Why Can't We All Agree? By Michael Was


“Frankly, your book doesn’t look like a good read. I’ve thumbed into it, and all I see is chemistry and biology and psychology and politics. You expect me to enjoy that at the beach?” Okay, I understand, you want a book to be useful. So here’s why you may find this one relevant: All of us are products of biochemistry. For at least 3.5 billion years, life has evolved from primitive organisms into the complexity we humans experience. Yet the simple secret to how life works can be found in its four key atomic elements—each of which functions in its own unique way to perform biochemical activities. The four different capabilities of these essential atoms have been conserved and reapplied at each evolutionary stage life has built. 

The reason it should matter to us is that the ways these atoms work affects everything we do. The pattern of how they function sets an order to our thinking and speech and relationships and roles at work and even characteristics of our politics. We will see that human activities are constantly organized around the ongoing interaction of these same four traits. Life’s four-way system encompasses opposition that causes emotional distress and discord and clashes of values and political rancor. In fact, there are four ways to everything—which is why we find it so hard to agree on anything. However, when we grasp the systematic way that life actually works, then we can learn to work with it, instead of against it.

“Yeah, right. So YOU have insight into how life works.” Well, yes! Admittedly, this is the one big idea of my life. But all I’m doing is noticing how chemical processes make stuff, which in turn make even bigger stuff by applying these four types of functional capabilities at any level you look. Yet life’s four-way system is easy to understand. Once you see it, you’ll see it everywhere. It will be a bit like when you know the Earth is round, you can’t go back to believing it’s flat.

“Ha! I’ll probably see you’re not working with a full deck!” You may think me nuts for studying life’s organization—even though I have not been a scientist. My career was architecture, urban planning, and home building. Yet as an architect, I was trained to design structures around a good arrangement of activities. A kitchen near a dining room. A bathroom near a bedroom. That’s just being mindful of how one function complements another for things to operate smoothly.

As I worked in corporations and with community groups, I saw that the organization of human skills into departments or like minded committees made it easier for teams of people to get things done. This is not rocket science. Surely, you recognize that people have varied skills. So you would want a stable, reliable professional to manage an accounting department, and not some freewheeling innovator who’s inclined to pioneer without concern for rules or conventions. I noticed that such varied skills led to inter-departmental skirmishes, in which outside-the- envelope creators struggled against follow-the-rules administrators— and vice versa—although both pushed for the company’s steady progress. Moreover, I saw another kind of friction at work when self-reliant, analytical managers challenged their more relational counterparts who excelled at unifying people into teams. When I saw such dichotomies of skills playing out in families, companies, and governments, I realized that balanced opposition is inherent in the dynamic way life works.

I began studying how varied human temperaments matched different work skills and different ways of thinking. That prompted me to team up with a psychology professor to coauthor the book Finding Your Strong Suit, which demonstrated how a person’s personality is largely attributable to the kind of cognitive processes he or she naturally prefers to use. In that book we showed how the interplay of four different styles of thinking influences the degree to which relationships are either supportive or oppositional. We found that a person’s word usage relates to the cognitive processes he or she favors, so language also fits a four-way pattern. Indeed, the words a person tends to use are the primary means by which one broadcasts one’s own personal style to find likeminded ‘friends’ or to identify ‘foes.’ And we noted that dissimilarities in people’s innate styles of thinking cause predictable kinds of disagreements in families, at work, or in any community—small or large.

Clearly our politics display such division: right-wing Republicans oppose left-wing Democrats. The ‘right’ includes cool, calculating hawks as well as stalwart, tradition-minded conservatives. The ‘left’ encompasses both populist, heart-centered doves as well as liberal, open-minded progressives. By such categorization we notice how hawks oppose doves, and conservatives oppose progressives. But this is not just an American phenomenon. Political opposition pervades all nations where people are allowed to voice their own views and vote accordingly.

