Archives for posts with tag: membrane

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.

As I promised you some time ago, let’s have a look at ‘property’.

As you recall, I was arguing that we, humans, are only ‘qualitatively’ different from the rest of the animals. In the sense that we do everything that they do – and nothing really new or different, only that we do it ‘better’. And more ‘evenly’.

In my previous post, I was dealing with ‘trade’. So I’ll use ‘trade’ to explain what I mean by ‘more evenly’.

All living things are made of three things.

An inside, a membrane and a set of instructions which deal with two things.
How the whole thing should be structured in order to able to live and how the inside should interact with the outside – through the membrane, in order for the organism to remain alive and replicate itself.

My previous post dealt with individual organism trading food (a.k.a. matter) and information with their outside. It also dealt with manners in which trade can be performed.
Directly – as in barter, or indirectly – using symbols.
The most simple barter is breathing. Exchanging gases with the environment. Or foraging – individual organisms ingest food and water and excrete poop and urine.
‘Trading’ information is a little more complicated. An individual organism can be endowed with genetic information by it’s parents, presented with information by some of its peers – bacteria or playmates, taught by its voluntary or involuntary teachers or it can glean information by itself through mindful observation. Also, trading information is more complicated than trading food because information can be either ‘hardware’ or ‘software’. DNA inherited from the parents (received from peers/’invaders’) being ‘hardware’ while information gleaned through observation or during training being ‘software’.

Everything described in the previous paragraph is common for all living organisms, including humans.

My point being that we’ve been trading, from the ‘beginning’, far more items than any of  the other living things – plants and/or animals.
OK, an individual whale will eat far more than an individual human being. But whales eat, basically, one or two things. While we, humans, will throw down our throats almost anything that we fancy. Including some stuff which will actually hurt us.

But the real interesting thing is the manner in which we ‘trade’ information. We not only observe keenly what happens outside our consciousness (not just outside our-bodies, simply outside the shell that harbors our ‘mind’) but also translate that information into symbols and then communicate that symbolic information with our fellow human beings.

And here’s the catch.

I mentioned earlier that every individual organism consists of an inside, a membrane which keeps it together and a package of information.
For survival purposes, each organism must consider all its three components as being its own and to defend them ‘to the bitter end’. Or else…
Which is congruent to what happens in the real world… Membranes are relatively hard to penetrate, there are some defense mechanisms which at least attempt to take of any intruders – the immune system, for example….
More over, the more ‘sophisticated’ organisms also defend ‘their’ territories and the local resources they have identified and claimed as being theirs. If you don’t believe me, just try to take a bone from any normal dog which isn’t yours.

You see, not even ‘property’ is exclusively  specific to humans…. We have created the concept, we actually define ourselves using our possessions… yet we share this trait with all other living organisms… even if they don’t know anything about it…

Remember what I just said about us being able to trade ‘symbolic’ information? To ‘formulate’ the information before trading/sharing it?
Same thing happens with ‘property’.

For a dog, a bone is its property as long as it happens to be in his snout. And most dogs have no problem in attempting to ‘steal’ a bone from another dog – as long as the other is not way bigger, a pup or some-other special cases.

Meanwhile, most humans would painstakingly respect other people’s property.
Simply because, for us, property has also meaning. Besides ‘survival value’

NB. In English, ‘property’ is not exclusively about possession. Its root, ‘proper’, means from ‘clean’ to ‘as it should be’.

We need to breathe.
We absolutely need to breathe. Just as we absolutely need to drink and to eat, only not so often.

Yet we seldom think about breathing, we remember to think about drinking only when we’ve forgotten to take along a bottle of water for that two hour drive and we somewhat constantly keep warm in the back of our heads the nagging ‘what’s in for dinner?’.

What makes us so indifferent to breathing – as long as our lungs remain OK, anyway, and so choosy when it comes to our ‘daily bread’? After-all, both are equally important…
And how come we almost never think about the air we breathe but equally almost never forget to dream about our precious car? The future one, of course, not the present! Or about a beach holiday, a diamond ring, Jimmy Choo shoes …

There are some things that we actually need, some we actively want and things which belong to both categories.

