Looking for the Logos of Life VII: Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. By Robert Louis Stevenson. I listened to the wonderful Librivox recording.

At first glance, a story set in nineteenth-century London may seem far afield for a Nearctic traveller. There are two reasons, however, to consider it. First, Stevenson is one of the most accomplished writers I know, whose Travels with a Donkey I intend to post about someday, and whose Treasure Island was THE adventure tale of my childhood. Second there is this passage in the story (which otherwise is too familiar to summarize) about the relation between the lives of our souls and bodies, and this relevant to a search for the logos of life:

“I was so far in my reflections when, as I have said, a side light began to shine upon the subject from the laboratory table. I began to perceive more deeply than it has ever yet been stated, the trembling immateriality, the mistlike transience, of this seemingly so solid body in which we walk attired. Certain agents I found to have the power to shake and pluck back that fleshly vestment, even as a wind might toss the curtains of a pavilion. For two good reasons, I will not enter deeply into this scientific branch of my confession. First, because I have been made to learn that the doom and burthen of our life is bound for ever on man’s shoulders, and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it but returns upon us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure. Second, because, as my narrative will make, alas! too evident, my discoveries were incomplete. Enough then, that I not only recognized my natural body from the mere aura and effulgence of certain of the powers that made up my spirit, but managed to compound a drug by which these powers should be dethroned from their supremacy, and a second form and countenance substituted, none the less natural to me because they were the expression, and bore the stamp of lower elements in my soul.”

So here we have a dramatic statement of an old thesis about the mind vs body question, which has never ceased to captivate natural philosophers and others. Two very challenging recent papers that seek the logos of conscious, self- directed life through mathematical argument are

Hoffman, D. D., & Prakash, C. (2014). Objects of consciousness. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 577. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00577

Conway, John; Simon Kochen (2006). “The Free Will Theorem”. Foundations of Physics. 36 (10): 1441. arXiv:quant-ph/0604079Freely accessible. Bibcode:2006FoPh…36.1441C. doi:10.1007/s10701-006-9068-6.

At this point all I can say is that I hope someday to get some idea what these authors are talking about. Will the result be enlightening, or could they simply have found new pathways into madness like poor Dr. Jeckyll?

Looking for the logos of life VI: Gaian analysis

Williams, G. R. 1996. The Molecular Biology of Gaia. Columbia University Press. 210 pp.

This is a book I wish I had read when it was first published. Williams lays out so many interesting scientific problems so clearly that I would have expected that it would have considerable influence on subsequent research, somewhat as Schrodinger’s What is Life? the subject of the first post in this series. I was somewhat surprised that Google Scholar only finds a few citations of this book. Perhaps William’s scholarly papers have been more extensively cited.

William’s goal is to see why the famous Gaia hypothesis has attracted so much popular interest, while receiving little positive notice from practicing biologists. He wants to determine whether the hypothesis is actually useful, either as a metaphor or a verifiable model of the function of the biosphere. The central question is whether it can explain why the Earth has remained habitable throughout the several billion-year history of the biosphere. That it has is not in question: all evidence points to the occupation of Earth continuously by the descendants of the first living things, which originated 3.5 billion years ago. This strongly implies that the earth has not frozen or boiled and that life has not otherwise been poisoned or starved during that time. Some factor or factors has kept the conditions on at least some of the Earth within the ranges essential to living organisms of some kind. In fact the conditions have not become intolerable to land plants and metazoans at least for hundreds of millions of years. The concept of the continuity of descent, expressed beautifully by Loren Eisley’s image of each of us trailing a long chain of ghostly ancestors, stretching back to those first living things, is to me one of the most useful ways to imagine what evolution is all about. If there had ever been a break in that chain, you and I would simply not exist.

The Gaia hypothesis states that this stability is the result of homeostasis: the regulation by negative feedback (like a thermostat) of a living super organism, Gaia. In its strongest form, the hypothesis is that life on the planet, the biosphere, regulates itself just as a single organism, whether a single cell or a multicellular individual, does. This idea has an obvious appeal: just as networks of interacting macromolecules make up a cell, which is capable of regulating its internal environment, so do networks of interacting cells make up tissues, organs and whole organisms that are able to regulate their internal environment. At least some organisms, like ants and bees, live in self-regulating colonies. Why shouldn’t all the organisms on earth form a self-regulating system?