Yet in democratic societies, none of the varied political ideologies is able to achieve hegemony, or longstanding dominance. In America, most national elections end in near 50-50 splits between Republicans and Democrats, with the decisive factor being which party sufficiently motivates its base to go vote. Such motivation often depends on a candidate’s style of thinking. For example, a populist dove might support a thrifty conservative who wants to trim military spending. Or a decisive and inspiring progressive candidate might gain votes from the more independent hawks. It’s easy to understand how that works if we think beyond simple left-vs-right categorization or male-vs-female differentiation and, instead, recognize four basic political camps.

Quadrant Theory










Why four? Well, the quick answer is: two sets of opposing pairs are all that are needed for balancing life’s interests in achieving careful, steady growth. Hopefully, by the end of this book you will appreciate life’s basic organizing principle: two sets of mutually-opposing pairs of functions—or four functions in all—enable life to accomplish its work at every stage of activity:

- Four atomic elements (H, C, N, O) are the sole chemical ingredients of DNA’s nucleobases.

- Four chemical compounds—the nucleobases A, C, G, T—perform DNA’s genetic coding work.

- Four categories of biochemicals regulate various kinds of cellular and bodily functions.

- Four diverse types of cognitive processes cause us to think and emote in clearly different ways.

- Four organizational divisions of human talents enable companies to work for steady progress.

- Four types of political ideologies promote balanced consideration of varied options.

“Oh c’mon, I don’t want to study biochemistry to learn how some four-way system may affect human temperament or politics. Or how I deal with people at work. Or cope with family differences. Damn.” Hey, neither do I. If I’d wanted to do biochemistry, I would not have become an architect. But if I explain chemical attributes as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4, and show how even the four basic elements function and behave somewhat like people you know at work, might you stick with this?

“Look, you may have noticed an interesting factual coincidence that four elements form four compounds, which codify the functioning for all life. But your other categories are just your view of how people think or how organizations divvy up work. Seriously, it’s way more complex than that!” Yes, it does get complex. It’s difficult to fully grasp how the interaction of just four atomic elements evolved—over the course of billions of years— from microscopic, self-replicating molecules into the elaborate and intricately interwoven profusion of life that we witness each moment. Yet consider how much sense it makes that functional capabilities evident at the smallest level are conserved and reapplied to develop similar functional processes at the next level up, and so on, and so on—until even we humans now build systems that attempt to replicate the ways we operate.

I realize that any new idea seems crazy at first. But I am simply attempting to ground the theory of evolution with some key insights about biochemistry. That is, Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of the Species theorized how living creatures evolve. What I hope to show is the systematic way that biochemistry is self-organized to foster evolution. The more you reflect on this notion, the more you will recognize the simple beauty in how it appears to work.

But for the time being, let’s return to politics. The reason for doing so is that you already know about political processes. So in the next chapter, when we start investigating chemical processes at life’s most basic level, you will be familiar enough with opposing tendencies to spot similarities.Consider now: What is the essence of politics? You’ve probably noticed how our elected representatives gather with likeminded people in order to amass enough power to convince others to follow their group’s political ideas. It has been going on that way for centuries. We can easily see that the oppositional thinking of contradictory political views is evident throughout our nation, states, counties, cities—virtually everywhere people freely communicate. And for America as a whole, the opposing viewpoints are almost equally populated. While we believe that the other party is a bunch of idiots, those in that party are thinking the same about us.

Of course, no party is really idiotic. It only seems that way from our own standpoint. A populist dove may feel that hawks are brutish for their willingness to exert military force. On the other hand, a hawk might think doves are foolish for believing diplomacy can peacefully resolve all problems. How would we negotiate such standoffs if all Republicans were hawkish and all Democrats were dovish? The fact is that in the Republican Party, hawks are diluted by conservatives who generally prefer to save money, maintain a safe and steady course, and preserve family- oriented values that have been established over time. In the Democratic Party the doves are moderated by open-minded progressives who are more willing to take risks in making constructive change. If, as I hope to show, all four camps of hawks, conservatives, doves, and progressives each have a natural base of roughly 25% of the population, then it is easy to see how 50% of our representatives could easily lend votes to one of the opposing camps or the other to squelch either the too hawkish or the too dovish. In such negotiations, an optimum choice usually depends on conditions at the moment.

