one large, complex piece ... Catrina
  • I never thought of energy and matter as being the same thing and not different entities ... eharnett
  • It was interesting how energy is not created, it is just a transformation from one state of energy to another ... Samar
  • it was interesting to hear the story that there is no such thing as energy independent from matter and that energy is just a way of describing the organization of matter ... Kendra
  • I was relating this notion to my personal experience with gaining energy from another’s action. That is a big difference. If I am playing in a basketball game and I do not have enough energy, my teammates usually say motivational things that affects the way I am feeling. Hold on, so emotions are factors to the way energy is transformed for an individual ... Shanika
  • today's class started out okay, until it got to the waterwheel ... ekim
  • Our discussion progressed making a lot of sense to me but then the water wheel topic came up ... kjean
  • Now the waterwheel example, I'm still a little confused about it ... Sharhea
  • I'm not sure I quite understood the water wheel example ... Jen
  • Every thing was making sense until we got to the waterwheel analogy ... andrelle
  • I really got confused when we began to talk about the water wheel ... Lakesha
  • the wheel is moving down (probable), and the bucket is moving up (improbable), so both an improbable and probable assembly is happening at once ... Rachel T

Adding the time/change dimension to life (at the molecular level)

Sun (plus? alternate) as source of driving improbability
Need to capture, use improbablity to make improbability
  • 6 CO2 + 6 H2O + light -> C6H12O6 + 6 O2
  • "endergonic", not "spontaneous", energy "absorbing", moving to less probable, depends on something else moving to greater probability, anabolism
  • Note increase of electrons shared by carbon and not shared with oxygen
  • autrophy
Take advantage of "quasi-stable" improbability, "energy" in chemical bonds
  • C6H12O6 + 6 O2 -> 6 CO2 + 6 H2O + 32-34 ATP
  • "exergonic", "spontaneous", energy "yielding", moving to more probable, catabolism


Can "trap" improbability in chemical bonds ("potential energy")
Carbohydrates (all macromolecules) high order/improbability/"free energy" -


How do enzymes fit into this picture?

Enyzmes as regulatable regulators of falling apartness, adjusting the size of the hole
  • Why doesn't cellulose/peroxide fall apart?
  • Sugar won't fall from sky at any appreciable rate without enzymes (BUT, it actually takes more than that, as we'll see)
Enzymes as couplers of catabolic and anabolic processes, of falling apart and building - transforming improbability from one state to another
  • Catabolic/anabolic coupling
  • Shape change of proteins (cycling between probable and less probable states) essential
  • The falling apart of things can make sugar (macromolecules) available

Life as

is not entirely fantasy.


19 November


Genes and ...


  • Usually talks about race on this campus are tense but I liked the one on Friday because we got the chance to define what we thought the word "race" actually was ... the word "race' could never be sufficiently defined, but stories can be created so that the word/concept can make a little more sense ... Kendra
  • does race really exist? Does defining race really matter? ... Jen
  • My parents are from the Caribbean and I would consider myself African American, though my culture, ethnicity, and nationality may all be different. Am I really African American? If so aren't we all since we all came from there at one point in time? ... kjean
  • We, as individuals have to take it upon us to educate ourselves, and to read actively. I have basically learnd that "race" is a ridiculous word that should not exist, and its even worse that people are trying to have ways scientifically to reinforce this race concept ... Andrelle
  • I like the notion of "geographic race." It makes lots of sense to create "categories" in a sense based on what parts of the world we come from. And it only makes sense that we've developed different traits to adapt to those different climates-just as polar bears have thicker fur than black bears for warmth, we have different skin and features and traits. And how wonderful! Differences should be celebrated, for they make the world an interesting place ... kcough
  • I still wish we could have made a distinction between race, ethnicity, and nationality during our talk. I know that we learned in my Ethics class for example, that sex is actually biological while gender is a societal construct. I wonder which of these is the case with the terms i mentioned before. Plus where does culture come into play here? ... scientists believe they may have found a gene in black women that makes them more prone to deadlier breast cancer. I wonder if this suggests a deeper genetic difference between Whites and Blacks than what we have discovered to this day ... kharmon (PG)
  • Different genes don't make people better or worse, just different. Being different is what lets organisims evolve ... Katrina
  • i was just curious what other people think about the possibility altering ones genes? ... Andy
  • I think one issue that most people have is assuming that excelling in your culture's values makes you superior. This just makes you fit within your culture, not a superior person ... I don't think it's possible for someone to be superior, and even if people could be genetically altered, I think that science should be reserved for weeding out fatal diseases and similar issues, rather than "tallness" or "being awesome at soccer." ... Rachel T
  • Going back to other conversations that we had in class earlier in the week, in which we talked about how processes are constantly breaking down (becoming probable) and being built back up (improbable), I thought that it made a lot of sense and helped clarify what we were discussing. The idea of the sun as "breaking down" to become a probable assembly makes sense, even if it did seem sort of strange to me at first-I've never thought of the sun as falling apart, even though I know that the sun will eventually burn out in another couple billion years. It's just another way of looking at the importance of the sun to life on earth, and how dependent we are on it ... eharnett

