Intelligent Design

Biologist muses on why biology is not orderly like physics or chemistry

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Dave Miller, who has an MS in biology and is contributing to research on prolidase deficiency in humans, writes us to say:
I have a running debate with a couple of coworkers about how (in their opinion) stupid biological taxonomy is because taxonomists don’t simply choose a species concept and stick with it.
Apparently, his co-workers are not trained biologists (except for undergrad degrees) and complaining about taxonomy does ease their way through a dreary day, no doubt.

Dave goes on to say,
This got me thinking about why biological taxonomy is so much more complicated than chemical, geological or physical taxonomy. Indeed, chemists don’t have debates over whether atoms with 6 protons ought to be called “Carbon” simply because some of them have 6 neutrons, others 7 and yet others 8. The fact that they all have 6 protons makes it “Carbon.” What makes this so much simpler?
It dawned on me that chemistry, physics, geology, etc are all fields that study objects that are static by their very nature. There is no principle in chemistry that causes the laws of gravity to change over time in an effort to find some ideal level of gravitation. Gravity is what it is: we are merely tasked with describing it.
Life, however, is distinguised from non-life in that life is decided non-static. Indeed, it may be said of life that varibility is a defining quality. When a human cell undergoes meiosis to form an egg or sperm cell, the four daughter cells have a a total of 2^23 (that’s 2 raised to the 23 power) possible number of chromosomal arrangements. A cactus with 500 chromosomes has a total of 2^500 possible arrangements (and this doesn’t even consider cross-over events!). In short, that fact that we resemble our parents to a great degree ought to amaze us.
In short, much of biology is based on probabilistic principles rather than the laws of the physical sciences. Predicting the outcome of biological experiments is often like predicting what cards your oponents are holding in a poker match. There are people who have developed skills that enable them to be better at it than others but, in the end, no one can know the result with the same certaintity of a chemical reaction unless they have rigged the game in some way (by either stacking the deck or observing the deal).
The end of the tale is this: pythagoreanism is as applicable to biology as to the physical sciences so long as one is content to remain in the realm of probability and be stuck in a casino rather than a chemistry lab.
Hmmm. The species concept does sometimes seem to be an artificial order imposed on a more messy reality. But is there a better way of doing it? Any thoughts?
Anyway, while we are here: Once life gets started, it can be hard to cure. I have known old people walking around with conditions that should have killed them, at least if you go by the textbooks. Or the coma victim whose brain completely rewired itself over a period of years after a massive injury, whereupon he woke up. Similarly, Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor, recalled that camp inmates survived for long periods with far less food than the textbooks insisted was required for life. The trouble and ingenuity to which humans go to battle entropy and preserve our lives, even when old and wretched, is amazing. And definitely not calculable or orderly.

17 Replies to “Biologist muses on why biology is not orderly like physics or chemistry

  1. 1
    sabre says:

    “Or the coma victim whose brain completely rewired itself over a period of years after a massive injury, whereupon he woke up.”

    Yep! My wife suffered a brain injury when she was a young child, resulting in epilepsy. When she was 33 years old, she underwent evaluatino for brain surgery to remove a 5-cm wedge of her right frontal lobe, the area containing the scar tissue causing her daily seizers. During the tests, the doctors found that her brain had “re-wired” around the damaged area. As a result, there were no post-operative deleterious affects detected whatsoever. She had no memory loss, and no loss of motor control. She’s been free of seizers ever since. The ability to self-repair, even after dramatic damage, is surely a primary indicator of life.

  2. 2
    vpr says:

    “The ability to self-repair, even after dramatic damage, is surely a primary indicator of life” or perhaps design!

  3. 3
    Ekstasis says:

    “Similarly, Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor, recalled that camp inmates survived for long periods with far less food than the textbooks insisted was required for life. ”

    Indeed, there is a condition called Inedia, basically humans living for long periods with little or no food or water. One does not hear of it often. And why? Because it does not fit cleanly into the Materialist playbook. Oh yes, it is too difficult to explain.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inedia

    Some of it may be explainable by those such as Indian Fakirs that practically shut their systems down, much as a hibernating bear. However, there are well-documented cases of others that continue to maintain active lives and even retain their body size. Padre Pio is an example. Maximilia Kolbe is another, who was interned in Aushwitz, voluntarily gave his life up for another inmate, and put in the “no water or food” bunker. Weeks later he was the lone survivor, still kneeling in prayer. They finally had to kill him by lethal injection. When they returned to retrieve his body, he still had a serene expression on his face. I will not subject you to a description of how the others around him died, or their appearance.

    The following contains amazing well-documented cases of what the human body can and has done, in the context of spiritual realities.
    http://www.allbookstores.com/b....._Body.html

  4. 4
    jmcd says:

    Ekstasis

    Perhaps there is nothing to explain but exageration and fraud. The fact is no one has been able to live without food or water in controlled, observable conditions.