In such deliberations, the contest for advantage involves negotiating mutual support. Votes represent a commitment of agreement, often assuming a return of the favor. In a sense, we lend our energy to a cause, group or person based on how such a bond will aid our own self- interests, or our own chances for success. Also, the potential for success of any individual or group is affected by its ability to network—to establish bonds of connection with others. To understand this doesn’t require a degree in nuclear physics, yet we are talking about essentially the same fundamental processes. Atoms of one element bond with other atoms by sharing electrons—akin to accumulating votes of support. And by means of that energy exchange, the atoms form into molecules of new compounds, which offer a higher order of functional usefulness than did the individual atoms alone.

Now what is fascinating is that just four atomic elements are most prevalent in organizing the biochemistry of life. And there appears to be a method to the way that each of those four elements offers different functional capabilities as they interact with each other. Moreover, this method bears a marked resemblance to the balanced interactions of conservatives versus progressives, and doves versus hawks. That is, at the simplest chemical level, each of these four fundamental elements offers life its own distinct toolkit of functional traits. These attributes stem from the unique kind of biochemical work that each atomic element is able to perform. This systematic method, involving virtually the same four basic types of functional traits, is evident at all stages of life— from miniscule, primitive bio-compounds to the most complex dealings of human organizations.

We will see that at each level of life’s operations, these four functional roles are involved:

Earth: Cerebral  Deciders 

Thinking – Upper Left Brain A Stabilizing capability conserves and safely maintains the advances that life develops at increasingly more complex stages. Such preserving traits make use of sequential operations, such as in combining long chains of molecular compounds, or the sequenced coding of DNA, or performing regular daily processes, or stringing together letters and words to form language, or regulating a system, or setting up laws, or even listing a series of procedural steps required by bureaucrats.

Air: Cerebral  Dreamers 

IntuitionUpper Right Brain - An Adapting capability makes constructive use of chemical transformation, molecular changes, metabolic processes, species development, new operations, and ideas that alter the status quo, thus enabling life to evolve. These change-making processes include random rule-breaking, such as a mutation that is spun off without regard to its appropriateness or usefulness—prompting life to either make use of the aberrant breakthrough or scrap it as having little practical value.

[Hopefully it is apparent that both the Stabilizing trait and the Adapting trait play off against each other in a dance of balanced opposition—quite like conservatives and progressives in politics.]

Water: Limbic  Developers

Feeling – Lower Right Brain  - A Bonding capability connects elements, compounds, organisms, colonies, and common interests throughout life’s operations. This synthesizing, unifying trait includes combining, joining, coming together for romance, sexual attraction, family relations, and grouping with each other for mutual sustenance. The modus operandi is joining forces for peaceful cooperative benefit and coexistence.

 Fire: Limbic Doers 

Sensing Lower Left Brain - A Separating capability breaks down compounds and reduces complexities to singularities. It is evident in the biochemistry that performs simple binary choices, such as molecular switches that are either on or off. It enables decisions to be made by analyzing—that is, by eliminating options. This trait makes possible individuals acting alone, self-interests, goal formation, and strategies
for achieving self-advantage.

[Again, the Bonding trait and the Separating trait are contrasting functions—much like doves and hawks working against each other to attain a balance of power.]

Obviously, you will need proof that the essential chemistry of life makes use of all four of these types of functional capabilities. And even if we can agree that such a systematic opposition of traits does occur throughout life, you will want to know what’s in it for you. Because right now, you still may not see how this could be relevant to a better understanding of politics or work disputes or family conflicts or arguments with your spouse.

“Yes, and who is to say that your generalizations are correct? How is it possible to reduce life to just four categories of operations, when any person with a brain knows that life is unimaginably complex. And even if your generalizations are valid, how could this awareness be applied in daily life? Oh, and one more thing. This concept is so cold. You’ve stripped all the lively humanity out of life, like all it is is chemistry!? Where’s the joy in that? I think you should stop writing right now and go out and get a life!”

