Jan 13 2009

New Insight into the Origins of Life

Tracey A. Lincoln and Gerald F. Joyce from the Scripps Research Institute this week published a paper in Science detailing their research into Self Sustained Replication of RNA Enzyme. What they found is that their altered RNA, which they modified so that two strands can cross-replicate without the need for any other enzymes or proteins, can replicate indefinitely, doubling their numbers every hour. This has interesting implications for our understanding of the origins of life.

RNA and DNA are the molecules that carry genetic information. It is believed that life arose from molecules that were the ancestors of modern RNA – that the ability of RNA to act as a template for its own replication was enough of a toe-hold in evolution for life to eventually develop around RNA. While it is plausible that such molecular evolution was a precursor to life and the evolution of species, molecules don’t fossilize and so we have precious little direct information about this earliest stage of the development of life. What we do know is largely inferred from laboratory experiments that try to replicate the conditions in which life probably arose.

In contrast to the creationist straw-man that evolutionists believe life arose spontaneously and directly from nothing – the current theory is that millions or even hundreds of millions of years of molecular evolution slowly build the chemistry of life and replication before coming together as a something we would call a living cell. Whether or not RNA itself can be considered “alive” is a matter of debate, but I won’t get into that as it is mostly semantics. Molecular evolution was therefore a stepping stone to biological evolution.

As an analogy, if some day humans create self-replicating artificially intelligent autonomous robots, who then promptly destroy us and all life on earth, a few million years from now their descendants might marvel at how machine “life” could have arisen spontaneously.  They might not be aware that biological evolution was a stepping stone to machine evolution.

Lincoln and Joyce have provided some very provocative information that does not directly answer any questions about pre-life molecular evolution on earth, but does explore the issue of plausibility and will suggest avenues of future research. Specifically, what they found was that when they added different versions of their self-replicating RNA with limited raw material to the same test tube, the different RNA “species’ competed with each other. The more “fit” RNA species, those better able to compete for raw material and replicate, dominated the resulting brew of RNA. Further, different RNA species combined together to form new versions of RNA – the molecules evolved – with more fit molecules being selected for.

This is very significant – a single molecule can replicate, compete, and evolve. Fast forward a few hundred million years on a planetary scale, and something interesting just might turn up.

How do we get from RNA to a living cell? A lot has to happen, but each theoretical step is plausible. Those RNA molecules that replicated faster in the presence of certain proteins would have an advantage. Of those RNA molecules, any that hit upon a property that increased the concentration of those proteins would have a further advantage. We know that bilipid layers spontaneously form spheres – serving as cell membranes. An RNA molecule that could keep iself close to the proteins that make it replicate faster by gathering inside a bilipid bubble would further have an advantage. Now we have a primitive cell. Probably not yet life, but damn close (again, depending on semantics and where you draw the line).

When you think about it, all life is basically a more sophisticated version of this basic setup – RNA and DNA molecules that use proteins to make other proteins that ultimately allow them to replicate more efficiently and compete for raw material.  Yes – this is hyperreductionist, and life has higher order complexity and properties, but you get the idea.

Trying to peer at molecular evolution that occurred 4 billion years ago is tricky business. Progress is understandably slow, but there is progress. This new study is incredibly interesting, but we will have to wait to see how it fairs in peer-review and what it leads to.

Meanwhile, get ready for the DiscoTute and other creationists to start their spin. They will start mowing down the straw men of their own creation in a masturbatory and ultimately futile exercise (if their past behavior is any indication). One non-sequitur they are almost certain to make is to criticize this study because it does not and cannot tell us what actually happened 4 billion years ago. But the research does not endeavor to tell us that – it is aimed as figuring out how life might have arisen by fleshing out a plausible sequence.

The scientists involved are being appropriately conservative in their statements – trying very hard not to overcall the implications of this research.  That’s a good thing. Let the research speak for itself. And while this study is very interesting, I am more intrigued by what it may lead to. Let’s see how far we can take it.