    You will have to excuse most people from being skeptical of phenomena that cannot be displayed; especially when there are clear psychological reasons for perpetuating such notions. Anecdotes and stories cannot count as evidence.

    I am not syaing that these things cannot happen or have never happenned, but there is every reason to believe that they do not happen and no verifiable proof that they can.

  5. 5
    bebbo says:

    Ekstasis,

    According to the info I found Kolbe was actually one of four men who survived in the bunker.

  6. 6
    eamon says:

    Ok – this just gets under my skin. Yes, biology is one of the most confusing subjects precisely because, I think, biologists are utterly confused about who evolved from what and when and so on. Forget the “how” – let’s just focus on the “who” and “when.”

    I’ll give you an example. I was flipping through a very new and very popular high school biology text with a beautiful dragonfly picture on the front cover. I was trying to figure out exactly where frogs fit into the scheme of things. I mean, I know frogs aren’t plants, but it had been awhile since I’d tried to figure out exactly where frogs fit into the “animals” and so I turned to this very well-known biology text for “help” and it gave me no useful information what-so-ever. I did find out that frogs were “chordates” (I already knew that) but I wanted to know how they related to other “chordates” and what are the “non-chordates” and where do the vertebrates fit in and what’s with the molluscs and so on. But all I really got from the “biology” text was how frogs evolved from some hypothetical frog-fish-coelacanth sort of thing and a bit about their internal organs. So I put the “biology” text away and turned to a book on Latin names of animals and finally I found what I was looking for. In that book I found out about the other chordates and non-chordates and all the vertebrates and non-vertebrates and what they are called and how they are “similar but different” and it was nicely diagramed and so I could finally put a “frog” into a context I could handle. And although it’s true that living things “evolve” my experience is a frog pretty much stays a frog and has baby frogs, not baby fish or baby birds and frogs aren’t suddenly (or even slowly) going to jump into the class “bradyodonti” or anything drastic, and although they are similar is some ways to other animals, they are also different and that is useful information to have.

    And so I think overlaying a forced evolutionary interpretation onto existing taxonomic divisions, or worse, trying to make new taxanomic divisions based on phylogenetic trees from RNA sequences has done nothing productive for biology at all! Instead these forced interpretations have made a big confusing mess out of an already complicated problem. Yes, living things change, but not so much so that they can’t be sorted into useful broad categories “of the same kind” which is helpful when you want to sort fishes from frogs. Oh wait – I think I’ve heard this term “kinds” used in some other text dealing with sorting living things. Maybe that approach is too “simple” and not very sophisticated (no fancy RNA sequencing there), but it’s pretty useful when you want to figure out where frogs go. So maybe we should skip all the evolutionary nonsense and just go back to what works. Good grief – it could make modern biology texts valuable as something other than kindling.

  7. 7
    austinite says:

    Let’s not get too carried away by all the heartwarming stories (nice to read as they are). Life for many today, and for most throughout the majority of human history has been brutal and short. Until the marvels of modern medicine and hygiene arrived, a simple infection could kill you off, and the body has few defenses against bullets, bombs and other man-made instruments of destruction.

    Human life is more fragile than most people realize. One well placed comet/asteroid or one particularly evil scientist could terminate human life on Earth in an instant. Life, in general, on the other hand, if you include the humble microbe, is much more enduring and will survive just about anything man or nature can throw at it. There will be life on this planet long after human beings have left or become extinct.

  8. 8
    DaveScot says:

    Life, in general, on the other hand, if you include the humble microbe, is much more enduring and will survive just about anything man or nature can throw at it.

    Actually that’s not at all true with regard to nature. The earth will be gone someday consumed by its own star. Nature will eventually throw something at life on earth that will wipe it out completely. Since we haven’t found life anywhere else it appears quite fragile and rare to the point of there being only one known instance in the entire universe.

    If you look at it that way, humanity may be the only way life can endure what nature throws at it for we are the only species with a reasonable chance of being able to transport life to another star or construct artificial living habitats not bound to a planet.

  9. 9
    austinite says:

    Well, I was writing with the unspoken premise that there would still be a planet left for life to exist on. And even in the last throes of the sun’s destruction or if Earth’s orbit is perturbed and flies off into deep space, microbial life (e.g. extremophiles) could possibly continue to exist long after Earth’s surface has been scorched away or frozen solid.

    Regarding life in the Universe, no matter how privilaged our planet may have been, I find it the greater stretch to believe that ours is the only planet in the whole Universe that sustains life. Perhaps we are alone in this galaxy (which I also doubt, though we may be the only intelligent life) but there are at least 100 billion galaxies out there, and I would bet my entire life’s savings and more that we are not alone.

    One of the things I am hopeful of happening in my lifetime is the development of the ability to image surfaces and “sniff” the atmospheres of rocky extra-solar planets. We’re still a decade or two off, but it will happen eventually, and it will be fascinating to see what’s out there.

