Mother Nature as a Sculptor

Aha! I had a couple of essays saved from a few weeks back……

Most arguments about the origin of life are sucked into the domain of the Traditional Template. In other words, we are once again treated to the old arguments whereby people dispute whether or not it was possible for geochemical processes to spawn biological processes. But I think it is more interesting to approach this topic while looking for clues – facts about the world we might expect to find if a given hypothesis is true.

The Seeding Story and Spawning Story have a different story to tell. One begins with a consortium of sophisticated, complex cells while the other begins with a simple self-replicating molecule able to co-opt from a huge assortment of potentially useful chemicals in the thick prebiotic broth. Does it really make sense to think such two radically different starting points cannot leave any traces that would help us distinguish between the two?

I have argued that an important clue is the fact that life is characterized by deep uniformity as opposed to deep diversity. The hypothesis of life’s design would lead us to expect deep uniformity:

Thus, if the original seeding event was due to intelligent intervention, we might expect to find a pattern of biological diversity laid on top of a deeper universality. The diversity of biological features would echo the intent to enhance the chance for a successful seeding, while the deeper universality of biological features would follow from the original cells functioning as deposited stem cells (Crick and Orgel’s argument), exhibiting common design strategies to similar problems, while also reflecting an attempt to maximize the success of seeding by allowing the different cellls to connect with each other.

On the other hand, the hypothesis of a non-telic emergence of life would lead us to expect deep diversity:

The idea of messy simplicity entails that there are many, many ways to skin a primordial cat. That is, one envisions that life-like functions could be rather easily recovered from the prebiotic soup not only because the soup was rich with all sorts of potentially useful chemicals, but also because such functions could be carried out by a wide assortment of these chemicals. If there are so many ways to build a self-replicating homeostatic system, one would think the soup was continuously turning out a dizzying array of proto-organisms.

Let’s use a story to drive this point home. Imagine, for the sake of argument, it is believed that Mother Nature has the ability to sculpt statues. Let’s further imagine that Mother Nature is given one billion blocks of granite with which to sculpt.

If Mother Nature starts from such simple beginnings, the degrees of freedom are maximized and each block of granite has the potential to become just about any statue imaginable. So we turn away and allow Mother Nature to get to work, sculpting the billion blocks of granite. When she is finished, we decide to turn around and survey her work.

Scenario 1: If we found a billion different sculptures of every form imaginable, we’d exclaim, “Yep, Mother Nature sure can sculpt!” In fact, we’d marvel at the great creative abilities of the greatest artist in the world – Mother Nature herself.

Scenario 2: If we found 999,999,999 piles of rocks and one sculpture of a rabbit, we would begin to question our assumption about Mother Nature’s ability as a sculptor. It would seem instead that we should credit Luck, not Mother Nature, for coming up with this sculpture. But what would we think if we looked more closely at the sculpture and determined it to be one the most beautiful pieces of art we had ever seen? We would be at a loss. It would seem silly to attribute such beauty and intricacy to Luck. Yet on the other hand, if it was Mother Nature, then why did she fail to sculpt anything the other 999,999,999 times? At this point, one begins to suspect the sculptor is neither Mother Nature nor Luck.

Scenario 3: What if we found that all of the blocks of granite have been turned into a sculpture of some rabbit? Yes, we would now firmly acknowledge Mother Nature’s talent. But then we might begin to wonder why Mother Nature seemed so fond of rabbits and not cats. Is it because she can’t sculpt cats? Or is it because she likes rabbits?

Of course, Mother Nature can’t sculpt statues. But many believe she can sculpt life. The lessons of our story would then apply.

Scenario 1 would represent the strongest position for the non-teleological perspective. It would mean spawning events were common, yet generated an immense myriad of possible forms of life. It was so easy for natural processes to generate life that there is nothing special about any particular example of life.

Scenario 2 would represent a very strong position for the teleological perspective. There does seem to be something special about life, as natural processes seem to have a very difficult time spawning it and it is too amazing to comfortably attribute it to luck.

Scenario 3 would also represent a very strong position for the teleological perspective. It was easy for natural processes to generate life, but there does seem to be something special about the particular form that that exists.