Williams answers that for biologists the problem is how such a self-regulated super organism could be put together in the first place. Natural selection can explain how self-replicating systems can evolve, because natural laws can discriminate among multiple variant copies that compete for limited resources. The Earth is not self-replicating. There are no variants among which nature can select. There is only one. This problem led Lynn Margulis to argue that Darwinian evolution was not really that important, and that symbiogenesis was the true explanation. Margulis’s great contribution was the discovery that certain cellular organelles, chloroplasts and mitochondria, were once free-living organisms. More broadly, she showed that evolutionary advances by the incorporation and integration of separate living parts were behind the origin of the eukaryotes and that similar processes continue to operate in the form of horizontal gene transfer. The trouble with claiming that symbiogenesis is a replacement for Darwinian natural selection is that it appears obvious that all such new combinations remain subject to survival of the fittest.

Would it be possible for a Gaia-like system to arise in part of the biosphere and then spread, supplanting the less effective parts? Only if it’s self-regulating effects were confined to where it first existed, as might work for something like the terrestrial nitrogen cycle. It seems less likely where the atmosphere and oceans are involved, since they carry the products all over the planet.

Williams also points out that there is more than one possible explanation for the continuous suitability of the Earth for living things. He lists four: luck, inertia, equilibrium, and homeostasis. He analyzes each possibility in turn, and shows how each may contribute to the persistence of habitable conditions. In the case of homeostasis, he distinguishes between negative feedbacks from purely physical and chemical forces involving the lithosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere and ones that require the biosphere. It is possible that even if there were no life on Earth, the temperature would stay within habitable limits (basically the range where liquid water can exist) just because of feedback among the temperature and the release and sequestration of carbon from air, ocean and rocks.

According to Williams, if you try to assess this possibility, the difficulty is that today the rates of almost all steps in this process, except volcanism, are under catalysis by organisms. We don’t know what an abiotic planet would be like. As of the time he wrote this book, not enough was known about the global chemical cycles at the molecular level to settle the question how much life matters. He gives an example of what was known about the molecular biology of nitrogen to show how complex the regulation of these cycles is likely to be. Nutrients move among four pools: inorganic forms in the lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere; nutrients in forms available for uptake by organisms in the same three spheres and the biosphere itself as accumulated by organisms; nutrients incorporated into living cells and tissues; and bio products, from the cellulose of wood in trees to dead plants and animals to dissolved organic compounds to fossil fuels. All these are connected by flows and many of those flows (mobilization, assimilation, regeneration, sequestration and excretion) are controlled by living organisms, via enzyme-catalyzed, energy-requiring reactions.

I like this book because Williams thinks about Earth and ecology very much as I do. I learned from my professors at Cornell in the early 1970s about five processes of ecology: population dynamics, natural selection, energy flow, nutrient cycling and cultural evolution. These are closely interrelated ways of looking at the overall phenomenon of life on earth, or as I like to define ecology, the structure and function of the biosphere. Is the function of the biosphere to regulate the habitability of the planet, or does the planet have the property of remaining a stable habitat for life without life being involved? You can’t really answer that question with only one habitable planet and one biosphere to study.

I will add that I tried to read another account of the same problem of why the Gaia hypothesis had been largely criticized by biologists while being so well received by non-biologists: The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet by Michael Ruse (University of Chicago Press, 2013) I did not find it helpful, being mostly a historical narrative, with a focus on a wide variety of –isms, such as Platonism, Mechanism, Organicism, Hylozoism (the belief that all matter possesses life) and Paganism. I have never been much interested in –isms or cultural explanations for why people accept of don’t accept given ideas. Williams gives us a scientific way of thinking about the problem.

A Natural Philosopher, Willy Nilly.

This post is a brief musing on parts of Brann, Eva. 2014. Un-Willing. An Inquiry into the Rise of Will’s Power and an Attempt to Undo it. Paul Dry Books. Philadelphia. 367pp. This is a fine book, like all of her writings. It is also worth listening to her discuss it on the podcast, Partially Examined Life. This attempt to summarize her rich argument, based on extensive reading and reflection, cannot do it justice, but it serves my own train of thought.

