Steve Grand

Life and How to Make it

Phoenix 2001

Grand Creation 49-71

Grand Creation 49

There is nothing in the laws, concepts and formulae of physics and chemistry to explain or even only to describe such powers. 'x' [the property unique to life] is something quite new and additional, and the more deeply we contemplate it, the clearer it becomes that here we are faced with what might be called an ontological discontinuity or, more simply, a jump in the Level of Being.
E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed

The universe never forgets a new trick

... some disturbances in space and time can, under the right circumstances, give rise to other kinds of disturbance. If those other kinds of disturbance are stable, they will persist, and so the number of different sorts of pattern in the universe will increase over time as new mechanisms for persistence are 'discovered' and exploited by nature.

Different types of persistent phenomena have different properties and therefore different degrees and methods of persistence.

Systems like ripples that persist by propagation are doomed to a fairly boring existence - they just hurtle around endlessly, for the most part ignoring one another. Atoms, on the other hand, are relatively slow-moving and localized in space, and so have time to interact with one another. Also, two atoms cannot occupy the same location, and their persistence would lead to competition for space if that space didn't happen to be infinite. As it happens, there is still plenty of room left in the universe, and isolated particles and even atoms are mobile enough and mutually mutually repulsive enough to spread themselves out amicably. Atoms do interact, however, and frequently they combine to become something else that is inherently stable, which we call a molecule. ..

Remember that phenomena such as atoms and molecules are still only ripples on a pond; they just happen to be more complex patterns of ripples, whose mutual interactions enable them to persist. In a way, an atom is to a photon what a whirlpool is to a ripple: each has a different answer to the question of 'how' it persists, but they both share the same 'why' they persist because they happen to be inherently stable in an absolute sense. Once certain more complex molecules start to interact, however, they can form structures in which the 'why' rule changes significantly.


...a catalyst is something that facilitates all speeds up a chemical reaction without being consumed in the process... it is a self- maintaining phenomenon.

Autocatalysis of this simplicity is a candidate for a persistent phenomenon that, it is something of a qualitative step up from atoms and molecules - a small jump in their level of being.

In materialist language we would call molecule a thing and autocatalysis is a process, but I don't believe the distinction is really as fundamental as this terminology implies. Atoms are process is too, and autocatalysis is perhaps only different from atoms by virtue of the fact that one is made from the other. Processes like autocatalytic chemical reactions can be seen as higher-order phenomena than molecules because they are superimposed on them, but they are not fundamentally different - each is made from the same non-stuff.

pg 58: ...such complex, self-maintaining networks may seem ridiculously implausible, but I know for sure that they exist in very large numbers. I know this because I am one. Every living creature is a vast autocatalytic network, taking in raw materials from outside and making more of itself, completely automatically as a consequence of the nature of its ingredients. When living things act as autocatalytic networks, we call the process metabolism.

Notice at the "how" of persistence is changing as we move up the hierarchy. Free particles persist by copying their shape forward in space; atoms and molecules persist through more complex mutual interactions and resonances. Now we have autocatalytic networks, which persist by growing. These networks are not really made of atoms, or at least not the same atoms from moment to moment. They are self-maintaining patterns in space and time in their own right - persistent eddies in the flowering stream of molecules and ions.

Each of these phenomena uses a different mechanism of cause and effect to maintain itself. The "how" of persistence has become steadily more complex at each level. Yet in the simpler cases, before the emergence of autocatalytic networks, the "why" of persistence remained unchanged. Phenomena such as photons and atoms persist because they are inherently stable. But once we get to autocatalytic networks a whole new "why" emerges. No longer need is enough just to be stable. Autocatalytic networks consume resources - they eat food.

.... absolute stability is replaced by relative stability as soon as new mechanisms of persistence such as autocatalysis come into the picture. Autocatalytic networks persist up their food molecules don't, so we may regard autocatalytic networks as a more successful mode of persistence than discreet molecules. Some of these networks are more successful at maintaining themselves, more "fit for survival" than others.

pg 60:... if autocatalytic systems could arise spontaneously, they might have been the precursors of life on earth, and this indeed is Stuart Kauffman's claim, made in his book "At Home in the Universe" , that "life, at its roots, lies in the property of catalytic closure among a collection of molecular species. Alone, each molecular species is dead. Jointly, once catalytic closure among them is achieved, the collective system of molecules is alive.

pg 65: Life - Autocatalysis - Encapsulation - Templates

... three vital mechanisms - autocatalysis as a means of self-assembly, encapsulation to key parts of the network together and different kinds of network apart, and the use of templates to isolate the recipe from the function and so increase the chances of further progress. Once all three mechanisms have been discovered by chemistry, then a new highly persistent phenomenon emerged on Earth, one we call life.