48 responses so far

48 Responses to “New Insight into the Origins of Life”

  1. Susanneon 13 Jan 2009 at 11:04 am

    Very interesting study indeed. The “God of the Gaps” has fewer gaps to fill every day. Keep up the good work.

  2. PaulGon 13 Jan 2009 at 11:55 am

    I’d be fascinated to see where this line of research would take us with reference to the RNA viruses (i.e. Birnaviridae, Totiviridae et. al.), whether or not it might lead to novel anti-viral approaches?

    This isn’t an area I’m familiar with… anybody’s thoughts?

  3. IanJNon 13 Jan 2009 at 12:55 pm

    One non-sequitur they are almost certain to make is to criticize this study because it does not and cannot tell us what actually happened 4 billion years ago.

    You’re right, unfortunately. They’ll also spin this as a win for ID, because the findings required intelligent involvement (i.e. the researchers). That’s essentially how they dismiss breeding as an argument for natural selection. “Proof of concept” means nothing.

  4. HHCon 13 Jan 2009 at 1:13 pm

    The literary concept of “Being and Nothingness” dates back to 1943 with the writings of French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre.
    More recent scientific debate suggests there was an anaerobic basis to life and then the “Big Bang” occurred. Thus, the process of evolutionary life may have been initiated without oxygen.

  5. Jim Shaveron 13 Jan 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Susanne said:

    The “God of the Gaps” has fewer gaps to fill every day.

    On the other hand, experience has shown us that when one gap is filled by science, creationists just delight in claiming to see two new gaps, one to each side.

  6. TheBlackCaton 13 Jan 2009 at 1:43 pm

    @ HHC: Not “may have been”. Free oxygen simply does not occur in any significant amount without life. It is far too reactive. The only known process that produces molecular oxygen in any significant amounts is life. Before life, and in fact through much of the existence of life, there was no free oxygen. By looking at ancient minerals scientists can determine when free oxygen first appeared, and it comes long after the first fossilized life-forms (which were all single-celled at the time).

  7. daedalus2uon 13 Jan 2009 at 2:54 pm

    A pathway that I think many have overlooked is via proteases. Proteases catalyze the hydrolysis of peptide bonds. That is they increase the kinetics of bond formation and bond breaking. The thermodynamics of protein stability depends on the concentration of peptides and water. In a dehydrated state peptide bonds are stable, in a dilute state they are not.

    Cycles of drying and wetting, as in condensation of dew and drying by the sun could drive cycles of protein bond hydrolysis and protein bond formation. On a first order peptides would be selected for that catalyzed their own formation. On a second order, puddles that supported greater peptide synthesis would be selected for. An example might be the selection of something like cytochrome c, which does catalyze the reduction of nitrate to ammonia (even when highly denatured, as in boiled). Nitrate would be available from lightning, reduction to ammonia would be necessary for amino acid formation. The physiology of a puddle could progress from reduction via metal sulfides to catalytic reduction via metal sulfides to catalytic reduction via metal sulfur clusters held in proteins.

    There is some precedent for this in prion formation.

  8. cwfongon 13 Jan 2009 at 4:52 pm

    “Specifically, what they found was that when they added different versions of their self-replicating RNA with limited raw material to the same test tube, the different RNA “species’ competed with each other. The more “fit” RNA species, those better able to compete for raw material and replicate, dominated the resulting brew of RNA.”

    What are the odds that this would be the genesis of an organisms’ calculative process – the first building block of a decision making mechanism perhaps?

  9. Michael Meadonon 13 Jan 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Relatedly, Carl Zimmer also a popular piece in (also in this week’s Science) on the origins of life: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/323/5911/198?rss=1

    An interesting point Dawkins has made about abiogenesis bears repeating: when explaining the origin of life, we can reasonably invoke exceedingly rare events in the causal process. That is, because there are hundreds of millions of years between when life could have arisen and when it actually arose, we have a lot of time to play with, as it were. As a result, we can invoke events that happen on average only once every, say, 5 million years and still have enough time left to ensure that the probability of life emerging is near unity.

