living arrangements

How does an object become a subject? What warrants the application of labels such as "creature" or "organism"? What qualifications must a thing have to be deemed to be "alive"?

This post looks firstly at The Conventional Wisdom: mainstream, well-accepted and non-controversial perspectives on what constitutes "Life". Then takes One Step Beyond and looks at ideas that extend the conventional wisdom, but not by much. Lastly, a leap into the wild lands --- The No-go Zone --- where things are stranger than we can imagine.

Disclaimer: "You're fired! Sorry, I mean redeployed!"

From the point of view of the mainstream biologist, there are probably a number of technical errors and inaccuracies in this post. So be it. I'm interested in provoking thought and discussion, not in laying down definitive answers.

Some of those technical errors are born out of my stubborn refusal to accept the conventional meaning of words as final and non-negotiable. For example, the words "death" and "dies" imply complete and utter annihilation, with no prospect of parole. I believe, however, that there is no such thing as complete and utter annihilation, but that instead, death marks a transition from one state to another. The difference, in Human Resource (HR) terms, between "redeployment" and "termination", you might say!

The purpose of this article is to show how bridges can be built between mainstream science and spirituality. But in order to talk meaningfully about the concepts of mainstream science, I'm forced into temporarily accepting the mainstream meaning of words.

It's a curious thing, by the way, that reductionist science itself has trouble with the concept of complete and utter annihilation. The various Conservation "Laws", for instance, are all based on the idea that nothing is ever created or destroyed, but rather that things change from one form to another. Matter, for instance, is a form of energy, and vice versa. According to the Conservation Laws, neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed, but each can be transformed into the other. [And then there's the Law of the Conservation of Karma, which explains why "good" things happen to "bad" people and "bad" things to "good" people.]

The conventional wisdom

Conventional wisdom has it that the following are alive: animals (including humans), plants, fungi, protists, archaea, bacteria, viruses, viroids and prions (the latter three considered borderline). Is that all? Can nothing else be said to be a living thing?

There is no perfect definition of "Life". Instead, Life is identified in terms of biological processes and characteristics, including but not limited to:

  • reproduction
  • replicable instructions for reproduction
  • development and growth
  • maintenance of physical integrity (eg ensuring the body doesn't leak uncontrollably into the environment or the environment into the body)
  • homeostasis: regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state, and
  • adaptation via natural selection, whereby successive generations become increasingly better adapted to the environment.

A vital criterion to be met before a thing is deemed to be alive is variability in the instruction set (genome) for creating the thing. The genome holds all of the information about an organism's inheritable characteristics. The key mechanism of evolution, natural selection, won't work unless it's possible for random errors or mutations to creep into the genome. Without natural selection, living things would not become increasingly better adapted, over successive generations, to their environment. In fact, they wouldn't become anything at all because without natural selection, they wouldn't exist.


How does the song go? "Bees do it. Birds do it. Something, something, something". What they do is produce offspring in various ways, including but not limited to sexual. Cells and bacteria, for example, reproduce by splitting themselves in two. Another example of asexual reproduction is parthenogenesis in which fertilisation by a male is not required or involved. Parthenogenesis is practised within a number of plant and animal species.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecules contain the instructions for building the organism. Even though the instructions are clear and reliable, offspring are usually not physically identical in every respect to their progenitors. This is because the genome ("nature") is not the only factor at work; the environment in which the organism lives ("nurture") plays an equally important role. It's the interaction between "nature" and "nurture" or more technically genotype and phenotype that shapes the organism.

The phenotype --- the product of the genotype and environmental factors --- comprises the observable characteristics of an organism/species such as shape, biochemical and physiological properties, and behaviour. The genotype is the source of inherited characteristics as stipulated by the instructions in the genome. Inherited characteristics are determined by the genetic blueprint or pattern repeated in each generation.

So much for plants and animals. What about minerals? A crystal is made of molecules arranged in a three-dimensional repeating pattern. The growth of a crystalline structure from a small initial seed constitutes reproduction, or at least is analogous to it.

One step beyond

If bees do it, and birds do it, do universes do it? The answer is a definite maybe. As far as I can think, there's nothing in principle preventing reproduction on the grandest scale of all: that of the Universe itself. One possible incarnation of this startling prospect is raised in physicist Lee Smolin's concept of a "fecund universe" subject to cosmological natural selection.

Universes do it in the dark

Smolin hypothesizes that a collapsing black hole could function as a reproductive mechanism driving the emergence (="birth") of a baby universe from its parent. In Smolin's hypothesis, the baby would inherit some of the parent's characteristics. Parameters such as the speed of light, Planck numbers, and the strength of fundamental forces relative to each other could all, in theory, be inheritable characteristics of a universe.