Wow, and this is just me arguing with myself that this project could be a futile effort. Yet such internal disagreement is another example of how a balancing of opposing forces occurs around and also within all of us—both men and women. We can imagine conflicts between varied viewpoints, since all four functions serve different purposes within our own minds. In daily life our minds make use of all four types of cognitive processes, which appear to be somewhat concentrated in different regions of our brains. So, one of the many uses for learning about life’s four-way system is self-awareness. If you grasp how conflicting functional traits shape everything you believe, experience, think, and do, then perhaps the understanding may reduce some of the stress of being yourself.

By the book’s end, I’m sure that you will have an appreciation of life’s four-way system. So we will start at the simplest, most basic level of the chemistry that initiates all life on earth. As we move up from one stage to the next, you’ll see how the four functional roles are replicated in ever more complex aspects of life’s evolutionary development. You won’t need to know much about biochemistry to grasp how these four traits work at every stage of life. So feel free to scan
through any of the scientific detail that seems boring. Or just read the recaps at the ends of the chapters until you reach the point in the book where this notion becomes applicable to your own life and interests. Eventually, as we ramp up to human thought, human organizations, and human politics, perhaps this theory will seem less nutty and more relevant to you.

Note: There are chapter recaps at the ends of each chapter. So, in case you are confused by the scientific detail, just skip to those chapter summaries.

Also, chapter 9 summarizes life’s four-way organization. Once you have a grasp of the overall concept, you may be prepared to read full chapters. 

Life’s ‘Big Four’ Atomic Elements

If she were still alive, my high school chemistry teacher—Mrs. K— would, no doubt, be proud that I still remember knowledge she taught us so many decades ago. Beyond the fun we kids had while watching some chemistry experiments explode and others stink us out of the classroom, I recall learning how all matter in the universe is made from about a hundred basic atomic elements. Using a long stick to point to individual squares on the big Periodic Table on the wall above her head, Mrs. K explained how all elements have fundamentally the same atomic structure: tiny electrons (that have a negative electric charge) orbit around a much larger nucleus (that contains positively charged protons as well as neutrons). The only thing making one element different from another is the numbers of those particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. The ‘atomic umber’ for each element is the number of protons in an atom’s nucleus. The simplest element in the universe—Hydrogen, with the atomic number 1—has just one proton. Other elements that are vital to life on Earth are: Carbon with 6 protons, Nitrogen 7 protons, and Oxygen 8 protons. And to round out this concept of atomic structure, the number of orbiting, negatively charged electrons usually matches the number of protons in the central nucleus. So, for example, Carbon has 6 negatively charged electrons orbiting around its nucleus that includes 6 positively charged protons and 6 neutrons.

Mrs. K taught us this core knowledge of chemistry in her first one hour class. I summarized it here in a paragraph that took you only about a minute to read—because you vaguely remember these same basics from your own chemistry lessons. Now the good news is that this is nearly all you will need to know for recognizing the functional traits of life’s ‘Big Four’ elements: Hydrogen (H), Carbon (C), Nitrogen (N), and Oxygen (O). Well, actually, no. We need to discuss just one more concept that is key to understanding how individual atoms join together to build the stuff of life. I’ve already hinted about the way atoms share electrons much like political groups exchange votes. And if you think about it, the bigger any group is, the more votes it has for spreading around.

So it is with atoms. The more particles that occupy the nucleus, the more electrons orbit around that nucleus. As the number of electrons increases, they need more space to orbit further out from the center in spherically shaped zones that are called ‘shells.’ The first, innermost shell can hold 2 electrons. The next shell outward can hold up to 8 more electrons. The third shell, up to 18 more, and so on as circumferences of the shells increase. The layout is simple for small atoms such as Hydrogen with just 1 proton and 1 electron, because the single electron orbits in just one shell that can hold up to 2 electrons. For illustration, think of our Earth as the single proton, with our Moon orbiting like Hydrogen’s single electron. Now to complete the example, imagine that there could potentially be a second moon orbiting us out there if a second Earthlike planet were drawn into our system—in which case we’d have twin planets and twin moons going through space together. Now that would be groovy, eh? Two moons to inspire romance. Two planets to double vacation options.