    However, none of this stops me from wanting to see the home team survive the inevitable demise of our planet. If we manage to survive our petty squabbles and tribulations, our destiny–eventually–lies out there, in the stars.

  10. 10
    Joseph says:

    Austinite:
    Regarding life in the Universe, no matter how privilaged our planet may have been, I find it the greater stretch to believe that ours is the only planet in the whole Universe that sustains life.

    I would say especially in a design and/ or creation scenario- IOW in either of those scenarios I would expect more inhabited and habitable planets- that is more than just Earth.

    ———————————————————

    JMCD:
    The fact is no one has been able to live without food or water in controlled, observable conditions.

    Perhaps that is part of the problem. IOW it could take an uncontrolled situation to trigger the necessary chemical responses that allow for unusual survival scenarios.
    ———————————————————

  11. 11
    crandaddy says:

    jmcd,

    I am not syaing that these things cannot happen or have never happenned, but there is every reason to believe that they do not happen and no verifiable proof that they can.

    There may be sufficient reason to believe they do not happen, but to say that there is every reason goes a bit too far, methinks. Perhaps you should take a step back and consider all the things that you, yourself, accept as a matter of faith.

  12. 12
    DaveScot says:

    austinite

    You may find this of interest. I did.

    http://www.sciam.com/article.c.....414B7F0101

  13. 13
    jmcd says:

    Crandaddy

    People die when they are starved or dehydrated for very plain reasons. It regretably happenns all the time. In every verifiable case we are aware of where people have gone too long without food or water they have died from causes that are as far as we know inescapable. I do not see where faith comes in when I say people will eventually starve. In fact there is a mountainous burden of proof placed on anyone that would say otherwise, because such a notion goes against the sum total of human experience. Its like saying when I let go of this pen it will fall to the ceiling. I do not have to have faith to say that it will instead fall to the floor.

  14. 14
    Ekstasis says:

    Theresa Neumann was studied in a medically scientific manner in 1927 and, without consuming practically any food or beverage, did not lose weight.

    Scroll down to the section on Inedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Therese_Neumann

    The problem, as Joseph alludes to above, is that these situations are not normally conducive to studies. In addition to the reason Joseph gave, is that, while frauds love attention and spectacle, the genuine example could care less what others think of them, and are too busy with important things to agree to the rigors of restrictive testing. They have nothing to prove.

    I guess that, at the end of the day, no amount of historical evidence, eye witnesses, etc will ever be enough for the Materialist. Yep, all the smoke through the corridors of time, and there never was any flame.

  15. 15
    Douglas says:

    “Perhaps there is nothing to explain but exageration and fraud. The fact is no one has been able to live without food or water in controlled, observable conditions. ”

    Moses, and Jesus, went 40 days and nights without food. Not “controlled” or “observable” conditions, but I trust the Documenter. (“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”)

  16. 16
    Larry Fafarman says:

    eamon said ( Nov 9th 2006 at 3:44 pm ) in comment #6

    And so I think overlaying a forced evolutionary interpretation onto existing taxonomic divisions, or worse, trying to make new taxanomic divisions based on phylogenetic trees from RNA sequences has done nothing productive for biology at all! Instead these forced interpretations have made a big confusing mess out of an already complicated problem.

    I agree! This is discussed on my blog at —
    http://im-from-missouri.blogsp.....ff-of.html

    This promotion of evolution theory as a grand overarching unifying principle of biology is an asinine prestige war that biologists are waging against scientific and technological fields that don’t have such a principle.

    On another subject —
    The opening post, quoting Dave Miller, says,

    chemists don’t have debates over whether atoms with 6 protons ought to be called “Carbon” simply because some of them have 6 neutrons, others 7 and yet others 8. The fact that they all have 6 protons makes it “Carbon.”

    Actually, that is not entirely true. Some isotopes have names, e.g., deuterium and tritium, which are isotopes of hydrogen (and hydrogen with no neutrons is formally called protium ). Some important isotopes are known by their atomic weights, e.g., carbon-14, uranium-235, and uranium-238. Also, some elements have allotropes, e.g., there are red, white and black phosphorous, and diamond and graphite are allotropes of carbon. However, Miller’s statement that these classifications are static is true.

  17. 17
    mathemos says:

    Dave Miller writes:
    It dawned on me that chemistry, physics, geology, etc are all fields that study objects that are static by their very nature. There is no principle in chemistry that causes the laws of gravity to change over time in an effort to find some ideal level of gravitation. Gravity is what it is: we are merely tasked with describing it.

    In every day chemistry and physics this is so. But one of our best physicists, John Archibald Wheeler, considered the possibility that physical “constants” are not really fixed in time. He also asked the question how something, that is the universe, could arise from nothing.

    James Drake

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