Not a lot of this was registering with me, possibly as a result of my reading it mainly in bed, just before I was going to sleep. Then I read, probably for the second or third time, chapter XI, section D, Self: Subject. Brann sets up a contrast between two pairs of terms, I/soul and self/subject. I/soul is the ancient pair: I, a being looking on a world by virtue of my soul, which apprehends physical things and immaterial things through faculties such as sensation or intellection. We can abstract or intuit the essential nature of the things that we encounter in this world, and whether it is at bottom purely material or ideal or undefinable, it is still one and the same for all souls. Moreover, souls can act in and upon this world and communicate with other souls.

Since Descartes, the pair Self: Subject has emerged, as the inner life of the mind has become the focus, and what was in some way accepted as a mirror-like reflection of the outer world and even the reflection of the soul itself, open to philosophic examination as the inner landscape of our experience, becomes highly problematic. Descartes asks how a thinking substance can connect to an extended substance with which it has nothing in common. Kant analyzes how the subject makes an orderly world out of an influx of sensation. The modern consensus seems to be that in some way, my self creates a world out of whatever inputs it receives, not passively, but selectively. If this is true of the outer world, the other, it also applies to the inner: self-consciousness becomes a major topic of inquiry.

So my question is this: why does this shift in philosophical perspective seem to occur right at the time, and even coming from the same minds, as the great expansion of objective understanding of the world, in which it is confirmed that through mathematics and experimentation, we can establish laws that govern the appearances? Why, at the very time when we have a clearer, more rigorous grasp of the world we are in, when we can look at it in all its unfolding necessity, are we more doubtful than ever whether there is any truth? No wonder we have culture wars. On one side, we seem to have Baconian science saying, of course we can make our own world, but to do so we have to know the exact and rigorous rules that govern the materials we make it out of. On the other hand, we have philosophers and social scientists telling us that the rules themselves are of our own making.

Plainly this is at work in battles over issues like the definition of marriage. It seems my Catholic friends want to have both fixed nature (God made us man and woman for the fixed purpose of procreation) and a conserved culture (you ought not redefine an institution that has served society for a long time) on their side. The supporters of the expansive definition, that marriage is between any two persons who are of age and not already married to another, argue both that nature, when closely examined, has no such clearly demarcated binary gender, that cultural norms ought to reflect what most people’s views are today and that people ought to be allowed to make of their lives what they want. Thus we have conflicting definitions of liberty: 1. freedom from constraints other than what nature and the law impose, the one from God and the other through a fixed constitutional process, and 2. Justice Kennedy’s opening statement that our freedom is to make ourselves what we wish to become, a “constitutional right to define and express their identity,” like the rule of the abbey in Gargantua: do what you will, or rather, be what you will.

As Miss Brann explains very carefully in her book, this modern view is generally accompanied by a great emphasis on the idea of the will, in both its merely burdensome form (the individual’s need for will power to tame our own willfullness – a paradox) and also its truly pernicious form (under the name of the general will, impelling whole nations to atrocious acts). She recommends that we try to live in a way that sets the will in its place, as the process of formulating rational courses of action and putting them into effect, when circumstances demand that we act decisively. This is in part the view of the great Scholastic, Thomas Aquinas and other medieval thinkers. For the most part, however, she feels we can do without the will, substituting for it a kind of openness to experience accompanied by reflection and the pursuit of a quietly well-ordered existence.

In my excursions into natural philosophy (the old name for biology) I am decidedly in line with the ancients and Bacon, in the sense that I am sure I am discovering, and not inventing the natural world. I gaze upon an ever-changing nature that nevertheless follows fixed laws, which don’t change when I change my ideas. I can get it wrong, but there is truth out there to be discovered. On the other hand, I feel very much that my choice of object of study and the exact questions that I try to answer, are of my own making, though certainly influenced by my society. But even here, the direction of my activity is also influenced by the ancient view, as summed up in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, that the life of contemplation is the best. In that sense, I do not see myself as doing what I will, but as doing what is good.