Ah, but back to atoms. In concept, the bigger the planet (nucleus), the more moons (electrons) it can accommodate. Carbon (with an atomic weight of 6) has 6 electrons, so 2 of its electrons orbit in the inner shell and the other 4 orbit in the second shell—which shell, you should remember, can hold up to 8 electrons. Electrons are electromagnetically attracted to the nucleus, so the inner shells are usually filled up before additional electrons occupy zones further out. And the nearer any electron is to the nucleus, the greater the attractive force will be to strengthen any bonds.

“Okay, this is what I worried about. You said you were going to make this easy, and now you’re going on about numbers of orbiting electrons in different types of atomic elements! Is it really necessary to take everyone back to school?” Hey, you’re already halfway through this main point. This is not hard. It’s just little particles whirling endlessly around bigger ones. You will see that it’s simply the varied numbers of these little particles that determine how everything works. Everything! So relax, have a drink of water, then hang in here just a few more minutes.

What we need to understand is how varied numbers of electrons affect the way that different elements can join forces to make molecules of all sorts of fompounds. ‘Molecules’ are substances containing two or more atoms, which atoms have been attracted together to form a ‘chemical bond.’Such a bond is a lot like an electromagnetic attraction between two magnets. An atom’s ability to combine with other atoms depends on both the number of electrons occupying its outermost ‘valence shell’ and also the number of additional electrons that could be added to that outer shell. Since life’s ‘Big Four’ elements (H, C, N, O) are simple atoms, we need only focus on either: a single valence shell that can hold 2 electrons (as applies to Hydrogen), or a second shell that can hold up to 8 more electrons (as is the case with our other three elements that are larger).

The outer-shell electrons that can participate in forming a chemical bond are called ‘valence electrons.’ The sharing of valence electrons between atoms is called a ‘covalent bond.’ Covalent bonds are relatively strong for they maintain a stable balance of each atom’s positive and negative forces—often allowing each atom to attain the number of electrons needed to fill up their full outer shell in forming such molecules. While there are other kinds of chemical bonding, the most common type involved in forming life’s ‘organic compounds’ is covalent bonding.

Okay, now here comes the key to figuring out why various elements have different functional roles. This next paragraph explains how the ability of any element to interact with other atoms depends on the number of electrons it has. So focus on this principle until you get how it works:

The characteristics of various elements are set by the number of electrons in their outer, valence shell, for it is these outer electrons that enable atoms to bond together—that is, to ‘react’ with other atoms—to form molecules. The most ‘highly reactive’ elements are those with either (a) just one electron in their outer shell, or (b) just one electron missing from having a complete shell. Elements that have two or more electrons missing from their outer shells require more ‘complex
negotiations’ to react with other atoms. Those with totally filled outer shells are, under most conditions, chemically inactive or ‘inert.’

Therefore, the number of electrons in an atom’s outer shell sets the conditions for ways in which atoms interact with each other to do life’s chemical work.

“But why would an atom with just one electron (or just one missing) in its outer shell have an easier time of sharing electrons to bond with other atoms?” Simple. That’s because it has a higher probability of running into another atom with the same ability to either offer or accept just one electron. Think of two farmers attending the county fair. Farmer H needs to buy one cow, while Farmer C needs four cows. Farmer H can most quickly accomplish his purchase, because every cow seller at the fair has at least one cow to offer. Thus, H can easily find a cow he likes and negotiate a deal with just one seller in order to take that single cow home to his farm. But Farmer C will have to work deals with several sellers or, even more difficult, find one seller who can supply all four cows. So Farmer H’s need for one cow is likely to be satisfied long before Farmer C finds the best mix of cow purchases to meet his requirements. H’s deal is fast and easy; C’s deals
are more complex.

“Wait, so you’re saying that the way life works comes down to the numbers of electrons in the outer orbits of these four elements? It can’t be that simple. No way!” Way. Trust me, it is that simple. Because the outermost electrons are the ones that ‘broker deals’ from atom-to-atom to get them to
link up and make stuff, such as molecules, compounds, and more. We will see that differences in numbers of valence electrons—those electrons in the outer shells—cause each of these four elements to have their own unique
capabilities for forming chemical compounds.