Then why don’t we actively keep tabs on all the things we actually need and why do we bother so much with those which are more or less superfluous?

Maybe because we are not machines? And because life is neither simple nor forthright?

Let me start from the beginning.

We belong to the realm of the living things.
The difference between living things and inanimate matter being that all individual organisms eventually die while inanimate matter might, theoretically at least, remain unchanged for ever.

Otherwise put, inanimate matter has only ‘inertia’ and living things have both inertia and an innate ‘will to survive’.
Another difference between the two being that all kinds of inanimate matter are ‘isotropic’ while ‘life’ is almost synonymous with ‘individual organisms.’
It’s just as impossible to differentiate between two water molecules as it is to find two identical organisms – even if they belong to the same species. N.B., not even clones are identical to each other.

As an aside, sometimes it is possible to differentiate between two water molecules. For instance, heavy water is slightly different from regular water. Also, there are some differences between the water molecules which have in their composition different Oxygen isotopes. But if you know what an isotope is… you get my drift.

Coming back to the difference between inanimate and living, the inanimate does not change in time.
A molecule of water remains the same until something happens to it and water, as a substance, has never changed since….
On the other hand, each individual living organism changes, however minutely, with ‘every breath it takes’ while species are undergoing a constant evolutionary process.

Furthermore, we can draw a parallel between inanimate substances and animate species. Both of them, substances and species,  are ‘organized’ along some common ‘information’.
‘Water’ has a certain ‘blue print’, ‘vinegar’ has it’s own – different from that of ‘water’, and ‘wolves’ have yet another one – which is different from that of ‘poplar’.
Only the parallel can be drawn only so far.
All molecules ‘belonging’ to the same substance share the same ‘constitutive information’.
All individuals belonging to the same species do have a lot of ‘constitutive information’ in common yet each of them is different from all of the rest.

Hey, wait a minute!
– You promised us something about needs and wants and now you’re lecturing us about the difference between life and death? What next?
– Bear with me. I’m getting there!

One last difference and we’re almost done.

I told you a little earlier that life is about change while inanimate is… boringly stable!
Actually life is also about exchange, not only about change.
No inanimate molecule ever exchanges anything material with anybody, lest it becomes something else.
No individual living organism can survive for any sizeable amount of time without exchanging substance and information, in an ‘organized’ manner, with it’s surrounding medium.

In my ‘original terms’, each individual living organism has needs while individual molecules have none – except for the ‘need’ to be ‘left alone’ in order to ‘survive’.

I’m not going to enter into details. For now, all I’m going to say is that the above mentioned ‘organized exchange’ is regulated by a ‘membrane’ according to information passed along from generation to generation.
Each individual living organism has it’s own set of information, coded in its DNA (RNA for the more ‘primitive’ ones). Which set of information has a lot in common with but is slightly different from that which has belonged to the previous generation.

For instance, each E.coli bacteria has a membrane – which separates the interior of the ‘organism’ from it’s surrounding medium, a nucleus which contains its ‘constitutive information’ and some other things which are of no importance for this discussion.
For as long as that individual bacteria is alive, the membrane plays two roles. It keeps the bacteria together and mediates the exchanges between the individual organism and its medium. It lets food and oxygen in. It makes it so that ‘excrement’ and CO2 are purged out.
And all these are happening according to the information contained in the genetic material passed over from the previous generation.

In a sense, exactly because each individual organism somehow manages to remain – for a while, at least – in one piece while constantly exchanging substance with the surrounding medium, one may say that each individual bacteria has a form of (proto?) conscience. Remember that it does ‘survive’ on its own, ‘guided’ exclusively by information contained in it’s own DNA. As long as its surrounding medium remains in certain parameters, of course, but this is another issue.

Let’s jump now directly to us, human beings.

