I Haven’t Studied Biology in a Classroom Since 1967

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 5, 2019

How old is your knowledge? That question can be taken in two ways. The years since the last time you studied a subject, which for me and biology is 52. Or, the age of the subject itself. For example, Euclidean geometry is two thousand years old. And dating the ages for either isn’t precise. I’m sure when I studied biology in the tenth grade (1966/67) my textbooks were not up-to-date, and far from chronicling the current discoveries in biology. Thus, my simple-minded memories of cell structure might be about two hundred years old.

In the first third of life, we go to school and college to prepare ourselves to be functional adults for our middle third of life, but how much do we need to know for our last third of life? What is a useful education for our retirement years? I certainly could sneak by without knowing any more biology, but should I?

I’m reading The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen for a book club. Reading it makes me feel ashamed of how little I know about biology while blowing my mind with new information. It makes me wonder just how current my knowledge should be in various important subjects, subjects that help me understand my place in reality. Just because I might be leaving this reality soon, doesn’t mean I should fall into oblivion knowing so little.


The Tangled Tree starts out by announcing “recent” discoveries in biology, such as horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and the third domain of life called archaea and how they are disrupting our old image of an evolutionary tree structure, thus the title of his book. Both discoveries occurred after my last biology class. I had heard of archaea since and seen the graph above. I’ve read about prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (plants, animals) but I couldn’t remember those labels. They say to really learn a subject you should be able to teach it, but I could only confuse small children with the vague ideas about biology.

Of course, I’m not totally ignorant of later biological developments. I regular watch PBS Nova and Nature, and over the decades read books like The Double Helix, The Selfish Gene, and a few popular books about the history of evolutionary theory, but they don’t require the same kind of learning that taking a class does. To really know a subject, even at a fundamental level requires knowing the words that describe it. As an adult, I’ve read many books about physics and astronomy, so I know some of their vocabularies, but I know very little of the terminology of biology. Quammen describes many fields within biology that are new to me, like molecular phylogenetics. I’m savvy enough to know what molecules and genetics are, and I could guess that ‘phylo’ concerns their taxonomy, but I’m totally clueless about how scientists could go about classifying these wee bits of proto-life.

Before jumping into the work of Carl Woese, Quammen succinctly describes the history of how the idea of evolution emerged in the 19th-century with various scientists using the tree metaphor to illustrate life emerging out of an orderly process. And he gives passing references to those scientists that developed taxonomy systems to categorize all living things. This lays the groundwork for understanding why Carl Woese wanted to develop a tree model and taxonomy of bacterial life.

1837_notebookb_cul-dar121.-_040Quammen grabbed my interest by describing how 19th-century scientists first started drawing trees to describe their theories. He even describes a page from Darwin’s notebook saying his first tree was rather simple. I was shocked when I saw it though, it was too simple looking, but the basic idea is there. I’ve vaguely remembered seeing this before, but to be honest, I’ve never tried to learn all of this information in a way that I’d memorize and use it. I put my faith in science, in evolution, but I know very little of the actual science. What I know probably compares to what the average Christian knows about this history of Christianity.

This got me to thinking. Should I study biology before I die? I doubt I’ll need it after death since I’m an atheist. So, what should my educational aspirations be in my retirement years? I’d like to pass from this world knowing as much about reality as possible. Why leave in ignorance? Why live in ignorance? There’s no meaning to our existence, but why not try to understand our situation to the fullest extent possible?

linnaeusWe’re a bubble of consciousness that has accidentally formed in reality. That’s pretty far out. Most of the matter in this reality is unconscious stuff like subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, and a smidgeon of biological living things. Reading The Tangle Tree makes me want to do more than reading over the subject and forgetting it again. Like Linnaeus, I want to organize what I should know into categories, into a Tree of Knowledge I Should Know. But I realize I am limited by time and energy – the time I have remaining to live and the dwindling personal energy I have each day.

How would I even go about studying the subjects I deem time worthy? I do have access to free university courses. And there are countless online courses, and I already subscribe to The Great Courses on my Amazon Fire TV. I could pick out some standardized tests for my goals, and thus limit the scope of what I want to learn. Or I could start studying and then try to teach what I learn by writing essays for this blog. That sounds more doable.

Other than the history science fiction, I don’t think there’s a single topic I could teach. I’m not even sure how many other topics I’d like to study — at any level. I do feel a sense of challenge that I should work on biology. At least for a while. Maybe read a few books on the subject this year. Maybe take a Great Course.