The hypothesis incorporates a cosmic analogue of the key mechanism of Darwinian evolution: natural selection. A universe with gravity too weak for black holes to form would be "infertile", ie unable to reproduce. "Survival of the fittest" on a grand scale. An infertile universe would fail to "pass on" the species blueprint to the next generation, and would die childless when it reaches a state of maximum disorder. When death arrives, things fall apart, become disordered.

The sun, the father

In "Sun of gOd" (2009) Gregory Sams makes a persuasive case for adopting a hugely expanded perspective on what is or is not alive, suggesting that cosmic personages --- including the sun named "Sol" --- pervade the universe. Sams proposes that "...Sun is a living, conscious being with an intelligence that dwarfs our own. I am not only suggesting that Sun is a large complex system with some form of self-governing intelligence to it, but also that it is a living being, aware of its self and its place in the Universe; that it is fully conscious and communicates with other conscious beings at its own level, and other levels; that its consciousness is so far beyond what we enjoy that it could be accorded deity status of a high order, and be recognised as a conscious being by atheists and agnostics, whatever spin they put on it".

On a smaller scale, the case has been made for regarding Planet Earth as alive. The Gaia principle of James Lovelock proposes that the planet and its various parts form a complex system that is sufficiently integrated to be considered as a single living organism, named by some "Gaia", after the ancient Greek Goddess of the Earth.

"Life, Jim, but not as we know it"

As highlighted by Spock's remark to Captain Kirk in "Star Trek", it's entirely conceivable if not likely that there are forms of life of which we are not only ignorant, but incapable of even imagining. But let's stick with what we are capable of imagining. "Life as we know it" --- organic life --- is based upon the molecule of the element carbon and the compound of hydrogen and oxygen, water. But this is not the only conceivable recipe for cooking up Life. Many of the life-permitting properties of the carbon molecule are found in the molecules of other elements, such as silicone. The silicone-based lifeform has long been a staple of science fiction writers.

Anti Second Law Engine

It is instructive to think of living things as islands of order in an ocean of chaos. Or, more technically, as engines for counteracting the Second Law of Thermodynamics (SLT). The SLT decrees that the entropy, or disorder, of an isolated, self-contained system (such as the universe) increases until it reaches a maximum value.

Sounds complicated but in fact everybody understands the SLT, even non-scientists. Intuitively, we just know that without intervention, things tend to run down. Teenagers' bedrooms, for example. Mechanical clocks stop working if no-one winds them up. Food rots. Orbits become unstable. Piles of autumn leaves are deconstructed by the wind. Living things die.

The whole universe is on a path from order to disorder, with one minor exception: Living things. Throughout the duration of its life, a living thing defies the SLT, works furiously to maintain its components in a state of maximum order. When the organism dies, the order is undone, and the component molecules return to the disorder from whence they came. Dust unto dust.

Life: does it matter?

Can you think of anything in principle or practice preventing the existence of immaterial lifeforms, ie those that are not made of matter? I can't.

A computer virus, for instance, satisfies a number of the criteria for being deemed to be alive. A virus reproduces. Its reproduction is subject to mutation/variability. Its blueprint or pattern is written in computer code (analogous to DNA). A virus is subject to a form of the phenotype/genotype distinction (the code vs the implementation of the code). It is mobile, needs a place to live, can be killed (by antivirus software). It communicates with others of its kind, as long as they speak the same (computer) language and observe the appropriate protocols. It gets sick (=corrupted). It has objectives (written into its code by its creator).

John Conway's Game of Life is another example, potentially, of an immaterial lifeform, if you're willing to be a bit flexible. As with computer viruses, the units or automata in Conway's Life meet a number of the criteria for being deemed to be alive, including experiencing the pressures of under- and over- population, living or dying as the case may be.

Running on wetware

Does the mind "live" in the brain? Or does the brain generate the mind? Or neither? Or both? The answers to these questions are relevant to the question of what constitutes Life. Notwithstanding recent advances in neurology and related disciplines, we still don't know what thought is or where it "lives". But there is a gathering consensus that thought is a dynamic process taking place in the brain and the nervous system.

Information technology provides an analogy: The output of an information technology device such as a computer is produced by the interaction between software and hardware. The software is intangible and immaterial: there's no matter in it. But it does need matter to do its job. Software "runs" on hardware: the process needs a substrate on which to "run".

From Wikipaedia (Thursday 8 April 2010) "substrate" refers to:

  • In materials science: the material on which a process is conducted
  • In biology, the natural environment in which an organism lives, or the surface or medium on which an organism grows or is attached
  • in neuroscience, the set of brain structures that underlies a specific behaviour or psychological state.

