26. How biologists and ecologists completely lost the plot

The following pages are designed as an attempt to answer the questions, What do we understand by “Forces”? and how are different forces related to each other? Whereas the term matter implies the possession, by the object to which it is applied, of very definite properties, such as weight and extension; the term force conveys for the most part the idea of something unknown, unsearchable, and hypothetical. An attempt to render the notion of force equally exact with that of matter, and so to denote by it only objects of actual investigation, is one which, with the consequences that flow from it, ought not to be unwelcome to those who desire that their views of nature may be clear and unencumbered by hypotheses.

Forces are causes: accordingly, we may in relation to them make full application of the principle—causa aequat effectum. If the cause c has the effect e, then c = e; if, in its turn, e is the cause of a second effect f, we have e = f … = c. In a chain of causes and effects, a term or a part of a term can never, as plainly appears from the nature of an equation, become equal to nothing. This first property of all causes we call their indestructibility.

If the given cause c has produced an effect e equal to itself, it has in that very act ceased to be: c has become e; if, after the production of c, c still remained in whole or in part, there must be still further effects corresponding to this remaining cause: the total effect of c would thus be > e, which would be contrary to the supposition c = e. Accordingly, since c becomes e, and e becomes f, &c., we must regard these various magnitudes as different forms under which one and the same object makes its appearance. This capability of assuming various forms is the second essential property of all causes. Taking both properties together, we may say, causes are (quantitatively) indestructible and (qualitatively) convertible objects.

Two classes of causes occur in nature, which, so far as experience goes, never pass one into another. The first class consists of such causes as possess the properties of weight and impenetrability; these are kinds of Matter: the other class is made up of causes which are wanting in the properties just mentioned, namely Forces, called also Imponderables, from the negative property that has been indicated. Forces are therefore indestructible, convertible imponderable objects (Mayer, 1841).

Although the etymological fallacy does very often, and without merit, point to the derivations of scientific terms for they change but little, some as used in both biology and physics have indeed diverged so greatly that few biologists or ecologists seem to be aware that biology was responsible for the two greatest scientific triumphs after Newton:

  1. The above statement by Mayer, a German physician, which was the first ever formulation of what gradually became the first law of thermodynamics; and which he based on …
  2. the results of a series of experiments conducted by the French chemist and physicist Antoine Lavoisier.

As Brown et al expressed it in their Toward a Metabolic Theory of Ecology, we continue to be ‘concerned only with basic science, with developing a conceptual framework for ecology based on first principles of biology, physics, and chemistry’; and as Karsai and Kampis similarly expressed it ‘Scientific literacy doesn’t necessarily call for deep understanding of difficult concepts … but it does require a general understanding of basic scientific notions and the nature of scientific inquiry’ (Brown et al, 2004; Karsai & Kampis, 2010).

The issue is that the denotations of words are not always fixed. The divide between the so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences is now so great that biologists have even lost touch with such apparently innocuous words as ‘open’ and ‘closed’ … never mind more apparently technical ones such as ‘mass’ and ‘inertia’. Establishing their reference is a part of model building. The models built by the physical sciences are invariably so successful that, as we saw with volume, the very technical and very precise linguistic references first established, and that are in large measure responsible for those successes invariably get forgotten:

Thermodynamics is a subject of great generality, applicable to systems of elaborate structure with all manner of complex mechanrcal, electrical, and thermal properties. We wish to focus our chief attention on the thermal properties. Therefore it is convenient to idealize and simplify the mechanical and electrical properties of the systems that we shall study initially (Callen, 1985, p. 9).

The idealizations responsible for the great successes achieved by thermodynamics are instituted with such great care and precision that defining the words and terms to be used can occupy a couple of chapters in any thermodynamics text … something that tends to get forgotten (Callen, 1985, Atkins 1984, Atkins 1990, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2002). There is also great variability. Even the meaning and intent of apparently innocuous words such ‘open’ and ‘closed’, never mind ‘mass’ and ‘inertia’, can depend entirely upon the model: upon the specific model’s purposes, its context, the topic being investigated and, not least, why it is being investigated:

the study of natural systems begins and ends with the specification of the observables describing such a system, and a characterization of the manner in which these observables are linked. Purely theoretical issues may be pursued in the process of investigating a system, but ultimately contact with reality occurs through observables. … the concept of the model of a natural system N is a generalization of the concept of a subsystem of N, and … the essential feature of the modeling relation is the exploration of the idea that there is a set of circumstances under which the model describes the original system to a prescribed degree of accuracy. In other words, a particular facet of system behaviour remains invariant under the replacement of the original system by a proper subsystem.