That makes me think I could choose a topic each year to study. I can’t promise much, but I think I should try.

Thus I declare:  2019 is the year to learn about biology.



We Can See Far, But Can We See Forever?

Why is there something rather than nothing?  The people who work hardest to answer that question are called physicists.  Physics is the study of the very large and very small.  The study of physics looks in four directions:  expanding out to the large, shrinking in to the small, looking back in time, and looking forward in time.

We can see far, but can we ever see an end to any of these directions?  Does time have a beginning, or end?  What is the largest object in existence, what is the smallest?  During our lifetimes, especially if you are older, how far we see in any of those directions has gotten further and further, and yet we see no sign of an end anywhere or anywhen.  Whenever we detect smaller particles, theorists come out and suggest they might be composed of even smaller particles.  Before 1929 the universe was the size of the Milky Way galaxy, now it’s billions of galaxies, and scientists are speculating about a multiverse – a reality of endless universes, each a bubble in a sea of infinity.  When there was just one universe, many scientists wondered if the Big Bang was the beginning of time, and the final expansion or contraction, the end.  If there are multiverses, time might have no beginning or end.

Scientists currently have instruments to see so far, and no further – telescopes and particle accelerators.  Beyond those limits lies speculation and conjecture.  Long ago, during the time of classical Greece, there were men who speculated that everything was made of atoms, and that the stars were suns.  It took many centuries before we could prove those speculations.  Today we live in a time when we speculate on strings and the multiverse, whether they will be proven to be true will take time and a lot of money.  Building machines that see farther are very expensive.

The question is:  Can we see forever?  Can we know the ultimate truth?  Can we ever answer:  Why is there something rather than nothing?  How can there be a creator if “creation” is infinite?  To tell children that God created everything is like saying the Tooth Fairy left money under the pillow or that a man in a red suit left presents under the tree.

Back in the times we now think of mythic, people were told if they could see into the minds of gods they would go mad.  That human minds would burn out with too much knowledge, too much truth.  Is that why people prefer religion over physics?  Recently Oprah Winfrey challenged swimmer Diana Nyad that a person can’t be in awe of existence and be an atheist.  The trouble is no matter how much awe Winfrey can feel, it’s only the smallest fraction imaginable over what science can teach us.  And what science can show is is tiny compared to the theoretical size of reality.  But from where we can see, science owns awe, and the religious are blind and cannot see.

We can all see far, but we can’t see forever.  The question you must ask yourself, do you want to see further?  If you are happy living in the fantasy of a Santa Claus like answer, that’s fine, but don’t talk about the awe of existence.  Learn some physics and math to understand how far you are looking before you claim too see far.  The best tool for the average person to do this is The Power of Ten, the classic film from 1977.

A more modern and stunningly beautiful web site is Scale of the Universe.


This is just a start.  Watching it once won’t do.  You have to really study it.  Powers of ten is a wonderful concept to understand the size and magnitude of reality.  Powers of tens work both ways.  Humans are at the 1 meter level, or 100.  101 is ten meters, 102 is 100 meters.  Just beyond 107 gets to the level of the whole earth.  But we can also go small with the negative powers of 10.  At beyond 10-9 we’re at the size of an atom.  I’m going to borrow some images from “The Rise and Fall of Supersymmetry” at ScienceBlogs to help illustrate.


To “see” the very small requires what used to be called an atom smasher, but are now called particle accelerators.  The most famous one at the moment is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  It requires tremendous amounts of energy to see small.  Here’s another graph using the powers of ten, but this time using energy, to show how much energy it takes to see small.  You can click on both pictures to get larger versions.


If you haven’t studied much physics this might not make sense, but between these two tables it indicates how far small we can see, and how much energy it will take to see to the edge of what we’ve speculated about.  About the middle of each chart is the edge of the known universe of the small.  We know there’s much further to see, but we don’t have the tools to see further – at the moment.  And when I say “see” we don’t see directly, but detect.

To understand this better I recommend reading The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin.  It’s a rigorous attack on string theory, but it’s also an explanation of how science works, and about the limits of what we can see now via detection, and what we speculate is beyond the edge of the known universe.  Smolin worries that we’re in an era of mostly speculation and not enough actual detection.  And here is where the title of this essay comes into play.

We can see far, and hopefully we can see further, but it will be expensive.  But ultimately, how far can we see?  Is there a limit to science and what it can detect?  The LHC is huge and costs a lot of money.  The LHC was supposed to be a big step up from the Fermilab collider, but if you look at the energy chart, it’s just one magnitude.

