Thursday, April 26, 2012

Biology 101: An Introduction

This has been a rough year for me. (More on this much later.) While trying to put together a community of sorts, I've been spending my spare time (what else?) reading.

Reading about community? Consensus decision making? Social change? Spiritual paths?

Well, yes, but mostly I've been reading about biology.

It started with me finding a recent, detailed college biology textbook in with the free books at my very local recycling center. I realized that if I was interested in taking care of people, health stuff, nutrition, growing food, plants, and ecosystems, these all had to do with life, and therefore, biology.

At my house, you can often find me at one kitchen table or another, reading a biology book (or several)--slowly poking my way through the big textbook as I eat lunch or dinner (always stopping if there's a housemate to talk with), really trying to learn this stuff. I have been supplementing the textbook with all sorts of other books on the various aspects of what I'm studying at the particular moment. I'm making my way systematically through the book. I've gone through biochemistry, cell structure, metabolism, cell communication, cell respiration, and photosynthesis. I'm now working my way through genetics.

I think that some of what I've been learning is important enough to put in this blog. Since one of the things I think is most important in social change is taking care of people and meeting their needs, I think that having some knowledge of how people work and the natural world works, can be useful in this.

Feel free to skip the next bunch of posts if most of this doesn't interest you (hopefully you skip things that don't interest you here anyway) but my hope is that social change activists and other people concerned about people might want to learn a little of what we're made of and what keeps us alive.

Quote of the Day: "Life can be explained by its underlying chemistry, just as chemistry can be explained by its underlying physics. But the life that emerges from the underlying chemistry of biomolecules is something more than the collection of molecules. ... once these molecules came to reside in cells, they began to interact with one another to generate new processes, like motility and metabolism and perception, processes that are unique to living creatures, processes that have no counterpart at simpler levels. These new, life-specific functions are referred to as emergent functions.
"...I once again revert to my covenant with Mystery, and respond to the emergence of Life not with a search for its Design or Purpose but instead with outrageous celebration that it occurred at all. I take the concept of miracle and use it not as a manifestation of divine intervention but as the astonishing property of emergence. Life does generate something-more-from-nothing-but, over and over again, and each emergence, even though fully explainable by chemistry, is nonetheless miraculous." - Ursula Goodenough

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Complexity Once More

I recently re-read the book Complexity by Michell Waldrop. Once again I was taken with many of the ideas of these researchers--especially the idea that " systems always seem to emerge from the bottom up, from a population of much simpler systems." They talk about how "...since it's effectively impossible to cover every conceivable situation, top-down systems are forever running into combinations of events they don't know how to handle."

Building things from the bottom up (or as I've been putting it, "Rebuilding the World from the ground up") is what I see us needing to do--it's the only way I can think of to create "a World that Works for Everyone."

But the scientists and theorists in the book go on to talk about focusing on "...ongoing behavior instead of a final result." They point out that " systems never really settle down." And they make the point that social systems, as well as biological systems, need to be on what they call 'the edge of chaos' in order to function well. Systems that are too orderly (Doyne Farmer, one of the scientists being interviewed, cites Stalinist USSR and "the Big Three automakers in Detroit in the 1970s") become "rigidly locked in to certain ways of doing things" and therefore vulnerable. But systems that are too chaotic (Farmer points to the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horrors of the industrial revolution in the UK, and the laissez-faire economics that led to the savings and loan collapse in the US in the 1990s) don't work either. "Common sense, not to mention recent political experience, suggests that healthy economies and healthy societies alike have to keep order and chaos in balance--and not just a wishy-washy, average, middle of the road kind of balance, either. Like a living cell, they have to regulate themselves with a dense web of feedbacks and regulation, at the same time that they leave plenty of room for creativity, change, and response to new conditions."

This reminds me of what sustainability folks call 'resilience'--creativity and adaptibility with built in redundancy so that there is room to deal with problems.