OK, we are multi-cellular organisms hence we are provided with a second ‘membrane’ – which is usually referred to as  ‘skin’.
The rest is basically the same. The ‘skin’ keeps us together, breathes in, breathes out, excretes the by products of our metabolism…
Well, not exactly the same! We have yet another layer of ‘membrane’. Using a very modern word, I’ll describe this third layer as being “virtual”.

I’m speaking about our infinitely more complex conscience.

The proto-conscience of the E.coli is  similar to a ‘mechanical’ function.
‘Mechanical’ in the sense that the information contained in the nucleus is more or less directly expressed. The bacteria is not able to asses the results of its actions, to watch itself ‘doing things’ or to learn anything from what’s happening to it.

Time for another aside. Recent scientific research strongly suggests that even unicellular organisms are capable of learning. Something. This is very important, and very helpful towards increasing the ability of any given organism to survive, but doesn’t change much of what I have to say here.

Our conscience is anything but mechanical.
OK, it very much depends on our brains. Hence on our DNA.
It also depends on everything that has happened to us from the moment each of us has been conceived till the very present moment. A single minute spent without being able to breathe during birth can wreak havoc with out brains. Hence with our ability to develop a full fledged conscience.
Furthermore, being born into a relatively well off family during a peaceful era leads to being exposed to a completely different set of stimuli than if born into a poor family during a war.

Coming back to my initial example – very few of us really think about breathing, simply because most of us are accustomed to air being freely available, people exposed to those two different sets of ‘initial inputs’ will have a different attitude towards ‘normal daily needs’.
The first kid will grow with an innate sentiment that having enough to eat is comme il faut and nothing to worry about while the second…
Also, the first kid will grow accustomed to people around him ‘parading’ a host of satisfied ‘wants’ almost incomprehensible for the other kid.

Don’t tell me these two kids will develop the same kind of conscience.
Equivalent? Maybe.
Geared towards the same goal? Survival of the individual AND that of the social norms into which the individual has been socialized? Certainly! Only the social norms I’ve just mentioned will never be exactly the same in those two cases… regardless of those two children belonging to the same broad culture.

As a consequence of their different fortunes, each of them will maintain a different balance between needs and wants. Even if their fortunes will change in time.

The ‘conscious membrane’ can change, and it usually will, following the changes in the surrounding medium. But those changes cannot fundamentally alter the ‘initial orientation’ – that forged during the early childhood.

when does chemistry become more than the sum of its parts?”

This evening I’ve read, in rather close succession, two very interesting lines.

The second was the one I just quoted above.  It comes from a BBC article titled: “There are over 100 definitions for life and all are wrong!

A little earlier I had come across Confucius’ “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.

I could not resist the temptation to put these two together.

Rather than defining ‘life’ I’ll try to see what obviously (?!?) differentiates ‘living creatures’ from ‘chemically driven’ systems.


Life is about individuals. Huge, small, whatever. But each of them are individual beings.
Each of them, including the viruses, have a ‘membrane’ which separates ‘inside’ from outside and the survival of each individual depends on this membrane being able to do it’s job.

Chemical systems also have separations that ‘contain’ them into an ‘inside’ only those separations are not, in any way, controlled by the system itself as it happens with the membranes that separate the living individuals from their environment.


While life is about individuals, it’s also about ‘species’.
If you remember, Darwin’s seminal book was entitled “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life“.

Species are nothing but ‘lineages’ of slightly different individuals who somehow manage to pass from one generation to another enough ‘structural’ (genetic) information so that the species remains ‘consistent’ but, simultaneously, the ‘replication process’ is flexible enough to allow for enough ‘mutations’ – which constitute the engine of evolution. The process is very well explained here: “What Evolution is” by Ernst Mayr.
Moreover the information that is, somehow, passed from one generation to another is contained inside each individual and ‘entrusted’ individually and ‘personally’ – not by an outside agent, as it maybe the case for the chemical systems we use in our labs or industries.

According to these ‘criteria’ viruses would be alive while computer programs ‘not yet’. Not until they’ll learn to replicate themselves in a manner flexible enough to be called ‘evolutive’.


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