The thing is people inhabit a level of perception of around 10-3  to 103.  Astronomers might be concerned with 107 through 1027, but few other people.  Many scientists, including medical researchers are concerned with the range of 10-3 to 10-9, only particle physicists want to explore smaller.  For people who live in the 100 to 103 range, religion is an easy answer, but not a correct one.  If you want to know the whole truth, you have to study the known universe, roughly  10-24 to 1027, and beyond, as we speculate and explore further.  That’s a lot of territory.

Maybe next century we’ll be speculating that reality is 10-100 to 10100 in scope, but at some point, being just humans on Earth, we’ll come to an end of how far we can see.  We might be getting close to that limit now, and just don’t know it, or it might be we’re getting to the limit of what we can afford to see.  Our lives are limited in scope.  Our lives do have a beginning of time and an end.  It’s amazing that humans can see so far, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty, our well known living space is 10-7 to 107 meters in scale.  That’s our environment, which offers an almost unlimited possibilities, which could last for billions of years.  It’s a damn shame we’re using it all up so fast, and trashing everything.  Now that’s something to be in awe of Miss Winfrey.

JWH – 2/24/14

Understanding Reality

Think about cockroaches.  How much do they know about reality?  They have compound eyes that see the world poorly.  They can sense vibration, and they have a sense of touch.  Do they smell and taste the world around them?  I don’t know.  Cockroaches are little biological machines that eat and replicate.  They survive.  Between roaches and humans is an array of animal life with ever improving senses that understand more of reality.  To get some idea how an animal thinks watch “My Life as a Turkey.”  Humans do not have an exclusive hold on consciousness, but our consciousness lets us explore reality far deeper than any other creature we know.

I tend to doubt animals understand their environment in a conscious way.  They react to it, and even develop rudimentary calls that can be language-like that can relate to others of their kind about locations, events or things in their environment.  But I don’t think they ever ask:  who, what, where, when, how and why?  Maybe some higher forms of animals might pine for who, what and where, but I doubt they cognitively ask.

I believe we have a number of cognitive tools that help us analyze, map and understand reality.


Words let us break down reality into parts.  Grammar lets us describe actions with nouns and verbs.  The origin of language let us work with who, what, where and when.


Theology introduces abstractions that attempt to answer how.  Theology was our first tool that lets us ask why are we here.  Unfortunately, theology is all based on imaginary concepts.  Theology distorts reality.  Theology lets us think we see things that aren’t there.  Theology has imprisoned humans for tens of thousands of years in a pseudo-reality.


Philosophy introduced rhetoric and logic and attempts to understand reality through deduction.  Sadly, philosophy was tainted by religion and sought to reconcile reality with ideal forms of the mind.  It took philosophy centuries to throw off trying to make reality shoehorn into a preconceived concept.


We started counting with language and commerce, but mathematics came into its own with philosophy.  At first mathematics was used in philosophical interpretations of abstractions and ideal forms, but eventually we applied it to analyzing reality.  It became our first tool where consensus and validation was important.


Science is a system for testing reality.  Answers only count if they are consistent, reproducible and universal.  Mathematics became the cognitive tool of science.


Technology allowed us to expand our senses.  Telescopes and microscopes see further than our eyes.  Other technology allowed us to look into the reality where our senses can’t perceive.

The first three cognitive tools we developed, language, theology and philosophy often distort reality, or create illusions and fantasies.  Most humans never get beyond those three tools and even though they perceive reality far greater than a cockroach because of their superior senses, language, theology and philosophy often just confuses their minds.  Our brains are so powerful that they let us see what we want to see.  Our minds can override our senses and alter reality.  Theology has always been more powerful than any drug, especially combined with the power of our imagination.

The Limits of the Mind

Math, science and technology have expanded our awareness of reality out to infinity in all directions, including time.  How much of this reality humans can comprehend is yet to be determine.  Most humans on planet Earth cannot get beyond theology which blinds them from seeing true reality.  Most religions have incorporated bits of philosophy to make their religion logical and understandable by rhetoric, but its foundation is based on illusion and quicksand.  In recent years theology has even attempted to incorporate science but its been a pathetic failure.  Those people whose only cognitive tool for understanding reality is theology cannot comprehend how science works, if they did, it would destroy their theology.

There are many other tools for understanding reality, such as art, literature, history, journalism, poetry, drama, etc.  They are all subjective, but they have their pros and cons.

JWH – 3/6/12