Thought is not a set of neurons, linked or otherwise. Nor is thought the underlying "wetware" of the brain --- the grey or white matter comprising the substrate on which thought "runs". Nor is thought a combination of linked neurons plus wetware. Thought is a process, a dynamic pattern, generated by neurons firing in a particular sequence in a particular way for a particular duration at a particular intensity.

What exactly do you meme?

Invented by physicist Richard Dawkins, a meme is a unit of cultural transmission: a word, phrase, idea, joke, song, image, recipe, mathematical formula, etc. Memes live in the minds of human beings, and spread from one human mind to another. The mechanism used by memes to reproduce is the tendency of human beings to communicate with each other. Whenever a human says to another, "Have you heard the one about...", a meme is reproducing itself.

Memes fulfil a number of the criteria to be deemed alive: They reproduce. They are subject to variability --- mistakes and distortions creep in when a human transmits a meme to another. Memes face selection pressures --- some are "catchier" than others, more appealing to a human mind. Memes are mobile, moving from one mind to another. They can and do die (eg when a word falls into disuse). Some are better able to latch on to human minds than others, and therefore more likely to survive than others: "survival of the fittest" applies as much to memes as to living things with material bodies.

Like Thought and Consciousness, Life is a process, an immaterial, dynamic pattern "running" or "playing out" on a material substrate such as the material body. Life is the embodiment of ordered complexity. By this definition, a meme is a living thing (or at least on the path to being a living thing), and so too would be a piece of software of sufficient ordered complexity running on a suitable substrate.

Entering the No-go Zone

The equipment needed to navigate the no-go zone consists of three closely related concepts --- the Gestalt, Emergent Qualities, and the Binding Problem. We'll look at each in turn.

The whole greater than the sum of its parts

In the biggest picture sense, forming a gestalt means creating order out of chaos, or greater order out of lesser order. Gestalt psychology refers to the ability and tendency of human beings to create "wholes" from parts or at least identify wholes in collections of parts. Pattern recognition and creation are activities in which gestalt psychology plays a major role.

One of the most important patterns that humans create is the gestalt of consciousness, involving the integration of multiple data-streams (visual, auditory, olfactory, etc) into "...the unity of conscious perception" .

The gestalt is about where the line is drawn between what is in and what is out, what counts and what doesn't. Not in an absolute sense, but rather at the discretion of the creator of the gestalt: the subject, agent, or person who calls the shots, draws the line, defines the boundary, decides what is in and what is out.

tale of two planets
Consider the diagram, "A tale of two planets". On Planet LingaLonga, there are two continents, Linga and Longa. The western part of continent Longa is inhabited. On Planet BingBong neither of the two continents, Bing and Bong, are inhabited. Q: Which Planet is inhabited, LingaLonga, or BingBong? A: LingaLonga is inhabited (even though most of it is uninhabited).

The diagram suggests that every part of a gestalt has a strange kind of share in the qualities of the whole, even though one or more of those qualities may be absent in a particular part. To resolve the strangeness we need the help of "holons".

The word "holon" refers to that which is a whole and simultaneously a part. "Holons exist simultaneously as self-contained wholes in relation to their sub-ordinate parts, and dependent parts when considered from the inverse direction... every entity and concept shares a dual nature: as a whole unto itself, and as a part of some other whole. For example, a cell in an organism is a whole and at the same time a part of another whole, the organism. ... a letter is a self-existing entity and simultaneously an integral part of a word, which then is part of a sentence, which is part of a paragraph, which is part of a page... " (Wikipaedia, 7 April, 2010).

Philosopher Ken Wilber applies the concept of "nested holons" (holons within holons) to the ancient concept of the Scala Naturae (Great Chain of Being) to suggest a mechanism whereby things further "down" the chain, eg humans, partake of the qualities of things further "up" the chain, eg Deity.

Another example: My foot is not self-aware, but I am. The fact that my foot is not self-aware doesn't mean that I am not.

Application of gestalt principles to the question of what is deemed to be alive raises the startling possibility that everything is alive. Because within Everything are parts that are alive, to a greater or lesser degree, with zero being the least degree and infinity the greatest.

Life as an emergent quality

Emergent qualities are those which are not initially present, but which emerge when a necessary condition is satisfied. Consciousness is believed to be an emergent quality. Consciousness seems not to be present in the molecules that make up the cells of the body, nor in the cells that make up the organs of the body, nor in the organs themselves. Consciousness is believed to emerge at a certain level of complexity, which, in the current example, is associated with the gestalt of the body, ie when all the molecules, cells and organs are connected, integrated and functioning as a whole. At that point, and beyond, the whole (the body) is greater than the sum of its parts.

