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Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Life: survival versus reproduction

1.       Life is often thought of and analysed from the viewpoint of the individual organism. In a previous post (The Apparent Complexity in Life’s Evolution and Its Explanation ), I suggested defining life as a process rather than an organism, therefore clarifying tricky areas such as viruses and their status of being alive or not, and other life products that may be alive in some situations that are very conditional e.g. seeds.

In attempting to explain life from the viewpoint of the individual organism, the basic function of life appears to be survival of the organism. There have been plenty of discussions over the fundamental unit of life in the context of evolution, that have suggested various “vehicles” of life information including genes themselves, species, populations (Jablonka and Lamb, 2006), etc.

The issue of course with this viewpoint is that organisms always die. Life clearly has no interest whatsoever in the actual survival of any given organism into infinity by itself. Indeed, the same can easily be extended to species. Life has thrived not through survival of any given individual organism or species at all, and instead, through survival of life processes spanning countless individual organisms and species. This entire show has been sponsored by reproduction.

2.       Reproduction in the context of life is better or easier than plain survival – but what is it better at?
It is better at providing the opportunity for adaptation. Life cannot exist in a vacuum, and if life is to be a complement of non-life, of the environment, it must be able to change, to update, through time and space as the universe is doing.
The directionality of time explains why reproduction makes more sense than mere survival ad infinitum. Each cycle, each generation, is a change. And starting to change from square one, developmentally speaking, is far more straightforward than starting to change from square 47. Getting babies and children to learn slightly differently, or gain some new abilities that are new, is easier than getting a mature, further down the line organism to do the same.
After all, adults will have always been selected for as babies for their ability to be adapted to their present, but not the unknown future. The only way, apparently, to greet the future, the unknown pressures, is to renew the organism, or indeed the genome, via reproduction.

3.       Sexual reproduction has often been discussed as the great enabler of diversification, mutation, evolution. What about asexual reproduction? What is the point in reproducing oneself if the result is merely clones all over again? Why make them rather than simply maintain the already existing organisms?

It isn't just the diversification offered by sexual reproduction that enables life through reproduction; it is also merely the process of repeating a developmental pathway, be it a different one or the exact same one all over again, as it is in asexual reproduction.

Cycling life, which is defined as certain processes distinct from non-life, has been much easier, more environmentally or energetically amenable than producing and maintaining individual organisms themselves ad infinitum. This matter comes into sharp focus when discussing ageing, death and the role of life’s evolution in shaping organisms, reproduction, as well as potential directions to be taken by civilizations to offset these evolved truths in an attempt to break them and move forward into something else, away from past directions.

4.       The point at which we will be able to offset the reliance of life on reproduction in its original, or current, sense, is the point at which we are able to enact changes, adaptations, of mature organisms, that are at least as efficient as "natural" changes that occur in reproduction. 

This could be things like manipulating the genome, developmental paths, tissues and functions, etc. 

This obviously is a grand challenge. 

After all... Life hasn't been doing nothing all this time. Or indeed, time hasn't been doing nothing all this life. 


