Humanity, for the most part, thrives day-in-and –out; they respond, act, adapt, grow, and perhaps learn anew after reflection. Why? How?
What I mean is that most lives are neither meaningless nor without tedium and pain. Those contrasting words signify a larger context in which a person resides—the reasons for life, perhaps? A reason to explore, a reason to learn, a reason to make mistakes, a reason to make war, and a reason to love, as well . . . and in my humble opinion, they are the reasons for life. Perhaps when one attempts to look at their own life, he-or-she may recognize the interconnectedness between moments and individuals. And, when finding the connections on an occasion or two, one may see the grander scheme—raison d’être. (To the science purists—please bear with me.) Whether life originated (for the aforementioned reasons) to affect a grand purpose, the tenets of science currently cannot answer; the approaches to science do not address the notions of “why.” Pure science asks how a phenomenon occurs, what are the interconnections between related phenomena, and eventually—can we harness the phenomenon. The question of “why” lies within the realms of philosophy, ethics, theology, and on occasion, organized religion. When a scientist conducts experiments in an attempt to elucidate certain biological processes associated with Life’s origins, many of us will associate the results and conclusion of the experiment with the concept of “why.” Careful reading of an experimental “write-up” in a journal reveals that “good” science practice never asks “why.” (Perhaps, “why” is a part of our genetic make-up?)
Thus, perhaps no one can readily awake each-and –every-morning and “truly” ask themselves “why” without coming to a realization that to ask why—one must ask: for whom?
Getting past the notions of “why” and “for whom” leads many to eventually ask “how.”
Studying life’s origins is a harsh mistress—the reasons being the depth and scope of subject matter with which one needs to have mastery. Astrobiology is a “new” field and its golden age may not be fully realized until ET life (or fossilized ET life) is discovered with no uncertainty. A specific case study is ALH 84001 (the Alan Hills meteorite), when NASA scientists announced that specific discovery—few armchair astronomers and much of the general public wanted to believe in the veracity of the report. At first, I had many mixed feelings and finally settled upon believing upon its veracity. However, many skeptics denounced the manner in which the finding had been publicized—and it has served them well. Towards that end, there were certain NASA scientists who went out on a limb (so to speak) and performed experiments that seemed to dovetail with the findings—and therein lies the problem. The callow reader cannot reasonably discern whether the “control experiment” was published in the journal article along with the purported result. That, in some ways, is the reason why many of us may have been fooled into “blindly” falling into the “appeal to authority fallacy.” Many of us, perhaps, felt that we were following an “Occam’s razor” form argumentation—however if one re-reads some of the more prominent journal articles of that period—the control experiment was not readily discerned. The “microscopic” images purported to be bacterial had no true control—and the best (and possibly the truest) control would be to venture to Mars and sample similar “rocks.” Case closed and proof or dis-proof —and science marches-on.
Everyday astrobiology is practiced in multiple and interdisciplinary settings by individuals who have a deep-seated drive to understand the foundations of life on Earth and elsewhere. Successful astrobiologists take their cues from the interdisciplinary nature of the discipline—thriving on the diverse characterizations of the science from other astrobiologists.
Life . . . how did it all begin?
The question of life is “thorny.” Why? The answer is simple enough to seem too trivial. No one was present to understand the processes—but current geology is far different from the origins geochemistry. However, what may be surmised is that “first life” chemistry may have resembled early Earth geochemistry, and because of weathering and plate tectonics many potential fossil remains are lost.
What can currently be said?
Since attempts to emulate life’s origins have failed—what have systematic efforts revealed: (1) Darwinian evolution is the rule of order, (2) RNA World is one primary paradigm of Life’s Origins, (3) given current knowledge—life (and evolution itself) may be based upon information theory—and I will attempt expound upon the aforementioned points—
The above-points are a “synthesis” of 60-plus years of “Origins research”—from the Miller-Urey experiments of 1950s to “Neural Darwinism” and “Information Theory paradigms for Life” of the present generation—so
Can Meaning be Extracted?
The gap between “chemistry” and “origins biology/chemistry” is far greater than most are able to imagine—chemical reactivity and its processes do not adequately approximate how inanimate matter (carbon-based molecules of life—CHNOPS) could have organized and re-produced in life’s fashion. And, as with most problems that appear intractable, solutions lie outside of the box. A recent solution by Walker, Davies, and others posit that life may be no more than an algorithmic process—in essence, life may be characterized in a “pseudo-top-down-bottom-up-algorithm.” Molecules and the processes of life take shape as bits of information, and “life” and “environment” with its “evolutionary complexity” interact in the following way—
The chemical and physical processes of life form an initial “scaffold” or “architecture” from which evolutionary processes take form. Information and its instructions (molecules and processes) communicate with each from-the-top-down, as well as, from-the-bottom-up possibly due to environmental forces. The origin of life may (?) be formulated when the scaffolding responds to outside forces “conservatively.” Thus, a utilization of standard thermodynamic laws, in effect, precludes the un-raveling of the scaffolding, and original scaffolding responds to outside forces through the “internal algorithm.” Evolutionary changes occur to accommodate the given architecture of life from outside forces (e.g. physical processes: temperature, climate, or over-population).
