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Bio 103, week 3

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum for Biology 103.  This is a place for thoughts in progress, a place to leave thoughts and questions that others may find useful and find ones that you might find useful, a place for conversation.  Join in, and let's see what we can make of life together.  If you're registered for the course, be sure to sign in before posting.  Others are welcome to join in as well but posting of comments will be delayed to check for spam.  You're free to write about whatever has struck you.  If you need something to get you started though what do think of the our efforts to define "alive" and "life", of life as process, of life as similar to science in being exploratory/creative?

ED's picture

 Here's a question: If

 Here's a question:

If everyone were able to agree on an objective definition of everything, would anyone be different? Would everyone lose their identity?

I don't really need to ask that, because the human race will never get to a point where everyone just agrees on all there is out there to observe. Isn't it our differences that makes life rich? Yes, but there's a limit (which we've talked about). If everyone is free to his/her own judgement or definition, nothing communally makes sense or is agreed upon. For example, with laws: people need to generally agree (and maybe conform their "nature"/what they might naturally, initially feel is right or wrong) with what is legal vs what is illegal to do. I can't imagine there ever being laws against people thinking or feeling a different way; it really comes down to the way people behave. Okay, so we all behave according to a set of shared laws. That might take away from our individuality. Is that always a good thing? Does it depend on the laws? There has to be a balance between acceptance/understanding and individuality/stubbornness. I'm kind of veering off from biology, though; I'm not talking anatomically so much. Though this does come into play when it comes to judging people who are different (smell, look, act, eat different foods, speak a diff language) than you. Trouble comes when people don't accept other people based on their anatomy/general behavior.

sophie b.'s picture

why do we classify?

One of the things that interested me the most this week was the purpose of categorization.  One generally considers categorization to be a utilitarian tool, (it helps us know which aisle to find paper towels, etc), however in the science world categorization is an incredibly complicated discipline that you have to be personally trained in to really comprehend. It seems interesting to me that categorization,  a tool that is meant to make our world less complicated and easier to understand, is so complex in the field of science- when it is even more important that we are able to understand it, as categorization helps us to make new discoveries in medicine, etc. 

mfmiranda's picture

Week 3

I keep thinking about the choices we make when classifying, and also the choices we make after we've set up a system. In Lab, Professor Grobstein mentioned that in some ways our classification system was better than the one on the Tree of Life. It made me wonder about how we determine which system is "better" I guess maybe the word I'm looking for isn't "better" but actually "appropriate" Classifying then becomes not only about how we're breaking things down, but also about how we're using everything once it's settled into categories. In some ways, we don't only have to decide how to classify things, but also when classification works and when it doesn't. I like the idea that we are not just choosing just one system overall, but instead one system at a time. That way, we choose a system each time our needs change.Still, I'm left wondering if that makes any sense at all.

achiles's picture

the hierarchy of life

I am particularly interested in the Tree of Life classification system because of the significance it gives to embryonic development and ancestral history. In classification and evolution, the key to understanding what is to come is mastering an understanding of history. That formative characteristics relate us to unlikely organisms makes me question our place in the hierarchy of life on Earth today. Classification has allowed humans to feel comfortable assigning value to the lives of other organisms (killing a bug is nothing, but killing a dog is unthinkable). But, the Tree of Life would suggest that we shouldn't get too comfortable at the top.

heatherl18's picture

Classification as comparison

 I thought last week's discussion on classification brought up new discussions that last week's discussion did not. When we were looking through the Encyclopedia of Life at the "scientific" classifications of living organisms and being asked if we felt a kinship with our counterparts in a given classification, I couldn't help being reminded of the question, "How different is different?" How many broader categories would we have to go through before it's reasonable to not have a feeling of kinship? Eventually, all living things are going to fall into one big category--will we then be expected to feel a kinship with bacteria? As someone pointed out on Friday, classifications are only meaningful comparatively. It is difficult to make a blanket "these things are similar" statement because of the infinite diversity of all organisms. However, you could say that x and y are similar compared to z. I suppose that's why we need so many classifications. Rather than being rigid categories, they are more like units of comparison between living things.