  10. Michael Meadonon 13 Jan 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Sorry, should have been: “Carl Zimmer has a piece (also in Science)…”

  11. MKandeferon 13 Jan 2009 at 5:08 pm

    “As an analogy, if some day humans create self-replicating artificially intelligent autonomous robots, who then promptly destroy us and all life on earth, a few million years from now their descendants might marvel at how machine “life” could have arisen spontaneously. They might not be aware that biological evolution was a stepping stone to machine evolution.”

    Good analogy, and personal goal! =D

  12. cwfongon 13 Jan 2009 at 5:18 pm

    “Specifically, what they found was that when they added different versions of their self-replicating RNA with limited raw material to the same test tube, the different RNA “species’ competed with each other. The more “fit” RNA species, those better able to compete for raw material and replicate, dominated the resulting brew of RNA.”

    OK, I’ll ask it another way: Were those better able to compete not learning somehow from experience? Was there not some rudimentary predictive calculation going on to allow the experience to be beneficial?

  13. IanJNon 13 Jan 2009 at 5:33 pm

    OK, I’ll ask it another way: Were those better able to compete not learning somehow from experience? Was there not some rudimentary predictive calculation going on to allow the experience to be beneficial?

    I’m not sure I understand you. RNA is a molecule, not an organism.

  14. cwfongon 13 Jan 2009 at 6:03 pm

    That’s the point – it’s being looked at as the theoretical precursor of single cell life forms, aka organisms. Organisms have a rudimetory calculative apparatus. The question as to whether that arose as early as this RNA competitive process thus seems relevant.

  15. cwfongon 13 Jan 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Of course it could be nature’s “accidental” way or process of matching the relative squareness of an assortment of pegs to the relative roundness of an assortment of holes.

  16. cwfongon 13 Jan 2009 at 8:20 pm

    “Further, different RNA species combined together to form new versions of RNA – the molecules evolved – with more fit molecules being selected for.”
    Was this then one of the the first examples of mutation? Or an early example of experience facilitating selection? Or none of the above – in which case competition and evolution occurred only in a metaphorical sense?

  17. cwfongon 14 Jan 2009 at 2:11 am

    Lastly, if you fail to acknowledge the possible existence of any mechanism in RNA species that could account for this apparent ability to compete for available resources from the get go, then you seem to open the door to a creationist position that any such competition would have been directed by an intelligent creator, since the RNA could clearly have had no intelligence of its own to direct or succeed in any competitive enterprise. That is if you still accept that the species were capable of competing.

  18. skUon 14 Jan 2009 at 8:06 am

    “the RNA could clearly have had no intelligence of its own to direct or succeed in any competitive enterprise.”

    cwfong, you seem to be laboring under a misconception about what is needed for two things to compete. There is no need for the RNA to have any intelligence what so ever in order to compete. I’m not the best one to explain this, but the fact that an organism can replicate itself using materials found in the environment is all that is needed to allow it to compete against another organism. Two different ‘species’ of replicators, mindlessly repeating themselves compete for limited resources quite easily without any sort of intelligence.

  19. DevilsAdvocateon 14 Jan 2009 at 9:48 am

    Jim Shaver: “On the other hand, experience has shown us that when one gap is filled by science, creationists just delight in claiming to see two new gaps, one to each side.”

    Here’s my entry for Nitpick Of The Year Award…. when one gap is filled, the *net* gain is only one new gap, not two. lol

  20. RickKon 14 Jan 2009 at 10:53 am

    “That’s the point – it’s being looked at as the theoretical precursor of single cell life forms, aka organisms. Organisms have a rudimetory calculative apparatus. The question as to whether that arose as early as this RNA competitive process thus seems relevant.”

    This question comes up often when people are talking about early proto-life. There is an impression that “competition” is an active biological process. But competition does not necessarily mean so “calculated” or active a process.

    I’m no geologist, so I won’t try to name minerals here. But let me try out an analogy. Imagine a very small cave in a bed of rock. The cave has a small opening that leads out into more open space. Now imagine two different mineral crystals forming in the cave. The first one that happens to grow big enough to reach the opening is then able to grow larger still, leaving the confines of the cave. It has “out competed” the other crystal, no biology involved.

