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All organisms interact at a cellular interface with the physical and biological world that surrounds them, from the interaction of food with cells lining the human gut to tropical forests and the open ocean. These are examples of systems biology, which is an approach to understanding the larger picture, be it at the level of the organism, tissue, or cell, by putting its pieces together. It stands in stark contrast to decades of reductionist biology, which involves taking nature apart. 


Systems biology is the study of the interactions of biological components in a spatial entitiy .  The components may be molecules, cells, organisms or populations.  The spatial entities may be habitats, organisms or organs. At the core of systems biology is holistic thinking.  This is the desire to understand natural systems as a functional whole, rather than a sum of parts. Thus, it is not sufficient to simply recognize the different facets of complexity.  Instead, the aim is to discover and examine the generally hidden threads that hold everything together and elucidate how these functional links can lead to the emergence of new phenomena and understandings.


Examples that provoke systems thinking about our relationships to other living things in the human ecological niche are important to support lifelong learning.  Such educational materials are called bioscopes, a category of teaching materials we owe to John Henslow.  Henslow, as professor of botany at Cambridge, was the mentor of Charles Darwin but from 1844 he also taught the children in the Suffollk village of Hitcham where he was the Rector. Bioscopes are living worlds within worlds and the particular educational example of systems biology that Henslow introduced to village schoolchildren was plant-pollinator interactions so that they should obtain a basic understanding of sex.  The phenomenon could be readily observed in the local hedgerows, and in the classroom it was taken down to the level of naming the sexual parts of flowers.  Because of the role birds and bees play in plant reproduction, to tell children about "the birds and the bees" has since become a euphemism for sex education in the English language.  Darwin addressed the wider importance of pollination interactions in the process of natural selection when he wrote in 1859, " . . . I can understand how a flower and a bee might slowly become, either simultaneously or one after the other, modified and adapted in the most perfect manner to each other, by the continued preservation of individuals presenting mutual and slightly favourable deviations of structure".  In this wider context, every assembly of plants and their pollinators is a prime example of mutualisms in which both species benefit as a result of an interaction. Because pollination is a mutualism, many characteristics of the flower and the pollinator have evolved in concert including morphology and seasonality. Plant-pollinator bioscopes highlight many fundamental ecological concepts (e.g., foraging theory, competition), evolutionary concepts (e.g., diversification of lineages, adaptations), and applied biological concepts (e.g., agriculture, climate change).  


Bioscopes can change the mental balance between an individual and nature forever, particularly when they illustrate connections between our culture of mass production and the ecosystem services vital to our survival.   The educational message is that we not only need to be with nature but we have to recognise we are part of nature in everything we do from turning on a tap to taking a holiday.  This deeper understanding is a feature of bioscopes as instances of nature that open windows on our use of the environment and our attitudes towards the maintenance of its habitats and species.  In truth, everyone has their own collection of bioscopes, large and small, in the mind’s eye.  Each has been chosen ‘not for what it is’ but for ‘what else it is’.  The ‘what else’ shifts one’s thinking towards humanity’s bigger picture.  So the small picture of flower and bee yields a complexity of understanding our place in nature.  Simplicity of form is a condensation or distillation to engage people more profoundly.  This is the educational outcome of a good bioscope.  The aim is not to create the appearance of nature but to stimulate thoughts about how we are integral with non-human species which furnish our ecological niche.  This point was made by Marc Trieb** when he chose the Patio de los Naranjos, or the Courtyard of the Oranges, which forms the entrance to Cordoba’s Great Mosque and Cathedral, to illustrate complexity condensed within the simple (fig 1).
Fig 1 Courtyard of the Oranges, Cordoba

The simple alignment of the grid of trees mirrors the alignment of the hundreds of stone columns inside the mosque, creating an ingenious spatial relationship between the two. Lines of stones in the pebble mosaic pavement also accentuate the grid pattern of the whole complex of narrow water channels. Trieb believes that the irrigation system is the most elegant ever conceived in the way it uses water as a way to connect interior and exterior courtyard spaces. He reasons that such places are so enduringly beautiful because they speak literally of the root of their inspiration. Irrigation allowed man to settle and raise food, which led to civilization. That gift in turn inspired architectural form and reflected the connection between water as the source of life and the ability of man to build and live in an urban environment.

Potent bioscopes also reinvigorate the connection between beauty and the environment. Kate Cullity** defines this beauty as the all-encompassing somatic and visceral kind, with the power to awaken a re-imagining of new ways to relate to and care for nature of which we are a moving part. All bioscopes have ecological processes of regeneration, competition, death and decay and nutrient recycling plumbed into a managerial background. Finally, the deeper and wider messages from bioscopes is that they undermine the foundations of many of our confectionary values which are grounded in the economy of commodities and unlimited economic growth. All these behaviours link us as consumers with ecosystems near and far. In this context, bioscopes show us that humankind is at one with all non-human species in that we partake of the same pool of Earth’s resources.

In summary, bioscopes reveal that all living things are part of a global human ecological niche in which we of necessity take, but should also give. We are but one species in a multitudinous mass of living organisms built on the same dynamic carbon framework. This biochemical oneness with all other creatures is expressed in every breath we draw in. It is also expressed in our mortality when an individual’s life course ends in death. Evidence that elders take readily to educational bioscopes comes from the membership lists of nature conservation organisations and surveys of visitors to nature sites. The issue is how to embed learning through bioscopes into the entire life course of everyone so that we manage nature for a greater purpose and pass this message on to future generations. The starting point is that ageing makes our mental picture-making become more holistic to increase the focus on development of hidden or neglected skills which, through delight in life, has potential for cultural change.
Bioscopes are based on mindmaps or educational frameworks showing the main concepts and their relationships.  Clothed with information they make stories which illustrate our complex interactions with ecosystems of the vast human ecological niche which provide a range of services from survival kits to pleasing surroundings managed for pleasure.. 
** http://jeffreygardens.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/patio-de-los-naranjos-cordoba-spain.html
Subpages (1): Examples of bioscopes