Enyzmes as regulators of falling apartness, adjusting the size of the hole, and couplers of falling apartness to putting togetherness - Themselves regulatable

  • Why doesn't cellulose/peroxide fall apart?
  • Sugar won't fall from sky at any appreciable rate without enzymes (BUT, it actually takes more than that, as we'll see)


26 November


Moving On: Cells as Organized Spatial Arrays (improbable assemblies) of Macromolecules
How DOES Sugar Get Made Anyhow?
How Come Genes DON'T Determine Everything?
  • During dinner this weekend, I brought up genes and the supposed nature vs nurture controversey. I told my family, based on what we said in class, that genes dont determine anything, but that they do make people more inclined to act or become a certain way. Ok... so in other words, so just because a person has a certain set of genes does not necessarily mean a person will be a certain way because nature and nurture both play a role ... Marie
  • If by "biological" one actually means "genetic", then perhaps race is BOTH genetic AND socially constructed, ie the two are not oppositional but instead there are genetic differences among individuals which in turn are the grist from which a variety of different social/cultural stories can be created? ... maybe the same holds for sex/gender? The notion of two sexes, for example, is not a "biological" story (there are more than two possible relevant genetic forms, and neither "determines" sex in terms of anatomy or behavior or personal sense of identity); its a cultural one (See Does Biology Have Anything to Contribute to Thinking About Sex and Gender?). So maybe both sex and gender (do we really need two different terms?) are also BOTH "biological" AND socially constructed, with genes (and hormones and ...) being the grist from which a variety of different social/cultural stories can be created? ... Wednesday class discussion
  • Which factors should be taken into account when accepting students into Bryn Mawr? Which factors, if allowed in students accepted into Bryn Mawr, would distort Bryn Mawr's vision as a women's college? (Where the vision is, to educate, embolden and empower women) ... Jen


The "cell theory" - All living organisms are either cells or assemblies of cells

What are cells? Why a needed level of organization for life?
Why must there be a "cell" to have life? How can cells be both "distinct entities and building blocks"?

Cells as energy-dependent, semi-autonomous, semi-homeostatic, reproducing, bounded improbable assemblies of molecules/macromolecules

  • diversity (again) - how account for it? what's its significance?
    • Prokaryotes, eukaryotes ... viruses
    • animals cells vs plant cells
    • common characteristics of cells
      • boundedness
      • ability to transform improbability
      • ability to reproduce (create comparable improbable organization)
      • genetic material
      • semi-autonomy
      • semi-homeostasis (reactivity)
      • eucaryotic cells: internal bounded spaces (compartments)
  • scale: microns, tens of microns, a minimum size for life?, why?
    • macromolecule diameter ~ 10-8 m, so 100 or so across a small cell, need a million macromolecules?
  • a maximum size for cells? why? relations to outside world? ... maintenance of internal improbability
  • nature of inside world? ... internal coordination
  • cell as assemblies of diverse components (and hence themselves can be diverse), creates need for internal (and external) intercommunication/coordination
  • the new factors: specialization, interdependence, distributed control

The matter of boundedness

Life requires not only ways to speed up spontaneously occuring breakdown (enzymes) but also ways to slow it down

Membranes the key to boundedness, both of cell and within cell (are also important framework elements, organizing other macromolecules)

The energy/improbability matter and boundedness

Looking back and forward - link(s) between life and the second law

Another reason sugar doesn't fall from the sky ....

6 CO2 + 6 H2O --*/*--> C6H12O6 + 6 O2

*/*: in the presence of light, enzymes, and organized spatial arrays of molecules

C6H12O6 + 6 O2 --*/*--> 6 CO2 + 6 H2O

*/* in the presence of organized spatial arrays of molecules, including enzymes AND simultaneously ADP -> ATP

  • As with energy, living systems do not consume matter, they transform it
  • Transformations are cyclical and involve linked transformations
  • Non-spontaneous transformations are driven by spontaneous ones
  • Enzymes and their shape changes are critical
    • for facilitating spontaneous reactions
    • for linking spontaneous and non-spontaneous reactions
  • Organized spatial arrays of molecules are essential
Photosynthesis the starting point ....... 6 CO2 + 6 H2O + light -> C6H12O6 + 6 O2

Cellular respiration the link to metabolism and the return part of life cycle ......C6H12O6 + 6 O2 -> 6 CO2 + 6 H2O + 32-34 ATP


Given spatial arrays of macromolecules that can do the link:

Improbability drives the creation of

  • molecules
  • macromolecules
  • spatial arrays of macromolecules
  • cells, organs (including brains), people, culture, ecosystems, biospheres?