    So I think these non-living, but self-replicating molecules worked the same way. Some replicated better than others, and those grew more and faster. A precious few (1 in billions or trillions?) had slight replication errors (mutations) that caused them to replicate a bit faster or better. Over hundreds of millions of years, the “replicate more” errors added onto each other, while the “replicate less” errors faded away. Maybe some of these molecules bonded together to create relatively large changes. Along the way, some replication errors led to changes in how energy was consumed.

    By piling these changes on little by little, and by being lucky enough to avoid molecule-destroying gamma ray bursts or asteroids for a long enough period of time, very gradually something that looked a little bit like life took shape. The exact point that “biology began” will never be known, as we can never repeat the exact process. But we can certainly identify candidate chemicals, molecules and reactions that would explain a natural progression from non-life to life.

    Creationists often use the analogy that life is like a machine, and all machines are designed. “A whirlwind could blow through a scrapyard forever without creating a 747.” But imagine if you took that proverbial scrapyard of bits of metal and plastic and whatever, and you added a mechanism for the pieces to stick together (e.g. chemical bonding) and you start randomly sticking parts together. Then you add a replication mechanism. Then you added a selection mechanism – any combination of parts that can move wins and gets to replicate, and the parts that move faster replicate more. And finally, add the ability for the parts themselves to alter ever so slightly when they replacate (mutation). Now, introduce your whirlwind and wait. Most parts that stick together won’t do anything.

    But one day a bit of metal sticks to another bit of different metal like the bi-metallic spring in a thermostat switch. A little heat, and it moves, so it replicates. Over time it mutates, maybe gets longer, sticks to a wheel, whatever. Now you’ve got something that inches along the ground whenever the sun rises and sets. So it replicates more, and so there are more copies that can mutate. Tiny changes over time, and eventually you’re going to have something that can move along pretty good. Give it billions of years with billions of interactions/reactions per day, and you’ve got a rocket car.

    It’s a silly picture, I know. But the creationists leave out the all-important combination of replication, mutation and selection. Not to mention other factors like symbiosis (like when cells and mitochondria got together) and other ways making more rapid advances. Clearly, it’s not all *random* as the creationists like to say, but it is dependent upon a random “trial and error” component. But as long as there is a selection mechanism, then evolution will occur, even before you have anything that can be called life.

  21. cwfongon 14 Jan 2009 at 1:12 pm

    sku,
    You took that sentence of mine out of context – I was referring to what the creationist position would be if you argue that RNA species were competing but don’t grant that any form of calculative process was used to do so.
    And I’m not the peson who posted that they were actually competing – I simply wondered if the good doctor who posted this item had any explanation of why he seemed o agree that competion was actually occurring. Obviously he chooses to remain silent on this issue.

    I personally accept that this may actually have been the case – that there was competition and a rudimentary form of calculation, perhaps involving the simplest of symbolic algorithms, was involved.

    But you of course say this: “Two different ’species’ of replicators, mindlessly repeating themselves compete for limited resources quite easily without any sort of intelligence.”

    And I say if there was no decision making process, no probing, no reacting accordingly, there was no competition – just the luck of the draw – the closest the peg to the shape of the nourishing hole wins the pot. But that’s not competition in any biological sense, and that’s what is being referred to here – biology, not mineralogy or geology.

    Otherwise why did the poster of this insightful item find this “competition” to be rather remarkable? Rhetorical question of course.

  22. cwfongon 14 Jan 2009 at 1:29 pm

    RickK,
    That’s all very well, except that somewhere along he line you introduced intelligence into the process, but were unable to say where that point was. All I’m asking was, did that point occur with the RNA species showing an ability to compete, or did it come later? And if it didn’t come at this point, then what’s so remarkable about the appearance of competition, if competition occurs in nature all the time with no life involved. After all, the subject was about the start of life, not simply the start or nature of molecular activity.