Reference

E. Jablonka and M. Lamb (2006), Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life, MIT Press, ISBN 978-0262600699

The Apparent Complexity in Life’s Evolution and Its Explanation

1. What is to be defined as life? Life is a process rather than an organism

2. In thinking about life’s evolution, apparent directionality towards complexity has been noted, at the same time as the apparent contradiction of simple life still existing alongside; this is the “Why do monkeys still exist?” conundrum. What is this apparent direction towards higher complexity, what’s behind it, is it evidence of God, is it evidence of anything at all?
Life’s evolution and apparent tendency towards complexity is, I propose, simply a function of time and nothing else.
Life does not exist in a vacuum or in abstract. Life, as a process distinct from non-life processes, takes place in a non-life environment and must be tightly connected to it. We see this most evidently in the form of life’s “adaptations” to its environments. Therefore, life is indeed a mirror, or a complement, of all else.
All else, in a general sense, is the universe itself. Don’t ask about that – that’s a whole different soup trying to be worked out altogether. If life is a mirror, or function, of the universe; and the universe is indeed expanding in time space, with evolution being a function of time, it follows that life’s evolution is a result of the universe’s movements. If an increasing complexity of the universe is a function of the universe expanding, then life evolves towards some seeming increasing complexity as a function of the universe itself tending towards this complexity, or expansion – depending on whether expansion and complexity are functions of each other.
Now, what is complexity in this context? Complexity characterises an increase in information density of a given object. A square may be small and yellow. Another may be small, yellow and furry. The second has to be more complex right? What, then, is an increasing complexity? What does it lead to? It can be a deceiving concept. Take computers for example. Moore’s law famously laid out that every couple of years or so the computing power humans would be able to create would double, and at the same time become cheaper.
The computer itself is more complex because it achieves more processes and handles more information than before – it is more complex. Yet the size and price plummet. The size becomes simpler, the price becomes simpler. Inherently, there is less information characterising a small, ubiquitous object than a large, unique one. In this sense, increasing computing complexity also and at the same time, decreases other of its parameters’ complexity. Computer becomes more complex as its structure and availability becomes simpler.
This isn’t really a contradiction. After all, simplifying a mass adds more complexity to the energy released, while simplifying the energy adds more complexity to the mass in a mass-energy conversion. What are they interchanging and what are they a function of? Time. The evolution of complexity follows time.
If the universe is expanding thus creating more time, some of it must be becoming more complex while the rest must be simplifying. This processes follow one direction, that given by time.
What is life doing? Apparently, becoming more complex. Life is evolving along this axis of time that is expanding into the universe.
3. If the environment of life is becoming more complex in its phenomena, or indeed simply existing along the axis of time, life necessarily follows.

4. No additional components are needed to cause an increase in complexity. Time itself endows the environment with additional information to build with, to build on. As a reductionist mathematical example, take numbers 2 and 12. Number 2 may be considered less complex than 12 because it is smaller in a spatial sense, or “earlier” in a time sense. However, in a conceptual sense, number 12 doesn't need anything special to exist, given number 2, other than the time axis, or indeed the space axis – interchangeable.
The only thing needed for 12 to exist, from a basic starting unit of 2, is space for six number 2 (6 times 2 is 12); or time for 2 to be counted 6 times. After all, we don’t look at a watch and say it’s only been 1 minute not 2 because the hand passing twice through the exact same space “doesn't count”. It does count, that’s counting, and that’s time.
2 2 2 2 2 2 is 12 in space
2 “times” 6 is 12 in time

5. Similarly, evolution of life does not require any magic dust to tend towards complexity. Many products of evolution are simply results of a long time on the same Earth, and the space itself being subject to increasing complexity.
This increasing complexity, defined by an increased information density, has led to the apparent “complex life” we judge as such. Despite our need to understand this deeply, life as a process is not that interested.

6. As individual organisms we of course judge life by this benchmark – the individual organism. Life as a process does not much care about the individual organism, that’s why reproduction has evolved instead of mere survival into infinity, and also it is why different species have arisen. The actual form of the individual organism is quite irrelevant to life as a process. That is why monkeys still exist. Life does not tend towards complexity as a purpose in itself, like for example survival as a purpose in itself, which we can agree is what life is so damned good at. Complexity, beauty, meaning in individual species, life forms and organisms are a function of their environment and the universe itself, and not anything to do with the definition of life itself.
Life need not be anything other than just life. Life not complex, not beautiful and not meaningful may well still be life; indeed still is, life. On this note, referring back to point (1), life is a process. Life is not a form. We have mistaken our perception of life as species-based, appearance-based.
Life permeates everything equally.
Life is not the virus that lies dormant for 300 years before it finds its host to enable it to live. Life is not the seed that lies buried in an iceberg, never to grow into anything. Life is not the tree of life, categorising parents and children into boxes based on the light frequencies our eyes can distinguish between, to be able to tell them apart.
Life is the process that bridges these items seamlessly through time and space into an unbroken continuum of perpetuation, unbiased towards shape, form, function, purpose or lack thereof, intelligence, state of consciousness, or indeed anything else that is tangent to its sole function – to carry on.
Any curiosity arising from this process of life, whether it be a number of whatever we define as species, a number of whatever we define as physiological phenomena, biochemical reactions and others, is to be sooner attributed to the universe as a whole rather than life itself.
Life is simple but the universe is not.