… the point of making models is to be able to bring a measure of order to our experiences and observations, as well as to make specific predictions about certain aspects of the world we experience. The central question surrounding the issue of model credibility is to ask to what extent “good” predictions can be made if the best the model can do is capture a subsystem of N. The answer is wrapped up in the way in which the natural system N is characterized by observables, the procedure by which observables are selected to form the subsystem, and the manner in which the subsystem is encoded into a formal mathematical system F which represents, or “models” the phenomenon of concern. …

… in some parts of the natural sciences (e.g. classical physics), there are natural and useful conventions that have been established for … observables; in other areas like the social and behavioral sciences, there is no clear-cut procedure or body of past evidence upon which to base such a classification of observables. Consequently, one ends up with many distinct, often contradictory, theories depending the choice that’s made. For instance, is unemployment caused by inflation, or is it the other way round, or neither? No one really seems to know. Yet far-reaching economic and social policy is made on the basis of one assumption or the other. [italics in original] (Casti, 1992, pp 2–9).

A first important point is that every system of this kind is closed by counting. As we saw when establishing the reference intended by volume—which is directly linked to moles and to amount of substance—counting does not have a dimension (Callen, 1985). The given system’s objects may be either microscopic or macroscopic. They just need to be countable. They do not even have to have mass … which is not at all the same as not having inertia.

Whether or not a given object within any given system does or does not have mass, or is or is not ‘mass-like’ is not an absolute. It is determined entirely by the investigation. And although each system must have a boundary, that boundary can be arbitrarily specified, and entirely according to the chosen observables. Open and closed and the existence and behaviour of mass thus depend upon the given system’s parameters.

It is a deep error of principle to airily approach a system believing that we already know what mass and inertia should be within that system. It is up to the system creator to tell us. William James, for example, established psychology as a science by indicating what, in his view, were the objects that had mass and inertia. He then proceeded to indicate the specific objects and forces that made that possible. Of course, giving numerical measures for that particular form of inertia is highly problematic, and it is therefore hard to allocate any values for “psychological” mass. But as James was at great pains to point out, the inertia is still in principle observable:

When I said, a while back, that consciousness (or the neural process that goes with it) is in its very nature impulsive, I should have added the proviso that it must be sufficiently intense. Now there are remarkable differences in the power of different sorts of consciousness to excite movement. … The neural inertia may wax or wane, and the habitual inhibitions dwindle or augment [italics in original] (James, 1902, p. 435).

Contrary to what many biologists and ecologists seem to believe, mass and inertia are not absolutes. However, they are also not arbitrary. They are always relative to the specific model being constructed. So, to take a biological example, if the object of study is the mating behaviour of migratory birds, then no other boundary needs to be specified. Wherever the birds go, there the system—and its boundaries—also go. This system remains closed to further birds until specific and given birds are either included or excluded … at which point the system’s boundary is crossed.

A further specification is, however, necessary for these migratory birds. If the system has been established to study the reproductive behaviour of those birds, then whether or not the resulting chicks have or have not ‘crossed the boundary’ entirely depends upon the exact question being asked. There is no absolute answer … and it is through the answer that the system’s mass and inertia are determined. Both possibilities are acceptable, namely: regarding any chicks born as (a) boundary-crossers; and (b) non-boundary-crossers. The definitions of inertia, and therefore ‘mass’ will clearly differ in these two situations … but both are entirely acceptable. Until that decision has been made, whether or not those chicks “have” mass is not specified, and nor is what form their inertia might take. First, we need to know the boundary and then, following that, we need to know what can cross it, and how.

In the same way, James gave a perfectly acceptable definition for inertia which helped turn psychology into a science … but specifying a mass for human consciousness and its thoughts and intentions was, and remains, somewhat more problematic. And if the objects of study are cows in a field, then the field’s boundary could well indeed—but need not necessarily—establish the system’s limits. It entirely depends upon what the investigator wants to know, and how any variables are defined and related.

Etymological difficulties with open and closed arise because most systems studied in the physical sciences are ultimately molecularly reckoned. This gives them an ‘absolute’ appearance. But thermodynamic systems are nevertheless closed by counting. However, since molecules are in principle uncountable, then chemists and physicists have the well-established—and now unspoken—convention of using the Avogadro constant, NA, to do their numerical closing for them. Unfortunately, this unspoken convention is all too soon forgotten.

In addition to the above, there is a significant and important difference between ‘closure’ and ‘restraining’.

  1. Closure is easily achieved, in a physical molecular model, because every atom has a unique mass determined by its position in the periodic table of elements. The system’s mass is then an index into the numbers of atoms present within whatever boundaries have been selected to effect the closure.
  2. Since high-speed molecules are impossible to restrain, especially when gaseous, then the system’s walls—which are also already doing the closing—are being relied upon to additionally do the restraining.

The effects of the restraint in (2) are then measured through pressure. However … it is not the container in itself that does the closing … although it is the container that does the restraining. Closure is rather attained through counting, with the walls helping to keep the molecular count steady, and measuring pressure into the bargain.