  23. cwfongon 14 Jan 2009 at 1:59 pm

    For those who are interested in the contrast between the evolution of mineralogical and biological systems, as well as where they intersect, check this out:
    http://www.livescience.com/common/media/video/player.php?videoRef=081113_LifeRocks

  24. cwfongon 14 Jan 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Actually I erred in stating that RickK had introduced intelligence into the process of life’s genesis or subsequent evolution. He didnt account for inteligence or even the simplest form of calculative mechaism in that development. He did mention random trial and error, whatever the hell that means, but nothing about any choice making apparatus, without which trial and error is ordinarily viewed as useless.

    Things stick together in his world, replicate, get hot and move along the ground, mutate, select in or out, but no computing, thinking or learning seems to have been necessary – except as icing on the elemental cake of life, perhaps.

  25. daedalus2uon 14 Jan 2009 at 4:27 pm

    When crystals grow, they “compete” with each other for molecules of what ever it is that the crystals are formed of. Because the solubility of solids depends (in a small way) on the size of the crystal (smaller ones are more soluble), small crystals tend to dissolve while larger crystals are getting bigger.

    This happens with essentially all crystals, even ice. Those who want to anthropomorphize would say that is due to the “intelligence” of water.

  26. cwfongon 14 Jan 2009 at 4:53 pm

    daedalus,
    But this is clearly using “compete” as a metaphor, which, if that’s what Dr. N was doing, makes the observation that RNA species were competing less of a remarkable accomplishment and hardly what he refers to as a new insight.
    I personally think it does offer new insight, and it’s unfortunate he is unable to articulate it more precisely, or elaborate on its scientific inference.

  27. sonicon 14 Jan 2009 at 4:57 pm

    cwfong-
    You are asking the good questions.
    One problem is in defining ‘intelligence’. Recently Trewavas has argued that plants exhibit intelligence. Certainly he and his cohorts have managed to demonstrate behavior in plants that would be called intelligent if seen done by animals.
    Another problem has to do with the gigantic leaps in logic taken by saying ‘molecular evolution is a stepping stone to biological evolution.’ It is telling that the analogy to machines is pure science fiction. It is hard to say at what point we are dealing with anything actual or if we are dealing with pure science fiction. (This is not the first time claims like this have been made…)
    The notion that ‘replication plus mutation’ can account for what we call life is known not to fit with the observations. But it does have a nice logic.

  28. IanJNon 14 Jan 2009 at 5:15 pm

    But this is clearly using “compete” as a metaphor, which, if that’s what Dr. N was doing, makes the observation that RNA species were competing less of a remarkable accomplishment and hardly what he refers to as a new insight.

    The definition of competition here is “The simultaneous demand by two or more organisms for limited environmental resources” (except not organisms). It doesn’t indicate a purposeful contest, nor is it a metaphor. That’s how biologists use the word.

    Also, it’s not the competition aspect that makes this study significant–as per the above definition, that part’s easy. Rather, it’s the “Self Sustained Replication of RNA Enzyme.” Self sustained replication, because that’s a pre-requisite for evolution to occur (replication + variation + selection = evolution). RNA, because it’s suspected to be life’s molecular precursor. By showing how RNA might replicate, this study adds credence to that idea.

  29. PaulGon 14 Jan 2009 at 5:30 pm

    @DevilsAdvocate

    To nitpick even further, technically it’s not even a net gain of one NEW gap, but two thirds left of the OLD gap.

  30. cwfongon 14 Jan 2009 at 5:52 pm

    IanJN
    If it’s not being used as a metaphor, and it involves biological entities, then unless there is some type of a computational factor involved in the competition, it’s not in anyway remarkable. If there is, however, a computational factor, it would be extremely important to discover what that was. That’s my question – does anyone have some understanding of how that computation might be occurring.

    Plus biologists aren’t excluding the use of a calculative process when they speak of competition, nor are they excluding purpose. If you are of the opinion that they have no interest in the onset of the calculative process that has been crucial to the development of life forms, you are in error, because to a substantial number of biologists, this is a compelling field of study.