One more thing (among many) that I was taken with was some of the ideas on learning and behavior change. John Holland is a computer scientist that became fascinated with neuroscientist Donald Hebb's ideas on learning and the brain. It's all about synapses and connections but you can take the ideas on wiring as metaphorical as well as literal. What several of the complexity theorists (including Doyne Farmer, referenced above) were coming to believe is that "...the behavior of the network as a whole is determined almost entirely by the connections." In this way learning is about changing the connections, and the idea is that " can change them in two different ways. The first way is to leave the connections in place but modify their 'strength'. This corresponds to what Holland calls exploitation learning: improving what you already have. ... The second, more radical way of adjusting the connections is to change the network's whole wiring diagram. Rip out some of the old connections and put in new ones. This corresponds to what Holland calls exploration learning: taking the risk of screwing up big in return for the chance of winning big."

Unfortunately, I know about some of this personally as I've taken several risky chances in my attempts to build community where I've ended up screwing up big--although one time I think I ended up winning big when a bunch of us were able to set up a well functioning community that lasted five years. I also think that if we are going to build a new way of living we are going to have to "Rip out some of the old connections and put in new ones." And, yeah, it's risky. But it may be the only way to really change things. But that's why (when there is as much chance of screwing up as getting what we want) we will need to build small adaptive systems (communities, cooperative businesses, small farms, demonstration models, etc) many of which will fail. It's the way that emergence works--and it's the way natural systems evolve.

Building resilient, adaptive little systems on the edge of chaos as an ongoing process that never settles down. Not easy, but it's the only way that I can see to create change. Observe, take small steps, build simple systems--and who knows what will emerge from there.

Quote of the Day: " means that you observe, and observe, and observe, and occasionally stick your oar in and improve something for the better. It means you try to see reality for what it is, and realize that the game you are in keeps changing, so that it's up to you to figure out the current rules of the game as it's being played. stop being naive, stop adhering to standard theories that are built on outmoded assumptions about the rules of play... You just observe. And where you can make an effective move, you make a move." - Brian Arthur (from the book Complexity)

Thursday, April 12, 2012


This is another book review that for some reason I never posted.

At the beginning of last year, I wrote a post on Daniel Quinn's book, Beyond Civilization (see Beyond Civilization, 1/3/11). Daniel Quinn has written a bunch of books but the one that first got him some attention was Ishmael, which won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991 aqnd was published in 1992. Having seen dozens of references to it and having heard from several people how important it was to them, I have just read it.

Ishmael is the story of a guy who answers a personal ad for a teacher seeking a pupil and finds that the teacher is a 500 pound gorilla who communicates telepathically (yes!) and describes two cultures, one that Ishmael (the gorilla) calls 'the Takers' and one that he calls 'the Leavers'. The Takers believe that they are the pinnacle of the evolutionary process and are meant to rule the world, where the Leavers (or tribal folks) are content to just be another part of the natural world. All this is teased out of Ishmael's pupil by means of Ishmael's questions--most of the book is a sort of Socratic dialogue.

It's not the best written book. The style of this story reminds me of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories that I used to read when I used to read mysteries. The voice of the anonymous narrator seems to me a lot like Archie Goodwin, the narrator of the Wolfe stories. (And there is the fact that, like Wolfe, Ishmael has considerable weight.)

But it's an important book. Not because it's unique, but because it has been so widely read.

I doubt that Daniel Quinn would think of himself as an ecofeminist--nor do I think most ecofeminists would think of him as one either. For one obvious thing, Ishmael uses the term 'man' to refer to human beings throughout the book. Nevertheless, I was reading Ishmael at the same time as I was reading various ecofeminist authors and felt like there was a strong similarity of emphasis. As it says in the novel: "The premise of the Takers' story is 'The world belongs to man.' ...The premise of the Leavers' story is 'Man belongs to the world.'" "In order to make himself the ruler of the world, man first had to conquer it." "Man is conquering the deserts, man is conquering the oceans, man is conquering the atom, man is conquering the elements, man is conquering outer space." Many ecofeminist writers have written very similar things, even including the use of the word 'man'--although in an ironic sense that Daniel Quinn doesn't use.