That’s basically it. To learn how atoms share electrons to bond together into molecules, you could have read this in a textbook or Wikipedia.3 Yet we already have enough know-how to study traits of our ‘Big Four’ elements—H, C, N, O—to begin discovering their uniquely different roles in orchestrating life’s development. We’ll start with Hydrogen. With just one electron (much like just one moon or just one cow), H is the easiest element for seeing how this applies.

 Hydrogen (H), a gas, is the simplest and most abundant element in the universe. Under most conditions, H has just 1 electron and 1 proton, with no neutron at all. Hydrogen’s simple, single-electron structure is the feature that makes it so suitable for covalent bonding. Recall that the most highly reactive elements are those with either (a) just one electron in their outer shell, or (b) just one electron missing from having a complete shell. H meets both conditions, so it is the unparalleled master at ‘working electron deals’ to form chemical compounds. It readily combines with most other elements, so that on Earth it is typically found in molecular form—as an ingredient in most organic compounds and in water. Indeed, hydro-gen is a Greek phrase meaning ‘water-creator.’

In addition to the relatively strong connective force of atom-to-atom covalent bonding, there is another, weaker kind of intermolecular bonding made possible by Hydrogen’s simple structure. ‘Hydrogen bonding’ is an attraction between molecules of compounds in which Hydrogen has been combined with other elements. However, this attractive force does not actually involve a sharing of electrons as does covalent bonding. The ‘hydrogen bonding’ force operates more like a mutual attraction between the husband of one married couple who is interested in the wife from another married couple. This captivated pair draws both married couples into unusual behaviors that would not happen without this extra-marital attraction. Likewise, in water the ‘hydrogen bonding’ force involves negative-to-positive, electromagnetic attractions between an Oxygen atom in one water molecule with one of the Hydrogen atoms in another water molecule. It’s this intermolecular force that requires significant heat energy to bring liquid water to a boil then transform the liquid into steam. As we soon move on to explore more complex stages of life, we will see that this ‘hydrogen bonding’ trait is also essential for shaping complex organic proteins, including DNA.

So, when you think of Hydrogen, remember its Bonding abilities —both atom-to-atom and molecule-to-molecule—that are fundamental to building the stuff of life Hydrogen is a handy pro at ‘working the room,’ mingling, networking, unifying the team, mixing it up, yet pulling it together in unique ways. Hydrogen’s characteristic skill is in making a multitude of sundry connections that may be useful as the organization progresses. Now, on to the next of our ‘Big Four’ elements.

“Yeah, well how can I focus on that after you got me pondering extra-marital attractions?” Dream on if you wish. After all, bonding is a magnetic pull at whatever stage of life we find it. But we must shift gears here if you want to learn about a force that perpetuates unions.

Carbon (C) is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, and the essential ingredient in all organic compounds. Carbon has 6 electrons orbiting a nucleus of 6 protons and 6 neutrons—for an atomic weight 12 times that of Hydrogen. 2 of Carbon’s electrons fill the inner shell, leaving the other 4 as valence electrons to occupy the second shell. Since that second shell can hold 8 electrons, this framework allows C to share 4 of its electrons with other atoms and also accept 4 electrons shared from other atoms to complete its valence shell. This feature enables C atoms to readily join forces with other C atoms, too. Carbon can accommodate covalent bonding by sharing single electrons with other atoms, as well as 2-electron bonds, called ‘dative covalent bonds.’ Its versatility in sharing its own valence electrons as well as taking on as many as 4 more relatively close to the atom’s nucleus (thus ensuring strong, stable bonding) makes Carbon the ideal chemical workhorse for the assembly and maintenance of an almost infinite variety of stable compounds— far more than any other element. It is not as easy for Carbon to react with other atoms as it is for Hydrogen, but once those 4 electrons have been arranged by Carbon the deal is set with greater permanence.

At normal temperatures on Earth, Carbon exists in a solid state (like graphite), while Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen are gases. Among life’s ‘Big Four’ elements, Carbon is the only one able to ‘catenate’—that is, to sequentially link atoms of the same element into long, chain molecules that exhibit great complexity and strength. When such large ‘macromolecules’ are made of repeated subunits, they are called ‘polymers.’ The biopolymers of life include DNA and proteins, which are vital to the stable, repeated performance of the vast array of tasks that life entails. Indeed, Carbon is unique among the life-forming elements for its sequence-forming, Stabilizing capabilities, which enable the maintenance and continued doing of life’s work in a dependable manner, time after time. We might think of Carbon as the solid, trustworthy administrator of life’s organization, imparting its reliable methods and having the steadfast fortitude to secure the conservation of such methods.