So where do we currently stand? Right now, we exist in the realm of Scenario 2. All evidence that exists is consistent with the hypothesis that life arose once on this planet. And a high resolution analysis of life shows it to be sophisticated and complex, as if we were peering into the future of our own designs.

It is possible we could exist in the realm of Scenario 3 where, for example, the three domains – archaea, bacteria, and eukarya – all independently arose from a messy prebiotic state. The telic echoes are strong.

Scenario 1 is the weakest possibility at the moment, as the advances in molecular biology have allowed us to peer into the all aspects of life’s diversity and we have found it to be skin deep. The strongest position for the non-teleological perspective does not exist.

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3 responses to “Mother Nature as a Sculptor

  1. Michael,

    From your quote of your previous post on the subject…

    “If there are so many ways to build a self-replicating homeostatic system, one would think the soup was continuously turning out a dizzying array of proto-organisms.”

    And I believe there would be no rhyme or reason. Plus there would be a “dizzying array” of evidence in the fossil record. Transitions records would swamp stasis records. But what we see are leaps, stasis, then leaps. Or leaps then extinction. Explosive information, then extinction.

    This thought process is straight-forward I believe with Gould(?) or others who have said if you start evolution again and again, you’ll never see the same paths or forms. The mixture(or variation) is unpredictable due to the original Darwinian idea and continued intertwinnig of randomness with Modern Synthesis.

    Then, you say something Michael which I identify as highly relevant to the ongoing debate for prosperous research…

    “And a high resolution analysis of life shows it to be sophisticated and complex, as if we were peering into the future of our own designs.”

    This statement excites me for several reasons. Current nano-tech breakthrus(and research apparatuses), plus future thought experiments of a design model seem to correlate with what we find in life – modularity and core processes with conditional variation of limited measure.

    I would make one change… “we are… looking into the future of our own designs.”

  2. Michael,

    I think you may find this Nature Highlight article interesting as well. A short one page brief…

    Systems genetics: Networking complex traits

    I do not have access to the original paper, only the abstract:

    Systems genetics in fruit fly

    From the abstract…
    “Regressions of organismal phenotypes on transcript abundance implicate several hundred candidate genes that form modules of biologically meaningful correlated transcripts affecting each phenotype. Overlapping transcripts in modules associated with different traits provide insight into the molecular basis of pleiotropy between complex traits.”

    Overlapping is a sign of highly complex design derivitives for shared space compression algorithms.

    Questions:
    1) Can such a shared space of compressed information referenced by multiple pointers ever be considered accidental or “emergent” without preprogramming or frontloading?

    2) If so, what happens first? Shared space? Or multiple pointers to shared space? How can such a space simultaneously evolve without forethought? Why is this not a huge pitfall for any darwinian, or neo-darwinian process?

    3) Assuming you get past one shared space, how many shared spaces that are cross-referenced by multiple pointers of functional transcription factors can be created by purely natural, non-teleological processes?

    4) Assuming the probability is adequately explained, what natural law(s) or natural force(s) would cause such complex, compressed shared information?

  3. Hi datcg,

    And I believe there would be no rhyme or reason. Plus there would be a “dizzying array” of evidence in the fossil record. Transitions records would swamp stasis records. But what we see are leaps, stasis, then leaps. Or leaps then extinction. Explosive information, then extinction.

    Yes, and the leaps may be occurring when only purifying selection is in play.

    Here’s one for you

    Although numerous investigators assume that the global features of genetic networks are moulded by natural selection, there has been no formal demonstration of
    the adaptive origin of any genetic network. This Analysis shows that many of the qualitative features of known transcriptional networks can arise readily through the
    non-adaptive processes of genetic drift, mutation and recombination, raising questions about whether natural selection is necessary or even sufficient for the origin of many aspects of gene-network topologies. The widespread reliance on computational procedures that are devoid of population-genetic details to generate hypotheses for
    the evolution of network configurations seems to be unjustified.

    The evolution of genetic networks by non-adaptive processes

    http://www.indiana.edu/~lynchlab/PDF/Lynch157.pdf

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