What is Life?

Peter Macklem has written a very interesting short article that many readers of this blog might enjoy

Here are a few excerpts with some follow-up questions to think about.

Life’s order is characterized by emergent phenomena. These I define as the spontaneous development of self-organized order among ensembles that can neither be predicted nor explained by examining component parts in isolation. Spontaneity and self-organization mean that no external agent is sculpting the organism: it sculpts itself. Ensembles mean that an emergent system is composed of many parts. And for the component parts to self-organize, they must intercommunicate, interact, and cooperate. Life provides many interconnections: hormones, nerves, gap junctions, cytokines, and so forth. Thus understanding emergence requires studying the behavior of integrated networks. Reductionism cannot solve the secrets of emergence.

And

Crystals lie frozen and inadaptable deep within the ordered regimen. Deterministic chaos is found at the other extreme, characterized by weather-like instability and evanescence. Between crystals and weather a sudden phase transition occurs over a small range of energy consumption. It is here that conditions necessary for life are found. We the living exist in a complex regimen in the phase transition between order and chaos. We are there because that is the only place we can be both ordered but adaptable, stable but able to evolve. Crystals are stable and ordered but cannot adapt or evolve. Weather evolves but is unstable and cannot survive. Darwinian selection allows both survival and evolution only in the phase transition. Survival requires adaptations, but it also requires that in adapting we must preserve our order by a mechanism we call homeostasis.

And

Life and emergence obey the laws of physics and chemistry. But life has a third secret not mentioned by Schrodinger. The design of living organisms is not determined by physico-chemical laws. As Polanyi says, in a painting the physical and chemical properties of the paint determine what remains on the canvas, but the meaning of the painting is determined by the artist. Who is our artist? We sculpt ourselves; but our survival depends on Darwinian selection. Appropriate designs survive, inappropriate ones become extinct. Life is more than the properties of our paint. Understanding life requires knowledge of how the design of living creatures and emergent phenomena, appearing spontaneously in self-ordered, reproducing, interacting, energy-consuming, non-linear, dynamic ensembles makes us what we are. I believe this will be the next biological revolution.

Here are couple of questions that come to mind.

1. If you look at figure 1, where on that continuum would we put machines?

2. To what extent does the survival and evolution in the phase transition depend on life’s machines?

3. Just how much adaptation can occur within that phase transition without the remarkable design material we know of as proteins?

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7 responses to “What is Life?

  1. 1. If you look at figure 1, where on that continuum would we put machines?

    More importantly, where on the continuum would computers fall?

  2. 1) Where would we put machines? Somewhere between order and chaos? In the phase transition?

    2) No, no, Mike. Not “machines.” “Ensembles.” There’s a world of difference. Just ask your friend, Glen.

    3) How much adaptation without proteins? Uh….zero? But I’m sure there are all sorts of adaptable materials that could have “emerged.” Just remember: “We design ourselves.”

  3. On a critical note, he works in “consciousness is an example of an emergent phenomena”, as if this were some bland scientific fact rather than utter, unsupported (and possibly unsupportable) speculation that is vastly more philosophical than scientific.

    Not to mention, he crams the word “Darwinian” in there – but it’s superfluous. He may as well call it divine selection. Guys like this make me wonder if they believe their decision to have pancakes instead of waffles for breakfast is a “darwinian choice”.

  4. Self-organization sounds kinda spooky to me. Like the Uncaused Cause, the Unmoved Mover, the Alpha and the Omega… IDers love this spooky stuff!

    But aren’t they calling spontaneously energent self-organizations (or whatever), just what you guys call design?

    [From the Commentaries:] In biological systems, these great unsolved problems come together and seem to be universal, but neither biologists nor physicists have yet figured out how to think about them in any systematic way. That this makes us uncomfortable is precisely the point, and defines the grand challenge that Macklem (4) brings to our attention.– Jeffrey J. Fredberg

    Sounds like an opportunity for IDers. Maybe the biologists and physicists haven’t figured out how to think about them in any systematic way because they are designs? It’s a bit difficult to think “systematically” about a system you’ve misidentified.

    But that’s part of the problem with this New Age Physics mumbo-jumbo. Something critical (no pun intended) is being left out of the equation.

    What could that be, IDers?

    (Life creates “order from disorder” in just the same way an engineer turns a heap of scrap metal into a bridge over the Potomac. Think about it.)

  5. Hi Rock,

    Self-organization sounds kinda spooky to me. Like the Uncaused Cause, the Unmoved Mover, the Alpha and the Omega… IDers love this spooky stuff!

    And judging from the author and the responses, so do mainstream scientists. 🙂

    But aren’t they calling spontaneously energent self-organizations (or whatever), just what you guys call design?

    Well, at least there seems to be a chance of overlap, eh? That’s why I asked where machines would fit on the continuum of figure 1.

  6. Ooo! “Mainstream,” huh? Well, I retract all those nasty things I wrote.

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