Karina G's picture

Week 3

This week we learned that one characteristic of life is diversity. Our definition of life is growing each week. I wonder what else we need to consider when defining life.

 Life is an improbable assembly of cluster and diverse interdependent living organisms, undergoing continual changes.

The idea of categorizing and forming clusters was a little surprising. At least I was surprise of being in the same category with a fish. We always come across the idea of categorizing being arbitrary however I must say that we (humans, biologist) do it because is useful. Making categories and naming organism helps us communicate.

Terrible2s's picture

Categorization without Segregation


-allows quicks responses to viewing unknown entities.


-facilitates communication

-facilitates imagination


Life is pretty complicated. Do we categorize to simplify? To stop our minds from wondering about exceptions? I basically think that we need some categories but not all. Many would argue that we can't get caught up in stereotypes and categories and that these things only hold us back as a people. I think life would get a little too complicated without categorization but that we need those people to remind us sometimes that we can't be too rigid in our separating. 

paoli.roman's picture

Reflection on Week 3

 The definitions that we discussed in class this past week that were very interesting for the word life are: it involves multiple living things that are different from one another, adapt to the variation of an environment, are/ is a diverse assembly , and rely on other species for survival. It has been very hard to agree as a class on a definition for life but I feel that this one is getting closer to what we feel is right. Another interesting thought shared in class by Professor Grobstein is that catergorizing/ classifying/ or naming organisms is a way of expressing our current understanding of ourselves and our relation to the world around us. Although taxonomy is a "handed down knowledge" (created by humans) it still helps when creating and analyzing reality. 

Terrible2s's picture

Reflecting on reflection

Yeah I liked Grobstein's idea too. It's often said than when we are judging someone else we simply are seeing characteristics in ourselves. This is referring to negative judgement of human character, but it's interesting to think that maybe all that we notice in life (emotionally or just visually) is simply us figuring out ourselves.

Yashaswini's picture

Subjectivity and Something Else.

I really enjoyed Week 3, a lot more than the previous two! I loved the range of discussions we had in class, in both the 'lectures' as well as the lab. I now find myself asking myself random, and not always 'sensible' questions at the most absurd times -- walking back to my dorm, spending time with my Customs Group, even, to the covert annoyance of my friends, while having dinner! It's sort of like the.. after-effects!

I think the main reason why I was initially finding it a bit.. overwhelming to continuously strive for being "less wrong" is because, as high-school science-students, we'd all been accustomed to a certain level of hand-holding and spoon-feeding! It had always been about someone else's experiments/observations/findings. And as a result, atleast for me, my brain had became somewhat.. lazy. I subconsciously knew that I'd always have someone else to do my 'scientific thinking' for me. Bio 103 is a refreshing change!

After Monday's class, I was thinking about subjectivity and what David had mentioned about understanding always being relative to some objective. It got me thinking, what IS subjectivity? Doesn't it ultimately boil down to a matter of perspective? And isn't perspective what makes each of us unique and gives us a sense of individuality? And isn't it chiselled over years of interactions with our culture and society?

We'd also talked a bit about how 1+1= 2 and 1+1= 10 are both correct. Similarly, when we look at a glass placed on a table we're actually looking at One Glass. Supposing, one of it's edges gets chipped. Does that make it any LESS than One Glass? We still spot One Glass, right?

cejensen's picture

Our shared planet: the relatedness of life on earth

I loved Friday's class, because the idea that all life on earth is related, even if extremely distantly, is one of the reasons I find Biology so fascinating. I think this is something we need to keep in mind as we consider the negative effect we as human beings are having on the earth. The earth is something all us living things share. Though there is probably life elsewhere, so far earth is the only life-supporting planet we know of, and probably the only planet that would support the type of life we have here. All living things (we know of) evolved here on earth. We are all related, if in few other ways, because of that. We have that in common. We only have one earth, one place that supports our type of life, and we need to protect it.

