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Nature’s Magic and Its Breathtaking Parsimony

Michael Denton
tree and a man
Photo credit: Gilly Stewart via Unsplash.

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present a series adapted from biologist Michael Denton’s book, Fire-Maker: How Humans Were Designed to Harness Fire and Transform Our Planet, from Discovery Institute Press. Find the whole series here. Dr. Denton’s forthcoming book, The Miracle of the Cell, will be published in September.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the unique system described in the last post in this series, which no researcher to my knowledge has highlighted, is the fact that the same vital fluid which is so essential to the basic physiological functioning of the cells in the leaf and particularly for the process of photosynthesis, is the very same fluid that possesses just the right “Goldilocks” physical properties — tensile strength and surface tension — to raise it from the soil to the leaf. So water not only provides one of the key chemicals in the process of photosynthesis, not only provides the ideal matrix for the physiological functioning of the cells in the leaf, but also amazingly provides through its own intrinsic powers a unique means of raising itself from the roots to the leaves. Just another example of the breathtaking parsimony of nature’s magic — using the same substance or process to achieve completely diverse ends which work together to serve the end of life as it exist on Earth. 

Why Trees Are Possible

Trees are only possible because of an ensemble of elements of fitness in nature — the physical factors that prevent leaves from overheating in the sun, the unique properties of the cellulose lignin composite that confer tensile strength and durability to tree trunks and promotes the formation of soil, and the unique mechanism to raise water to the top of tall trees. Trees only exist because the physical properties of water including its tensile strength and density are exactly as they are, and only because the force of surface tension generated in small tubes  is as strong as it is, and only because the laws of hydraulics are precisely as they are. 

Without this ensemble of fitness in nature, there would be no wood, no fire, no metallurgy, no modern technology. And nature would not be fit for humans to utilize their unique physical adaptations and cognitive powers to understand the world. It is intriguing that the unique fitness in nature for large trees, which might appear at first somewhat esoteric, turns out to be a crucial element of fitness which made possible our exploration and understanding of the world. It is yet another ensemble of fitness supportive of the anthropocentric notion of a world order uniquely fit for our being.

Tomorrow, “How Man Became the Fire-Maker.”