The point of this book, and, I believe, the point of most ecofeminist writing, is that in trying to rule the world we are destroying it, and we cannot live without the world. Thus the book suggests we need a new story and that we can learn much of that story from 'the Leavers', the tribal peoples of the world, who live as a part of nature rather than trying to dominate it. The book in many ways reminds me of Chellis Glendinning's book My Name is Chellis & I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization (see my review in One with Nature 1: Recovery, 12/26/08). Like Chellis, Daniel Quinn looks at hunter-gatherer tribes as a model for re-learning how to live in harmony with the natural world.

I know that Ishmael has been very influential for many people. And it really doesn't matter that many other writers (including most of the ecofeminists, and the permaculture people, too, for that matter) are saying the same things. This is a message that needs to be put out again and again and again. It's not just about climate change, or rainforest destruction, or peak oil, or whatever issue you want to name. We are dealing with a systemic issue and we need to rethink everything. We need to think--as I would put it--how we can live simply, sustainably, equally, cooperatively, and even communally. Yes, and we need to think how we can live tribally. Because we are on the verge of destroying the planet and minor reforms are not going to cut it. (Not to mention that people are treating each other very badly, and it's about time that changes too.) As Daniel Quinn puts it, "You're captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live." Well, as Quinn and many other people are insisting, it's time to create a different system. It's either that or say goodbye to everything.

Quote of the Day: "The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated..." - Daniel Quinn

Thursday, April 5, 2012


At this point, what's going onto this blog is a mishmash of stuff I'm thinking about, stuff I've wanted to post for a while, stuff that just occurs to me, and random stuff I think might be useful. Among other things, I'm going through stuff I meant to put in the blog but somehow never did. This is a book review I wrote a long time ago and never posted.

Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets bears the subtitle "How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World". He isn't kidding; Paul Stamets believes that mushrooms and mycelium are the best means of saving the planet. I'm not quite as much of a fanatic about mushrooms (or any single 'solution') but reading this book has made me believe that mushrooms and mycelium should be an important part of rebuilding the world.

Mushrooms come from mycelia (the plural of mycelium) which are long, white, underground, threadlike cellular structures that run through the soil. The mycelia form a network through the earth that can grow as large as 2,400 acres, as was found in Oregon and dubbed the largest organism in the world.

These mycelial networks help explain things like 'fairy circles' where a perfect circle of mushrooms will grow in the woods. The explanation is that they are all interconnected by their mycelia. Mushrooms are often described as 'the fruiting bodies', (that is, the reproductive organs) of mycelia--they contain the spores that can be carried off by animals enjoying the mushrooms, thus helping to spread the mycelia.

The first chapter in the book is devoted to mycelial networks, comparing them to the connections in the brain and in the internet, and even dark matter in the universe. It seems a bit much but the accompanying photographs show how similar the patterns of these various things are. From there Stamets goes into the life cycle of mushrooms and the various types of mushrooms. He discusses the medicinal use of mushrooms and devotes an entire section to what he terms 'Mycorestoration', using mushrooms and mycelia to restore the world through filtering out toxins, remediation of poisoned soil, helping to grow back forests, and even to develop natural pesticides. The final section of the book concentrates on how to grow mycelia and mushrooms--with a last chapter of the book on 'Nutritional Properties of Mushrooms'.

Like I said, this book didn't convert me to mycofanaticism but it did make me aware of the contributions that mycelia make to the ecosystem. If you want to enrich your ecological awareness or perhaps just want to know how to grow mushrooms, this is a great book to look through.

Quote of the Day: "There are more species of fungi, bacteria, and protozoa in a single scoop of soil than there are species of plants and vertebrate animals in all of North America. And of these, fungi are the great recyclers of our planet, the mycomagicians disassembling large organic molecules into simpler forms, which in turn nourish other members of the ecological community. ...
"Since most insects are fungus loving and are excited by spores, they appear as mushrooms ripen and overmature. Vertebrates from squirrels to bears to people seek mushrooms as food. Bacteria use rotting mushrooms as a rich base for growth, further freeing nutrients and releasing a cascade of microbes that destroy the structure of mushrooms as they melt into the soil. This bacterial influx predisposes habitats for the emergence of plant communities. Ultimately, nature fosters complex partnerships of interdependence...
"Nature loves communities." - Paul Stamets