Like Consciousness, Life seems not to be present in the molecules that make up the cells of the body. Unlike consciousness, Life is present in the cells and in the organs of the body.

Notice how the word "seems" keeps popping up? It makes the writing clumsier, but emphasises the fact that things frequently are not what they seem, and that humans frequently jump to (false) conclusions that they are frequently willing to defend to the death.

Further to the disclaimer at the start of this post, I gotta say that I have reservations about the idea that Consciousness, and Life, are emergent qualities. In my view, Life doesn't emerge and can't emerge because everything is alive, to a greater or lesser degree, always has been and always will be. This idea is neatly expressed by Gregory Sams in "Sun of gOd" when he writes about the "... self-organising consciousness that underlies everything" --- a concept near and dear to my own heart as described in in defence of pantheism and getting personal.

Cooking up life

If Life were a meal you could create it by following a recipe. Take 12 trillion molecules of X, 15 trillion molecules of Y, combine in a large oven-proof bowl, stir for 3 billion years, then bake at 180 degrees for the duration of the gestation period. Serve with a healthy dollop of scepticism.

In fact the recipe approach has been tried, with some success. In 1952 scientists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey conducted an experiment based on conditions thought to have existed on Earth before Life emerged. The experiment involved concocting a soup of the chemicals methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water, and 'zapping' the solution with electricity produced by a pair of electrodes. After about a week, organic compounds were found in the solution, as well as precursor molecules of nucleic acids --- the "building blocks" of Life.

The results of the experiment do NOT mean that humans have discovered the recipe for Life. The results simply mean that some of the precursors to some of the precursors of Life can be created by humans in a laboratory.


Don't hate me but I'm going to leave the conclusion for another day. I do have a conclusion, a very nice one, and it's sprinkled quite liberally among some of the other posts in this blog. I promise though that I'll package it all up nicely and neatly, and publish it in this blog within the next few days. Thanks for walking with me this far.


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Nessa said...

Lots to mull over so I am mulling. I think that qualifies as a sign of life.

masterymistery said...

Hi Nessa, mulling is absolutely a sign of life; mulled wine is one of the great things of life. Thanks for stopping by and for wading through pages and pages of dense obscurities. I've actually rewritten a lot of the article since your visit, so if you can bear to, you might force yourself to read it again.


Alice Audrey said...

Most things in life can be seen as clear cut simply by ignoring details and questions such as this. For instance, if you were researching tree density in the woods, how do you count trees? Seems like it should be obvious and easy, until you run into what might be two trees growing from one spot or might be one tree split early in life, or trees on the surveyors line, or trees half dead...

masterymistery said...

Hi Alice, that's a great analogy -- thank you. It would be very helpful helpful to anyone who can't see the wood for the trees!

Jingle said...

beautiful science post!

Cheesemeister said...

The best thing about the word organism is that it is easily mistaken for the word orgasm, which causes even the most stoic of scientists to giggle like school girls.

masterymistery said...

Cheesemeister, that's because scientists reproduce asexually -- lacking sexual organs they practise a form of orgasm-free parthenogenesis. And whatever they cannot experience, they find amusing,

mgeorge said...

(a) Complex adaptive systems (holons if you will) exist at various levels in the universe, from the sub-atomic to the astronomical. They may be nested or overlap partially. If consciousness is multi-level, it we may be capable only of percieving the sub-set that communicates at or near our level. We are unaware (not conscious) of many of our own body parts except when they fail, perhaps as such awareness was (from the viewpoint of evolution) superfluous, disadvantageous or (as in the case of the brain itself) impossible.

(b) The pantheism of the ancient past did not limit itself to the village or nearby lake, forest, sea or even the planet. These are later ideas of limit.

(c) Variablility in reproduction per se is not a requirement of life. In fact, all genetic and reproductive mechanisms we know of are amazing efforts at thwarting change (errors) within the species concerned.


masterymistery said...

mgeorge, thanks for your insightful comments.

RE point (a) I can't help but hope there's a mechanism whereby complex adaptive systems can perceive / communicate with / interact with systems many levels "higher" or "lower". I speculate it's easier for a higher level being to interact with a lower level being, but have no basis for that speculation. Noting also the metaphorical nature of language in which words such as "interact" can refer to a dog herding sheep as much as to humans playing a game of chess.

Re (b): having spent decades as a very unhappy atheist, I'm now having a great deal of fun trying on various sizes of pantheism and discovering that (for me anyway) the best fit is that which leaves room for further growth.

I take your point (c). Hadn't thought of it in those terms. But yes, makes perfect sense. I'm not even close to being a biologist, just an enthusiastic amateur!