Problem of creating a living cell is problem of assembling intricate architecture of large numbers of molecules, macromolecules?


General principles from the discussion of energy at the cellular level, beyond energy per se

  • matter, like energy, is not "used", it is transformed, may be recycled
  • 3-D organization of macromolecules critical (not explicit in genetic information), as are molecules other than proteins (ditto)
  • are at level of cell already talking about complex interactions among complex, semi-specialized, semi-autonomous parts (the cell as symbiotic system) - cooperation at least as important in biology as competition (Lynn Margulis)

Movement, and autonomy ... understandable in terms of proteins

"the discussion of lower levels cannot overshadow the bigger picture"

Molecules ARE important, DO affect the bigger picture, but they in turn are influenced by and derive significance from the bigger picture they are a part of

Genes ARE important, DO affect the bigger picture, but they in turn ...

Individuals ARE important, DO affect the bigger picture, but they in turn ...

Stories ARE important, DO affect the bigger picture, but they in turn ...




3 December

Cells as improbable assemblies of macromolecules: Creating improbability and its implications

  • The "improbability factor" (breaking something down so that something else can become/stay improbable) makes much more sense than memorizing random points of the photosynthesis cycle without really understanding what they are ... Catrina
  • the idea of global warming and the increasing amount of carbon dioxide because of processes caused by humans ... links to the discussion of how humans can make probable things improbable ... kjean
  • the cause of global warming is the increase in carbon dioxide, not due to natural processes (like the increase in cellular respiration and decrease in photosynthesis), but due to unnatural ones--burning fossil fuels (i.e. factories, cars, etc.). So does that make humans a disruption to the ordered (improbable) assemblies of life? ... ekim
  • the more "improbable" humans try to make themselves (by constantly striving to better human life via technology, industry, etc), the less improbable they make life in general (because this expansion often uses nonrenewable resources) ... Rachel
  • I think that at times we don't really consider how much influence we have on the environment and that is when you want into problems such as global warming. The other thing is that because the effects that we have on the environment takes a while to show, when the effects does show its already too late ... andrelle
  • i do have one big question: can global warming actually be "stopped? ... kgould
  • There are a few great, which is all about attempting to reduce waste, especially organic waste, for less global warming. Their video, "The Story of Stuff," which should be up on the website soon, is fantastic, explainging the process of how those water bottles and organic food waste lead to global warming (use nalgenes! :-)). Another great one is, which lists the US cities that have committed to the Cool Cities Climate Challenge, involving all sorts of things we do locally, since the government hasn't decided to step up. (Philly is a Cool City- There are more websites about what schools can do and what we can do individually ... kcough
  • I found an article about a research project in Illinois that created a computer chip that simulates the steps of photosynthesis in hopes of finding new ways to increase plant productivity. The model simulates many different scenarios including different environmental changes and permutations of proteins to find the most productive. Interestingly enough, the article does suggest that the model could be a part of the solution to overcoming climate changes. I would encourage you all to check out the article!! ... cmcgowan
  • The efforts at the local level are very crucial but this is not going to happen if the country does not inforce it. I think the USA should take a real stand ... Samar (see also Andy, kharmon, Paige)
  • What I'm really curious about is exactly how the environment effects phenotype. It seems to make sense on a molecular level that genes and dna would code for certain characteristics, which are then manifested in the production of macromolecules that create the phenotype of the organism. however, there must be a way the environment impacts the body's production of macromolecules, and this confuses me. Doesn't a trait have to be coded for in order for it to be exhibited? The answer to that is no, I guess, but I'm having a hard time conceptualizing how the environment can impact how an organism develops ... Ruth


"the discussion of lower levels cannot overshadow the bigger picture"

Molecules ARE important, DO affect the bigger picture, but they in turn are influenced by and derive significance from the bigger picture they are a part of

Genes ARE important, DO affect the bigger picture, but they in turn ...

Individuals ARE important, DO affect the bigger picture, but they in turn ...

Stories ARE important, DO affect the bigger picture, but they in turn ...

Back to why don't genes (or anything else) determine everything

Responsiveness to environment

Internal changes due to environmental signals - "learning"

Gene regulation - More on responsiveness/autonomy at the single cell level

Cells as complex (improbable) assemblies of different molecules/macromolecules, with different ones contributing different characteristics

  • Life as interacting different parts
  • No sharp border between alive and not alive
  • Difficulty in creating life in laboratory (but .... and)

Cellular reproduction - mitosis

Lessons from cells about life:

  • Life is not any one thing or any one part but rather an ongoing and coordinated dance among lots of different parts
  • Three dimensional organization and boundaries are essential to the dance
  • Different parts play different roles - are "specialized"
  • Signals are constantly moving back and forth among the parts - coordination key
  • No simple "cause/effect" relations, elements reciprocally influence one another
  • No one is "in charge" - coordination emerges from the semi-autonomous characteristics of the parts and the signals that move among them
  • The problem of building a cell, of creating life?, may be at this point more a problem of properly assembling the components than of determining what the components are. There is more to life than what one sees in cells ...