The difference between closure and restraint is important to grasp because thermodynamicists had realized that even when systems are both closed and restrained, their molecular components can still take them through a set of interactions that allow them to send effects across their boundaries and so out into the environment. Systems could do this in two very important ways: work and heat. Work depended on the mechanical mode of movement available to molecules; with heat resulting from any and all transfers. The importance of work and heat, as interactions, is then to stipulate that no matter how it is done, the environment must impose some constraint such that there is a maximum value to the system’s numbers, and therefore to its size, so it can be measured in a variety of states through work and heat, which are the inevitable accompaniments of molecules. In most such cases the container’s walls therefore fulfill the double function of both (a) counting; and (b) imposing the restraint. The two are, however, conceptually distinct and can be separately instituted, entirely depending upon the system.

As a second and associated example of the almost complete divergence in terms that has taken place, Boyle’s initial investigations into the workings of his pump embraced physics, chemistry, and not least biology. He made his discoveries concerning PV T and the “spring” in the air using larks, butterflies, bees and mice. Physicists became disinterested in the animalia and greatly developed the PV = T he discovered in his biological investigations. The link with biological investigations fell completely by the way side. The terms ‘pressure’ and ‘volume’—which Boyle discovered greatly affected respiration—have moved so firmly over to the physical sciences, and so seemingly so far away from the biological ones, that biologists lost complete interest and did not follow. By what is surely an omission, they have equally surely facilitated the sense of a divide in what is meant by those terms. As a result, biologists are even now prone to trying to equate volumes with areas and inertia with the vacuum when these are wholly incompatible … and they also completely misinterpret temperature and other such terms discovered by means of PV T.

Although Mayer’s insights, like Boyle’s, were originally garnered in biology they, too, are now regarded as so firmly a part of physics that many biologists fail not just to understand them, but even to see why they should. Yet Mayer’s insight is fundamental to science. More than that, it is what the whole edifice of science is now built on.

As Mayer realized: the issues of what should be counted in a biological system; of what closes it; of how it manifests its inertia-like properties; these matters are not “closed”, but are “open” for debate entirely according to the nature of the enquiry. His Remarks on the Forces of Inorganic Nature, 1841, did indeed open up a significant and continuing debate.

In 1790 Lavoisier—who had followed up on Black’s earlier insights into respiration—published his discoveries saying:

Respiration is thus a very slow combustion phenomenon, very similar to that of coal; it is conducted inside the lungs, not giving off light, since the fire matter is absorbed by the humidity of the organs and of the lungs. Heat developed by this combustion goes into the blood vessels which pass through the lungs and which subsequently flow into the entire animal body. Thus, air that we breathe is used to conserve our bodies in two fashions: it removes from the blood fixed air, which can be very harmful when abundant; and heat which enters our lungs from this phenomenon replaces that heat lost in the atmosphere and from surrounding bodies.

… animal heat conservation is thus largely attributable to heat produced by the combination of humid air inspired by the animals and dry air in the blood vessels (Wolinsky, 1998).

Lavoisier had proved that respiration combined organic materials with inhaled oxygen to release heat to the body. Venous blood was darker because it carried the “ashes” of this combustion. Since the heat generated by burning in oxygen in the air was exactly the same as the heat generated by oxygen in all oxygen’s other chemical pathways, then the processes inside and outside biological organisms must also be the same.

Mayer developed Lavoisier’s pronouncement and single-handedly created the energy concept (Fowler, 2008). In 1840 he volunteered to be a ship’s doctor on a tour to the Dutch East Indies. He observed that the blood of some of his patients was far lighter—a bright red—than when they were back in Germany. It was so bright that it was almost the same colour as arterial blood. He initially thought that he had missed a vein and struck an artery. He concluded that bodily processes in the two locations differed because the external temperatures differed.

Mayer then reasoned that if, as Lavoisier had determined, bodily and non-bodily chemical processes were the same, then the heat those processes generated must also be the same … and there must therefore be a mechanical equivalence between the heat generated in the chemical activities biological organisms used to acquire energy from digestion, and the doing of the mechanical work they engaged in with that chemical or heat energy derived. Since biological organisms used the energy from chemical reactions to do mechanical work, then they were heat pumps following the laws of heat. This realization was the beginning of thermodynamics.

Mayer’s view—which proved to be entirely correct—was that the distinction he was the first to explain was the very process that biological entities use to maintain themselves. Although he was clear, only the physicsits followed his lead. Biologists did not. As a result, the misconceptions rampant in biology over ‘mass’ and ‘inertia’, never mind ‘pressure’, ‘temperature’, and ‘volume’, have had—and still have—an entirely negative impact upon biology and ecology.