JPierre's picture

Life Connections

I found the connections between leaving beings on Earth was also interesting. I also thought it was cool how one simple characteristic could connect each subset to each other.  And all these simple characteristics summed up altogether could connect me (a modern human being) to various types of primates and to other mammals that look and act so differently than I do.

JPierre's picture

Life and Being Less Wrong

Although I love that I can continually ask questions in this class, it sometimes can be very frustrating! For instance, when the class was trying to select a common definition for "life", it was so difficult because one could always question or deconstruct the hypothesis of another. Although it was exciting to always ask questions, it was also so frustrating and even a bit of a deterrent because no one could ever find or think of a set foundation for the definition of "life". In each try, one was always a little wrong and I wondered how I would ever get through such a class if I could not even conceive basic concepts such as life. 

I really liked the idea of being "less wrong" in the beginning, but now I wonder if I will ever learn anything that might be a "little right" in this class.

cejensen's picture

science as a process

This is hard for me to wrap my head around too sometimes, but I just have to remind myself that science, like anything else, is a process, and that sometimes one learns more from the process than from answers.

xhan's picture

week 3

i really agree with this. as we've probably discussed in class, it is human nature to want to seek the truth despite our limitations. But i think that instead of letting certain situations, people, etc reveal themselves to us, we often have a fixed notion of what things ought to be like and project these notions onto these situations, people, etc. I think what I am learning in this class is that Science is not built upon static principles, but rather, Science is an ever changing and ever expanding subject that shapes and is shaped by the people and environment that inhabits the world

Serendip Visitor's picture


I think the idea of which came first: classification or evolution is cool. In my opinion, humans have to know EVERYTHING. In history we started out with a classification system then started to notice new discoveries until we came up with the idea of evolution. pretty cool :)

Terrible2s's picture

Helping or hurting?

I think classification can help or hurt. Sometimes we classify and it allows us to see that there are things we don't yet know about, and it therefore encourages exploration. However, if we classify too rigidly, we can box ourselves (and others) in so that we can't see past the boxes.

Paul Grobstein's picture

classifying living things ... or anything else

Rich conversation about both classification in general and calling things alive in particular in class this morning.  Thanks to all.  A few thoughts that stuck in my mind ...

Understanding is always subjective, in two senses.  One is that we always make sense of things from a particular point of view.  The other, as per David, is that understanding is always relative to some objective, ie is good for something.  At the same time, we don't want to get into the "anything goes" problem.  We'd like to have some common understandings so we can share things/work together.  Maybe that's what we mean by "objective," shared commonalities in our individual inevitably "subjective" understandings?  For more along these lines, see "The objectivity/subjectivity spectrum: having one's cake and eating it too?"  "Objective" understandings are derived from individual subjective ones, and involve agreements on what purpose shared understandings are meant to serve?

All this is quite general, not at all specific to biology or the problem of defining life.  The "classification" or naming issue is relevant in a whole host of contexts, including several current ones.  See class notes for today for links to a number of conversations relevant in this context. 

So, what is a living organism?  It, like what is a man and what is a woman, depends on what collection of subjectivities we're bringing together and  what common objective we want to work on together.  Is religion, and the concept of a soul, relevant?  Of course, but if we're looking for a common understanding among people in the class, or among some wider group of humans, neither it nor the concept of a "life essence" of any kind, serve the need for a common understanding that motivates further questions about living organisms. Maybe the definition we're working on serves that need?  We'll see.

drichard's picture

anything goes

I wanted to address this last week but didn't get the chance. Though understanding is always relative to some objective, can't that objective be a standard of knowledge? Doesn't that help us avoid the idea that "anything goes"? Doesn't that nourish our knowledge base?

Certainly a standard of knowledge is the most useful objective of all, but between different cultures (im thinking BIG groups of people) certain standards simply don't hold. For example, in "decimal culture" 1+1=2. It is useful to think this way in this culture; indeed any other way of thinking within this culture would result in failure. In "binary culture" 1+1=10. Any individual who did not agree would fail as a member of the culture. We can use our subjectivity to fit into both systems, to attain both standards of knowledge, to see from both perspectives. I guess this is the kind of subjectivity I was talking about, more of a flexibility of knowledge.