So now, with only elementary insights into the abilities of Hydrogen and Carbon to perform different kinds of chemical work, we have seen half of the four broad classifications of functional traits that life requires—this first half being: Bonding and Stabilizing. The bonding power between Hydrogen and Carbon is stronger than any other combination of elements, and together, they constitute a large family of compounds called ‘hydrocarbons,' made entirely of these two elements. When organic matter decays and, under pressure, is transformed into fossil fuels like petroleum or coal, the resultant hydrocarbons remain stably bonded together for millions of years.

Yet by themselves, these two vital capabilities—Bonding and Stabilizing—are not sufficient to orchestrate the vigorous, evolving nature of life. These first two traits are something like a religious congregation that gathers together to doggedly hold onto a rigid set of beliefs, with no capacity for individuality or adaptation. Or imagine a close-knit tribe that sustains immutable practices offering no way to change. Indeed, if Bonding and Stabilizing were the only traits available, life could never have evolved to produce a close-knit tribe or a religious congregation. Because, once connected, a fundamental combination of Hydrogen and Carbon is resistant to anything breaking its everlasting bonds. Thus, this pair offers no potential for chemical dynamism nor organic growth nor species evolution—hence no life. In order to achieve dynamic life, we need traits of the other two elements.

 Nitrogen (N) with an atomic number of 7, makes up 78% of the Earth’s atmosphere—where it exists primarily as molecules of two Nitrogen atoms bonded together (N2). Nitrogen has 5 valence electrons in its second shell, so when compounding it typically takes on 3 electrons from the other atoms. However, the Nitrogen-to-Nitrogen bond of N2 (as it naturally exists in the air) is very strong, causing Nitrogen to be relatively inert. In other words, at standard temperatures Nitrogen is quite unreactive with other elements. Like anti-social people you may know, Nitrogen floats about so satisfied by being with its own kind that it resists association with other elements. Lightning can break the strong N2 bonds, as can organisms that play an important role in ‘The Nitrogen Cycle’—the complex processes life has developed to transform elemental Nitrogen into useful compounds. But when such compounds do let go of Nitrogen—allowing Nitrogen to revert to its elemental N2 state—they often do so with a bang. That’s because large amounts of energy are released when compounds explode, burn, or decay back to gaseous forms of N and N2. This is why Nitrogen is a key ingredient of many explosives, such as TNT, niter (the explosive part of gunpowder), nitrates, nitroglycerin, etc. In fact, an ‘explosive’ is a substance with extraordinary energy stored in its chemical bonds—which energy is released in the breakdown of that substance.

The ‘breakdown’ (or ‘decomposition’) of a chemical compound is the separation of that compound into simpler compounds or its elements—essentially the opposite of chemical synthesis. By definition, ‘analysis’ is a process of separating something into its constituent elements, often contrasted with ‘synthesis.’ And of
life’s ‘Big Four’ elements, Nitrogen is the one with the strongest structurally-based predisposition for the disintegration of compounds rather than integration—for decomposing rather than composing—for disjoining rather than joining—for reverting to its separate, isolated, elemental form of N or N2.

Now we begin to see the opposition between the properties of Hydrogen and Nitrogen. While Hydrogen is a social butterfly intent on Bonding its single electron with other atoms to synthesize an almost infinite multitude of compounds, Nitrogen is an independent isolationist that prefers Separating from the pack and going it alone. Yet life must, somehow, gain powerful benefits from involving Nitrogen, because it is a component in all plant and animal organisms, chlorophyll, amino acids, proteins, nucleic acids (RNA and DNA), and natural signal molecules. We will investigate that issue in the next chapter. But at this point we simply want to recognize the four-way functional pattern in the interplay of life’s ‘Big Four’ elements. And just as we’ve found that Hydrogen and Carbon specialize in Bonding and Stabilizing roles, we see that Nitrogen offers a Separating power to the functional toolkit. Next we’ll study how Oxygen rounds out life’s bag of tricks.