Thus, the original molecules of life—as important and fascinating they may appear—would have (for the time being) reacted in the same manner that molecules react today, but as most synthetic chemists may attest—the products of any reaction depend the initial and final physical conditions.
Fernando, Chrisantha, Eörs Szathmáry, and Phil Husbands. 2012. “Selectionist and Evolutionary Approaches to Brain Function: a Critical Appraisal.” Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience 6 (April) (January): 24. doi:10.3389/fncom.2012.00024.
We consider approaches to brain dynamics and function that have been claimed to be Darwinian. These include Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection, Changeux’s theory of synaptic selection and selective stabilization of pre-representations, Seung’s Darwinian synapse, Loewenstein’s synaptic melioration, Adam’s selfish synapse, and Calvin’s replicating activity patterns. Except for the last two, the proposed mechanisms are selectionist but not truly Darwinian, because no replicators with information transfer to copies and hereditary variation can be identified in them. All of them fit, however, a generalized selectionist framework conforming to the picture of Price’s covariance formulation, which deliberately was not specific even to selection in biology, and therefore does not imply an algorithmic picture of biological evolution. Bayesian models and reinforcement learning are formally in agreement with selection dynamics. A classification of search algorithms is shown to include Darwinian replicators (evolutionary units with multiplication, heredity, and variability) as the most powerful mechanism for search in a sparsely occupied search space. Examples are given of cases where parallel competitive search with information transfer among the units is more efficient than search without information transfer between units. Finally, we review our recent attempts to construct and analyze simple models of true Darwinian evolutionary units in the brain in terms of connectivity and activity copying of neuronal groups. Although none of the proposed neuronal replicators include miraculous mechanisms, their identification remains a challenge but also a great promise.
Joyce, Gerald F. 2012. “Bit by Bit: The Darwinian Basis of Life.” PLoS Biology 10 (5) (January): e1001323. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001323.
All known examples of life belong to the same biology, but there is increasing enthusiasm among astronomers, astrobiologists, and synthetic biologists that other forms of life may soon be discovered or synthesized. This enthusiasm should be tempered by the fact that the probability for life to originate is not known. As a guiding principle in parsing potential examples of alternative life, one should ask: How many heritable “bits” of information are involved, and where did they come from? A genetic system that contains more bits than the number that were required to initiate its operation might reasonably be considered a new form of life.
Joyce, Gerald F. 2002. “The Antiquity of RNA-based Evolution.” Nature 418 (6894) (July 11): 214–21. doi:10.1038/418214a.
All life that is known to exist on Earth today and all life for which there is evidence in the geological record seems to be of the same form–one based on DNA genomes and protein enzymes. Yet there are strong reasons to conclude that DNA- and protein-based life was preceded by a simpler life form based primarily on RNA. This earlier era is referred to as the ‘RNA world’, during which the genetic information resided in the sequence of RNA molecules and the phenotype derived from the catalytic properties of RNA.
Walker, Sara Imari, Luis Cisneros, and Paul C W Davies. . “Evolutionary Transitions and Top-Down Causation.” arXiv 1207.4808v1 [nlin.AO] 19 Jul 2012
Sara Imari Walker and Paul C. W. Davies.
2012. 2013 “The algorithmic origins of life” J. R. Soc. Interface ( 6 February) vol. 10 no. 79 20120869: doi: 10.1098/rsif.2012.0869
Although it has been notoriously difficult to pin down precisely what is it that makes life so distinctive and remarkable, there is general agreement that its informational aspect is one key property, perhaps the key property. The unique informational narrative of living systems suggests that life may be characterized by context-dependent causal influences, and, in particular, that top-down (or downward) causation—where higher levels influence and constrain the dynamics of lower levels in organizational hierarchies—may be a major contributor to the hierarchal structure of living systems. Here, we propose that the emergence of life may correspond to a physical transition associated with a shift in the causal structure, where information gains direct and context-dependent causal efficacy over the matter in which it is instantiated. Such a transition may be akin to more traditional physical transitions (e.g. thermodynamic phase transitions), with the crucial distinction that determining which phase (non-life or life) a given system is in requires dynamical information and therefore can only be inferred by identifying causal architecture. We discuss some novel research directions based on this hypothesis, including potential measures of such a transition that may be amenable to laboratory study, and how the proposed mechanism corresponds to the onset of the unique mode of (algorithmic) information processing characteristic of living systems.