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On life’s little boxes

Ever noticed how life is just things in stuff inside other stuff… It just goes on and on: We have organelles which come together in cells which group into tissues which group into organs which group into organ systems which group into organisms which group into populations which group into ecosystems which group into biomes which group into planetary ecosystems. I find it very curious that we box things like this, is it a truth of nature which we have uncovered or a construct of our pattern seeking minds. I would cede the point that up until organisms it most certainly is the way that life has developed but we also box species and populations together as if they are also some ‘thing’ which we group as a unified whole.

I think I’ll start by criticising the ideal of species first put forward as everyone will remember from their school lessons, Carl Linnaeus created it way back when we were trying to understand nature as “God’s plan” which is to say the bible was considered literally true and species were permanent things created perfect for their place by God. This ideal makes species out to be something like a box which you can put organisms into, they go in one box or another, people still use this system because it’s a useful short-hand for working with them but it’s not so much a box as a series of valleys in the landscape of life and if a trough is quite shallow and close to other troughs then cross-breeding occurs and this is were things like Ligers come from.

But is a population a thing? That is to say does such a thing as a population exist? What is a population exactly? Is 50 elephants a population? What about if they all use the the same lake as a water source? What if 10 elephants use one side and 40 use another? Is that now 2 populations? You see how slippery the definition is. So, is population equatable to the organelle in an organism idea? If not, is there something which is?

I would argue that populations are not equatable, and here’s why: Organs work together to pursue a common goal: the survival and reproduction of the organism which the organs reside in. Few populations (If any) work to the same goal. Under this view, the colonies of ants as a super-organism makes sense while standard populations (Such as the elephant one above) do not. So are there large equatable structures that make sense as far as the organ/organism structure goes? I’ve decided that while I’d like to think further on this point, I’ll leave it to any readers that might drop by to decide for themselves, I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the matter so anyone that does read this, please feel obliged to leave a comment telling me your thoughts (Even if they are just “F1RS7!!1!!!ONE!!”).

Now, back to this whole boxes in boxes issue. Endosymbiotic theory, ever heard of it? It’s AWESOME! The idea being that some ancient prokaryotes (like bacteria, best to look up the differences between prokaryotes and eukaryotes if your unfamiliar) engulfed others but instead of destroying them, it kept them and used the things that it made, so  photosynthesising prokaryotic cell became the chloroplast. I recommend reading up on these because there is some striking things that define organelles which are explained rather wonderfully by endosymbiosis. So we have cells in cells and this makes the cells so different we put them in different domains (Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya are like the groups above plants, animals, fungi et.c. so think ‘more different than a plant is from an animal’ and you’re getting there). Then the next level of complexity is these cells working together in multicellular organisms (Which only happens in the more complex (DO NOT READ ‘BETTER’) eukaryota) but is this the same as organelles and cells?

It’s certainly quite similar, when you get to the cell differentiation of more complex organisms such as animals which aren’t sponges (Which are the mongols of Crash Course Biology) then different cells do different things and this specialisation makes the organism more able to do different things better. Yes this time better can be applied, it’s the old tenet ‘greater than the sum of it’s parts’; the team that gives each member a specific role allows the members to be really good at one thing and do it better than a member which does it all. Just as the golgi apparatus is good at making vesicles and the mitochondrion is good at making ATP (Quick joke: ‘I’ll have some Adenosine Triphosphate please.’ “That’ll be 80p please!”) they don’t have to worry about doing the other things because they help each other out. This is exactly the same as red blood cells being good at transporting oxygen and nerve cells good at carrying information it’s just that instead of them all being inside one giant cell (Which wouldn’t physically be possible) but instead they’re surrounded by a bunch of other cells which are built to be our very uber-‘cell membrane’.

I would argue the same principle is followed up to the level of organism with tissues in organs doing different things such as the medulla and cortex of a kidney functioning to clean the blood. Then you have organs which do different things like facilitate gaseous exchange (Lungs) or digest organic matter (The whole digestive tract). So where do organisms work together to make their super-organism which has specialists which promote the survival of the structure as a whole? In the Hymenoptera (Ants, bees and wasps) and Isoptera (Termites) you have a social contract generated by chemical control, the workers cannot reproduce and are held in place by the ‘Royal’ classes (though I have simplified things a bit, it’s clear that it is vastly more complex than that). It is also useful to note that some of these groups have specialisation of labourers such as Honeybees whose task is determined by their age.

What other groups do this? I would argue that societies and social groups of any kind do further the selectivity of any organisms involved in the same way that the union of cells into multicellular organisms, though it has not had quite the same amount of time to perfect as multicellularity and I would suppose that since the individuals have different genetics it cannot perfect (Which would explain why we see such brilliant altruistic behaviour in Hymenopterans and not so much in other groups) to the same degree.

I suppose the point in what I am trying to say is that the more complex life forms seem to be just combinations of the simpler things. Much like Eukaryotes are just prokaryotes that were hungry but couldn’t finish their meals. One thing I do want to stress is that complex != better and just because something is more complex doesn’t mean it’s any more evolved or any more selective than any other modern species. But ants are the best.

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