Archives for posts with tag: Life

I was arguing yesterday that life, as a biological phenomenon, depends on membranes doing their jobs.
Keeping the inside in, the outside out and managing the transit of substances. Nutrients in and excretions out. For some organisms, their ‘membranes’ also act as a thermo-regulators.

‘Watching’ a membrane in action, one might get the impression that it has been endowed with a certain ‘awareness’. The membrane acts as if it were aware of the differences between its inside and its outside. It recognizes what belongs where and keeps them there. It also recognizes nutrients for what they are – and lets them in, and excretions for what they are – and where they should be.
OK, the membrane does what it does simply because it was ‘pre-programmed’ in a specific way, according to the genetic information each organism has received from its predecessors. There’s nothing supernatural involved here. For what we currently know, anyway…

Watching, as a dispassionate outside observer, the evolutionary process unfolding one might get the impression that life itself has a certain awareness.
‘Rules of life’, read genetic information passed along from one generation to another, are diligently updated to fit the changes in the environment. Nevermind that the whole process is ‘impersonal’, ‘goal-less’ and is fueled by haphazard trial and error, the end result is what we currently consider to be ‘learning’!
That’s what we try to code into our artificially intelligent machines, don’t we?

Further more, recent research points out that individual organisms share information with their brethren.
Bacteria can share antibiotic resistance genes through lateral transfer.
Physarum polycephalum, a unicellular organism, seems to be able to share information already learned when it comes in contact with other members of the species.
Plants “can “talk” in several different ways: via airborne chemicals, soluble compounds exchanged by roots and networks of threadlike fungi“.

Since communication itself is a process which implies the ability to differentiate between a ‘run of the mill’ situation and one special enough to warrant the effort to ‘talk’ about it, I find all these to be compelling arguments for life itself to be considered as implying certain forms of awareness.

According to ‘science’, life is nothing but a process through which (genetic) information is passed, with small alterations, from one generation to another and during which the environment is, however minutely, changed by whatever the living organisms do during their lifespans.

‘Individually’ – organism by organism, life takes place inside a ‘membrane’. Which you might call it ‘skin’, if you like.
That membrane separates the ‘inside’ – the living organism, from the ‘outside’ – otherwise known as the ‘environment’.
Each individual organism continues to be alive for as long as the membrane manages to keep the inside in, the outside out AND to properly regulate the exchanges between the inside and the outside.
This being the moment when we need to remember that each living organism needs to eat, to drink, to breathe and to excrete. Meaning that it needs a more or less continuous flow of certain substances from the outside and to periodically clean itself. And the moment to understand that each organism continuously changes its environment. By incorporating some of it while feeding/breathing and by ‘polluting’ it when ‘throwing out’ the by-products of its metabolism.

For all the activity above to take place, each individual organism needs to follow some ‘rules’. It’s ‘membrane’ needs to ‘know’ which substances to allow in and which to keep out. Which substances to throw out and which to keep it.
To perform all these duties, the membrane itself needs to be organized in a certain manner. For all to happen as it should, the ‘interior’ has to be organized in a certain – and specific, manner.

On the other hand, for any (set of) rule(s) to make sense, it has to be congruent to the situation it ‘attempts’ to manage. For instance, the rule about what substances are to be ‘allowed in’ has to be adapted both to the specific needs of the organism following it AND to what substances are available in the particular environment in which that organism attempts to survive/thrive.
Since the environment in which the living process attempts to take place is subjected to continuous change – both as a consequence of organisms living in it and as happenstance happening, the ‘rules of life’ cannot be ‘set in stone’.
For life to continue in a consistent manner, it has to preserve its rules while for life to survive in an ever-changing environment it has to adapt its rules to fit the changes in the environment.
This being where evolution takes charge.

That’s why the life we’re familiar with, ours, is comprised of successive generations of many individual organisms which somehow pass genetic information (rules of life) from one another. The fundamental ‘trick’ which makes everything possible being that during the ‘passing’ process the genetic information is slightly altered.
Sometimes with beneficial results – those individuals thrive and, eventually, new species appear. Other times, the results are tragic. The individuals which receive bad – read unfit, rules of life do not survive.
Equally tragic is the fate of those species, otherwise ‘successful’ until that moment, which, at some point, are confronted by so momentous changes in their environment that they are no longer able to adapt. Dinosaurs are the first examples which come to my mind but the list is so long that we’ll never learn about all of them.

A pessimist might conclude that life is all about species and that individuals are expandable.
Au contraire, mon cher ami. Since there’s no way in hell – or in heaven, for anybody to know which individual organism has that particular piece of information which will enable their successors to survive the next alteration in the environment it would be rather dense to consider any individual as being expandable. In fact, it was the ‘individualization’ of the living process that made possible the evolutionary process.

Life is about both individuals and species, simultaneously and with equal importance.

There’s a lot of dry wood in the forests around us. It stays there for a while. Only from time to time something happens that starts a fire.

