Home Forums Deep Time Journey Forum Is the universe a "living system"? Reply To: Is the universe a "living system"?

James MacAllister

I think the basis of this discussion/debate is fatally flawed. The list of qualities that describe life is hopelessly outdated, inadequate and vague.

  • Metabolism is more than the ability to “the ability to take in energy from the surroundings to keep going” (whatever that means). Cells are the basic units of life and they have very distinct requirements, a source of energy, a source of electrons, a source of carbon (and other elements usually abbreviated as CHNOPS), and a terminal electron acceptor. Metabollisms come in specific types named for their sources of energy and carbon, such as photoautotrophs (light & C02), chemoautotrophs (inorganic chemicals & CO2), heterotrophs (organic chemicals & organic chemicals), and others.
  • Homeostasis may be a feature of the internal chemistry and electrical charge of all active cells, but this may not be a requirement for dormant forms, spores, round bodies, other propagules and variant forms that can survive desiccation or freezing for decades or longer.
  • Reproduction may be a feature of some cells at some point in the life cycle of an organism for growth or to produce more numbers of the organism, but a mule, grandmother or a heterocyst can not reproduce but all are nonetheless alive.
  • Adaptation would seem to require clairvoyance on the part of organisms and “punctuated equilibrium” in evolution refers to the fact that much of evolution is not a record of gradual change but long stretches of stasis punctuated by bursts of rapid change or extinction events followed by radiations of new species. Horizontal gene and genome transfer (symbiosis) confers novelty and natural selection (an elimination process) winnows out the unfit and unlucky. It is probably more useful to think of repurposing novel traits rather than “adaptation”. The genome is dynamic and the organism has a given amount of plasticity which can be expressed given various information flow from the environment. Putting organisms under stress appears to be one way to invoke change in the growth and development of organisms and these changes have been shown to be inheritable.
  • DNA is an important molecule in the organelle of the nucleus of the eukaryotic cell or in the nucleiod of a bacterium but DNA is only a part of the system of the cell structurally coupled to the environment. DNA by itself does nothing. A tipping point has been reached and a new synthesis has replaced the so called Modern Synthesis or “gene-centered” view of life and biology that has dominated science for the past 70 years. You do not have to take my word for it, here is Oxford Professor of Physiology and Systems Biology Denis Noble https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzD1daWq4ng.

Noble also gives a great talk on What is Life? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hS6PDOcJwY8&index=3&list=PLnqQJI0EhuwwdoH18CnKcOC6j4qaU_yXI

As to the use of the word “science”, that term has an origin and history and a meaning that I think needs to be respected. Otherwise it may as well mean wishful thinking or “because I said so”.  There are many ways of knowing, but sticking the word science or physics onto a way of knowing that differs dramatically from the rules and methods of science, such as “dowsing science” or “Creation Science” does not make these ways-of-knowing science in anything but phony name.  

Having worked for ten years with Lynn Margulis, one of the main collaborators with James Lovelock on Gaia theory, I must say I got a chuckle out of Ursula’s opinion that Jim or Lynn were “anti-matter”.  I can assure everyone that Lynn loved every element of the periodic table but she did understand that living matter differed from matter that was busy being a stone, a snowflake, a glass slide or a light-emitting diode.

I must apologize for using my iPhone for my first foray into this discussion and getting Francisco Varela’s name misspelled and other sentence gaffs.  The book I mention is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what knowing is or what mind is.  I think they make a compelling scientific argument that it is an emergent property of life (cellular life – the only kind for which there is evidence).

There is a talk by David Lenson at the second day of the memorial symposium to Lynn Margulis in which he plays a bit of her audio from one of her visits to his radio show and she talks about science as a way of knowing. It is 4 minutes into the clip and worth a listen.  <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9hTlyfq8PA&gt;  Science has rules and is a discipline.  It looks for the truth (with a small “t”) as defined as what is shown by the best evidence at the time. There is no certainty in science because it is not objective, we humans do science so it is done through our senses and our minds and they are fallible. But science does seem to be one of the best ways we have to really know the world.