  31. cwfongon 14 Jan 2009 at 6:18 pm

    sonic, it IS difficult to define intelligence. You have scientists that equate life itself with the onset of intelligence in nature. Then you have a true genius such as Hawkins referring to unintelligent life, as if there either is no calculative process involved at early stages, or if there is, it doesn’t qualify as intelligent until perhaps it’s a conscious process.
    Whatever the case, there is no intelligence without computation and arguably no life without it either. If RNA species don’t compute, they won’t be regarded as life by those who define it as a self-replicating system with expectations. And those who don’t think life needs to compute don’t seem to think it needs to have any future as long as it competes with no expectation or regard for the consequences.

  32. cwfongon 14 Jan 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Hawking was what I meant to type, not Hawkins. Reminding me that expectation is at bottom a mechanical process that is at best limited to the questions it was “designed” to address. Such as a spell checker that can’t anticipate all incorrect nomenclature.

  33. RickKon 14 Jan 2009 at 9:31 pm

    “After all, the subject was about the start of life, not simply the start or nature of molecular activity.”

    Actually, the subject is the “origins” of life, not the start. As IanJN said, replication+variation+selection=evolution. And this article was about replication, which is a necessary precursor of life. So it is a component of the origins of life, but is not about the point in evolution where we could first say “this is living”. That point was probably VERY vague because given any two states between “non-life” and “life” you can probably imagine one or more intermediate states.

  34. cwfongon 14 Jan 2009 at 9:52 pm

    Well Rick, in some circles “origin” and “start” tend to mean the same thing. Except that origin implies a much broader area of inquiry than life’s startup process on earth. You know, abiogenesis, biogenesis and all that rot.
    The article was actually about replication that included an aspect of competition not fully anticipated by the experimenters. And this post emphasized that aspect. And my question was about that aspect.

    But since you clearly never anticipated dealing with any questions involving either the calculative or competitive aspects of evolutionary biology, I’m not surprised at the lack of information in your present response.

  35. IanJNon 14 Jan 2009 at 10:01 pm

    More detail about the study here:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/01/chemical_replicators.php

  36. cwfongon 14 Jan 2009 at 10:32 pm

    The researchers were quoted as saying their RNA species “replicated and acquired functionality.”
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99132608

    functionality |ˌfə ng k sh əˈnalətē|
    noun
    1 the quality of being suited to serve a purpose well; practicality : I like the feel and functionality of this bakeware.
    • the purpose that something is designed or expected to fulfill : manufacturing processes may be affected by the functionality of the product.
    2 the range of operations that can be run on a computer or other electronic system : new software with additional functionality.

    So that partially answers my question, and of course raises many more questions n the process. Such as are the researchers right about this, and if so, what will they discover next as to the mechanism through which functionality was caused to operate or become operative. Is it a choice making or a choice inducing process or none of the above, for example.
    Rhetorical questions of course.

  37. […] to Dr. Steven Novella’s Neurologica Blog for the heads-up on this new study. I now owe Dr. Novella a White Russian, which I shall supply him […]

  38. Eric Thomsonon 15 Jan 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Great stuff, thanks for the summary.

  39. daedalus2uon 15 Jan 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Competition is used all the time in a biological sense without any requirement of “calculation”.

    When two molecules “compete” for a binding site on another molecule, one can “calculate” what the binding coefficients should be based on molecular dynamics. That is a very difficult calculation to do with enough precision to make accurate predictions.

    That “competition” is part of every interaction that any two molecules can have.

    People are being too anthropomorphic. Chemicals reacting in solution do so without intention or without any human-like motivations. Trying to understand molecules in solution by giving them human attributes is to grossly distort what is going on.

    Thinking that you “understand” what is going on in solution by giving the reacting molecules human-like attributes is a sign that you don’t understand what is going on.

    That was the essence of vitalism, the idea that there was some sort of mystical magical force that made living things behave differently than dead things. There isn’t any such thing. Or more precisely, there is no evidence for any such thing, assuming vitalism has no explanatory value and no positive predictive value that has been verified. Every prediction that vitalism makes contradicts the hypothesis of non-vitalism has turned out to be wrong.