Fill a room with a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen – at ‘room temperature’, and nothing happens. Strike a match and… you get a big noise and a little water. Don’t try this at home, you won’t live to tell the story. The noise is really big.

White phosphorus has to be kept under water. Whenever it gets in contact with humid air at a temperature above 30 degrees Celsius it starts to burn. And it cannot be extinguished in any other way than by submerging the whole thing under water.

Put a TNT stick (make sure it isn’t dynamite) into fire and it will simply burn. Fuse it properly and it will detonate whenever you ‘tell’ it to.

Let’s consider life now.

All the chemical elements, and a huge number of the organic molecules, which are the building blocks of any living organism have been around for eons while ‘life’ is a relatively recent occurrence.

Males and females – both animals and plants, roam around freely. Yet no offspring appears before something happens between a male and a female. This – the need for something to occur outside the individual organism, is valid also for bacteria – they need certain conditions to multiply, and viruses – which need the assistance of other, suitable, organisms.

Whenever conditions are right enough, sooner or later ‘life’ will surely appear. Or so it has happened all over our Earth. Till now, at least.

Whenever a living organism follows it’s normal set of instructions – its DNA remains fully functional, everything goes ‘as advertised’. If, by any reason, enough DNA is damaged beyond repair, the hell breaks loose. Being diagnosed with Cancer is enough to blow up even the most stable mind.

I’ve kept the most striking similitude for the last.
Both combustion and life continue only as long as certain conditions are met. Both need enough oxygen and fuel/nutrition.

There are also two big differences between them. One regarding ‘time’ – the successions of ‘moves’ which constitute the processes, and the other regarding ‘space’.

Combustion follows a set of pre-existing rules.  The chemical composition of the combustible might change the ignition temperature but that’s all it can do. Or it may add – as it’s the case for explosives, the possibility of detonation. But, again, both combustion and detonation follow a set of rules which are valid ‘across the board’. For all combustible and explosive substances.

On it’s turn, life follows two broad sets of rules. It has to obey all those which govern chemistry and physics – read combustion and detonation, and, on top of that, it has it’s own set of detailed instructions. Which vary from species to species.

I’ve left for the end the difference regarding ‘space’ because this one is very simple.

‘Combustion’ will extend all over the place where combustible is ‘continuous’, in a single ‘event’, while ‘life’ is, by definition, about finite organisms which multiply to make ‘good use’ of the available resources.
This being the reason for which combustion stops whenever the combustible available in an enclosed place is exhausted while life can resist a certain period of ‘famine’.

Things consist of what makes them what they are.
These very constituents impose upon things their definitive limits.

Take life, for instance. It’s exactly that which makes the difference between a collection of inanimate chemical substances and a living organism which leads to its eventual demise.

Or our skeletons. And all our organs. They make us what we are and, simultaneously, set the limits of our existence.
Each of us can grow only that high, eat and drink only that much, sprint only that fast and live only that long.

Take our brains.
That’s what we think with. And we make errors with.
That we remember and forget with.
That we love and hate with.
That makes us aware of some things and leave so many others out of our knowledge.

That is capable to understand the nature of our limits and, too often, chooses to ignore that opportunity.

Every thing we may find around us can be stashed in one of these three categories.

Only the boundaries between them are not so clear as it may seem at first glance.

”Aphasic” means ‘being unable to speak, even though your ‘throat’ and your intelligence seem to be OK. By stretching the term, one can use it to describe the inability to get in sync with the ‘exterior’. To react other than in a purely ‘mechanical’ manner. Push back with an equal force, sneeze when inhaling an allergen… you get my drift.

‘Alive’ is, at least apparently, a little simpler.
There are many definitions for ‘life’ but none is considered ‘good enough’. Yet all of us are convinced they know what ‘alive’ means.
In my view, life is a multi-generational affair. For starters, Darwin’s ‘seminal’ book was “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life”. ‘Species’ and ‘Races’ mean genetic information transmitted over many generations. The transmission mechanism being accurate enough to preserve the species as long as nothing happens yet flexible enough to allow for evolution to proceed when the prevailing conditions allow/demand it.

‘Alert’ is even simpler.
Quick to see, understand, and act in a particular situation“.

As I mentioned earlier, these categories only seem clear cut.

While it’s obvious that a boulder, or even a fully functional gas engine, can be safely tucked away into the ‘aphasic’ drawer, what are we going to do with somebody suffering with senile dementia? And, for good measure, well past the ‘reproductive age’…. Can that person be considered alive? Truly alive?
What about the ‘brain dead’ – literally, those who cannot do anything by themselves, but who are young enough and otherwise able to procreate?
Furthermore, it is very easy to say ‘that kid is very alert’ when describing a ‘tomboy’. Or a trader dealing on the New York Stock Exchange Floor. But can we use the same concept when describing the fly which has successfully evaded all our attempts to catch it?

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