 Oxygen (O) is the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust and oceans, and makes up almost 21% of our atmosphere—where, like Nitrogen, it typically exists as molecules of two Oxygen atoms bonded together (O2). This large percentage of Oxygen in the air we breathe results from the photosynthesis of plants that produce Oxygen as a by- product. As a part of water (H2O), Oxygen also constitutes most of the mass of living organisms. It is an ingredient of many organic molecules, including carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and nucleic acids. Oxygen has 8 protons and 8 electrons, 6 of which are in the outer valence shell. Since it needs just 2 electrons to fill its outer shell, it is highly reactive and readily forms compounds with most other elements. And Oxygen has the capacity for accepting the transfer of electrons from other elements to become the oxidizing agent in a process known as ‘oxidation’—involving a reciprocal ‘reduction’ of a reducing agent (the electron donor). Common examples of reduction-oxidation (‘redox’) reactions are combustion, respiration, and photosynthesis. Redox reactions create a net molecular change in this process of transformation. Fire is an example of how a reducing agent, such as wood fuel, is altered by combustion in the presence of Oxygen. From common experience we readily understand that Oxygen is Earth’s premier ‘oxidizer,’ since it is both plentiful in our atmosphere and a voracious recipient of electrons.

‘Metabolism’ (derived from the Greek word for ‘change’) is, by definition, a set of chemical transformations within cells of living organisms that allow organisms to grow, reproduce, develop structures, and respond to their environments. These metabolic processes, that are controlled by enzymes, fall into two reciprocal categories: (1) catabolic reactions, which break down substances to yield energy, and (2) anabolic reactions, which use that energy to produce substances the cells need—for instance, proteins, and nucleic acids. Catabolic processes,
such as breaking down food (digestion) to provide energy or simpler compounds required by the organism, involve redox reactions in which Oxygen or an Oxygen-containing compound is the oxidizer.  In a sense this process is a bit like combustion, bt scaled down and controlled by the organism so that the energy production is useful rather than damaging. In anabolic processes, this resultant energy is then used to synthesize complex molecules. Therefore, without Oxygen’s ability to accept electrons and serve as an oxidizing agent, none of life’s complex metabolic processes could exist.

There is one other aspect of the oxidation process that offers insight into the role Oxygen plays in fostering evolution. Our experiences with fire teach us that oxidation can be difficult to manage. There is always the chance that controlled burning may flare into unexpected chaos. Likewise, Oxygen does not always accept consistent numbers of electrons during oxidation, and can instead produce free radicals and peroxides that are highly reactive forms of the element. Such aberrations can be toxic or cause enough cell damage to threaten an organism. In order to moderate such threats, life has established a variety of defense mechanisms at the cellular level, including production of antioxidants that inhibit undesirable reactions. Yet organisms are not always perfectly able to counteract such toxic effects, thus leading to various diseases as well as mutations to cells and DNA. Such issues prompted life to develop adaptive immune systems to counteract predictable threats. So with Oxygen, we see that life accepts, manages, and ultimately makes use of uncertainty. For it is mutations of all sorts that have, by trial and error, consistently yielded changes to life’s status quo. Oxygen’s variability is not the only cause of mutations, but this trait has prompted life to develop many adaptive techniques to cope with Oxygen’s capricious reactivity.

If you contrast Oxygen’s Adapting role with Carbon’s Stabilizing, you can see the subtle tug of war that life employs to allow for necessary change while also maintaining and securing the progress it has made. Oxygen is the company’s inventive creator of new products and the one it goes to for transforming and adapting existing products—to try to stay ahead of the competition. Yet this development process involves risk, since some new products are bound to fail. In fact, the Adaptive capability that Oxygen brings to life is the one function most essential to evolution. Nonetheless, unrestrained change is chaotic and potentially harmful. So the balanced involvement of the other functional roles is necessary to ensure that life’s adaptation proceeds carefully and soundly, in the ‘give and take’ we recognize as prudent, steady progress.