    That people persist in vitalism-type beliefs tells us something about human understanding, not anything about physical reality.

  40. cwfongon 15 Jan 2009 at 3:53 pm

    Daedalus:
    Saying that molecules compete is to invoke some mystical magical force, not the other way around. Humans invented such definitions to fit their concepts of nature’s motivating forces on the assumption that there were such forces to begin with.
    The researchers in this instance saw the competition as remarkable because it appeared to be a functional exercise, not the choice induced process of molecular interaction.

    The essential difference between biological entities and the molecular entities that form them is that biological competitions are functional – simply put, they involve choice making calculations in addition to choice inducement. There are no choice making calculations as we understand them at the molecular level. They compete only in a metaphorical sense.

  41. sonicon 15 Jan 2009 at 4:16 pm

    cwfong-
    I would agree with you that life includes intelligence and expectations. Certainly all the forms we study seem to. (Recently it has been seen true of bacteria, e.g.)
    This is an important aspect of life, I believe, as with the recognition of this we have the possibility of reconciling modern physics with biology.
    I am interested,where you get this definition?

  42. cwfongon 15 Jan 2009 at 5:14 pm

    sonic:
    I can’t say where I first came across that definition, but I’m sure I’m not alone in recognizing it points to the essential difference between life as a self-motivating entity and non-life forms as essentially reactive – rather than being able, in effect, to have some control over their own destinies.
    Life is self sustaining because it has predictive mechanisms. Predictions translate to expectations. This is a mechanical process that humans perceive in the abstract but don’t yet understand the particulars.
    Which is why the experiment in question is so interesting to me. We may be learning something new as to how the decision making process that is essential to forming expectations has evolved.

    Another word some use in place of expectation is anticipation. There’s a subtle difference that may define some forms of motivation better than others. (I’m still working on that one, however.)

  43. RickKon 15 Jan 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Are viruses “organisms” by this definition? If not, why not. If so, do they then have a rudimentary “intelligence” or ability for “calculation”?

  44. sonicon 16 Jan 2009 at 3:30 am

    cwfong-
    I agree you are not alone. It is just an interesting way to go.
    We often think of the’cause’ of something as what precides. (The white ball hit the red ball ‘causing’ the red ball to move)
    But it seems that life can cause things and is usually motivated by the future. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (for example)
    Is this similar thinking?

  45. cwfongon 16 Jan 2009 at 4:16 am

    sonic:
    It’s similar in that the white ball can’t predict that the red ball will hit it in time to then choose whether or not to avoid it. Virtually all life forms have sensory apparatus to feed them the information needed from their particular environment that allows them the option of that choice. Various forms of algorithmic constructs will almost automatically select the response. So while some might argue it’s still an induced choice, at least it’s a self-induced one. There are also neurons that act as memory and become the repository of the organism’s experience – adding in turn to its bank of options in ways that are yet to be fully understood.

  46. cwfongon 17 Jan 2009 at 4:27 am

    By the way, here’s a reference to some really calculating little buggers:

    Cheating Viruses and Game Theory

    http://www.americanscientist.org/my_amsci/restricted.aspx?act=pdf&id=3640507368838

  47. RickKon 17 Jan 2009 at 2:29 pm

    I’m having a hard time understanding this line of discussion, cwfong.

    Are you suggesting you think viruses are “calculating” their actions, that they have “will”? You think they make decisions?

    In that article, the viruses that happened to be able to make use of the resources of other viruses replicated more quickly. There’s no decision making involved. Do dandelion seeds “choose” where to land?

  48. cwfongon 17 Jan 2009 at 4:32 pm

    No, the destinies of the seeds have been influenced through and by a long series of choices made in part by the algorithmic systems that have contributed to the survival and evolution of plants.
    Also there are limits to what any organism can control by choice. But of course you knew that.
    These actions, as are yours, are at bottom mechanical – the power of will is one of our illusionary concepts. But of course you knew that as well.

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