Multicellular organisms as improbable assemblies of cells having three-dimensional structure, boundaries, internal boundaries/spaces, energy dependence, autonomous/homostatic properties, reproduction with variance

  • Cells, rather than macromolecular assemblies as components
  • Diversity, need for coordination
  • Need to maintain "life" in components

Key points:
  • Lots of different sets of organized cells, lots of different cells
  • Sets and cells all themselves alive, as well as being parts of living thing
  • Need "differentiation" (specialization), organization (coordination)
  • Where get lots of different cells? in organized form?

Making sense of diversity - morphological tissues as intermediate level of organization between cells and organs/organ systems

Boundaries and spaces from epithelia - regulate movement of materials




10 December

Multicellularity ... and being a multicellular organism

  • i can't help being amazed by the complexity of what we are. everything works together, feeding off each other, regulating and changing to keep our bodies functioning ... kgould
  • because there are countless factors that make us human, there are also countless ways in which one human can deviate from the "norm." I guess that is a consequence of being such complex organisms.... cmcgowan
  • what exactly is the state of being alive? ... if we could technically divide our body parts into small pieces and keep them alive as long as we supply them with sufficient oxygen and energy … would that mean that that person is still alive? ... if a person gets multiple transplants.. ( such as the heart and the kidney.. ) what is her identity? ... As science develops.. it is surely making our lives more comfortable but it is also breaking the once seemingly clear boundary of life, death and humanity itself ... Andy
  • I still think it is very interesting that we have all these extremely complex beings living in the world along side of very simple single celled organizims. What is the difference between us, since clearly multicellular organizims are not "better" than single celled organizms since they did not die out? ... Catrina
  • I thought that it was interesting that multi-cellular organisms are many lives and the difficulty lies not in keeping each of them alive but in keeping them coordinated and alive ... kcough
  • I have always been comfortable with the concept of there being bacteria and such living in our intestines, hair, and everywhere else in our body.But thinking of the actual individual cells that make up our body as another set of single celled creatures that live inside us, not necessarily because of us, seems to be something completely different altogether. Although there is an interdependent relationship between the unicellular and the multicellular within the multicellular organism, why is it that these living cells work together forming a respiratory system for the rest of the body? Bacteria and viruses live within us to survive, why aren't the rest of them just as self-concerned? ... Luisana
  • I am interested to know at what point in the womb do the cells transition from working all together to becoming different organs, and how the cells of one organ interact with cells of another (if at all) if they come in contact. I would also like to know more about the actual process of changing from zygote to stem cell, and from stem cell to specialized organ cell ... Jen



Semi-autonomy, homeostasis, adaptiveness and ... the self? Coordinating systems

How make complexity - development of multicellular organisms

How get elaborate, three-dimensional assemblies of diverse elements? Development (alternate) as guide, further insight into diversity, background for "cloning" issues ... see also Cloning: Past, Present, and ..."

  • Multiple cells from single cell, zygote, fertilized egg
    • Why always back to single cell?
    • Which came first, chicken or egg?
    • Relation to problem of accounting for cell architecture
  • Cleavage - multiple cells from mitotic divisions
    • Diversity NOT due to genetic variation
  • Gastrulation - formation of basic vertebrate body plan
Organized diversity despite (because of?) genetic homogeneity
Differentiation and morphogenesis dependent on gene regulation ...
  • Nuclear/cytoplasmic interactions
  • Cell/cell interactions
  • Cell/environment interactions
  • Genes influence everything, do not determine anything

A noteworth exception, the immune system ... making productive use of randomness (continued)


Where does zygote come from? (more on making productive use of randomness)


Development of the individual (and of culture): sex/gender

  • Sex chromosomes influence, do not determine
  • Hormones (themselves influenced but not determined by genes) influence but do not determine
  • Environment/culture (themselves influenced but not determined by genes/hormones) influence but do not determine
  • The story teller (itself influenced but not determined by all of the above) influences ...

The "story" from biology (so far)

  • All organisms are interactive improbable assemblies, "explorations" of what can be/what works
  • Cultures are interactive improbable assemblies that generate new properties
  • Individuals are both influenced by and influences on cultures
  • Individuals have the capacity to conceive of things as other than they are and to play a causal role in bringing into existence new improbable assemblies

Thanks all for participation in this process this semester. Keep learning, thinking, acting, imagining, writing/sharing/revising stories, "getting it less wrong". Keep in touch.



To be continued ...