This phenomenon (LIFE) did not come into existence and then simply sit there doing nothing - it continually made more of itself, by growing and reproducing. As more and more examples of it were created, space and resources became scarce and innate stability was no longer enough. Each example of life has to compete with others for the right to exist. New clever tricks for persisting are needed urgently every day, and fortunately life has a matchless capacity for discovering them.

Life is an ingenious mechanism for persistence, but it is forever upping the ante by creating competition for space and resources, and in a way becomes a victim of its own success. Simple survival of the fit has to give way to survival of the fittest.

pg 66: Metabolism and reproduction

.... Metabolism and reproduction are two relatively new mechanisms that the universe has discovered by which disturbances in space and time can persist. The sophisticated mechanisms build on the simpler mutual support methods that maintain atoms and molecules, and the endless "running forward to remain upright" that characterises electromagnetic radiation.

In the long, fuzzy hierarchy of forms of persistent phenomena, I think the best word to describe this region of actively self-maintaining systems is "life".

Life is a poorly defined term but a useful one, and if it's going to be applied to anything specific, this is it: Patterns that persist by metabolizing and reproducing are alive. But - there is more to life than to persistent phenomena than this. In the wake of metabolizing, self reproducing systems came a new opportunity and a new challenge.

The opportunity was the vastly increased ability to discover new persistent patterns through a revolution by natural selection. The challenge was the ratchet that drives this process of revolution onward: they need to change constantly in order to stay ahead of the crowd.

But evolution and metabolism are not the only solutions to the problem of how to persist in a hostile and changing world. Evolution allows offspring to be better adapted to a changing environment than their parents were, but sometimes environment is changed to quickly for that to be enough. Food, for example, gets scarce in a competitive environment. Without it, the autocatalysis grinds to a halt, the pattern fails to get replicated and had previously great mechanism for persistent simply disappears. When a living network has exhausted its local food supply it can sit and wait for more to arrive, but this may not happen quickly enough. So if food molecules on simply going to arrive when they are needed, then Muhammad has to develop the ability to go to the Mountain instead. Autocatalytic networks that can move will survive better than those that can't.

Blundering around at random on the off chance of encountering something edible will suffice up to a point, and I have to confess that this is often my own preferred method. Nevertheless, it does not take much for the concentration of available food-energy to slip below the amount of energy required to find it, and so any phenomenon that can seek out and navigate efficiently towards food will have a distinct advantage over one that can't. If your food is inanimate, you merely have to locate it and move towards it. If your food is another autocatalytic network, on the other hand, then you are a predator and it is your prey, and the chase is on. Networks may avoid being eaten by evolving hard shells or spiky skins, or by pretending to be something else, but it is better on the whole to be able to run away from predators. Similarly, if your own food starts running away, it is extremely helpful to be able to run after it.

Competition, predator - prey relationships and a rapidly changing environment favour mechanisms that can respond to the state of the world. 'Adaptive behaviour' was a new mode of persistence that became simultaneously desirable and possible almost as soon as evolving, metabolizing systems emerged in nature. Adaptive behaviour has its roots in chemical regulation. Any autocatalytic network worth its salt is likely to contain selfregulating mechanisms of some kind or another. In fact, slowing things down and controlling them is a more demanding task for a cell than it might at first appear. Without careful regulation cells would grow at an exponential rate and essentially burn themselves out. It is surely no coincidence that one of the most common symptoms of a cell whose mechanism has broken down is cancer - uncontrolled growth and cell division.

The important point here is that adaptive behaviour can emerge from essentially the same kinds of regulatory mechanism already employed by autocatalytic networks. So this rudimentary form of intelligence can be seen as the next rung of the ladder of mechanisms for persistence - another level of being.

In fact, adaptive behaviour is not quite synonymous with intelligence. Adaptation is a solution after the fact: if walking forward hurts because you have just hit a rock, stop walking or change direction; if it feels good, do more of it. Any phenomenon that can modify its own behaviour as a consequence of the environmental stresses imposed by other phenomena has a greater chance of persisting than one that just stands there and takes it on the chin, and this is what we mean by adaptation (evolution is also a form of adaptation, of course, but here we are referring to adaptation within a single lifetime).

Adaptation comes in many forms, from simply learning to ignore repetitive changes that cause no harm, through to sophisticated mechanisms that can elicit the right responses in a wide range of situations. This ability to react to events after they have happened can get an organism a long way, but not nearly as far as pre-adaptation can. In other words, reacting to an existing opportunity or problem is not as effective as predicting it and changing one's behaviour appropriately before the opportunity has time to go away or before the damage is inflicted.

Intelligence is perhaps a term that should be reserved for systems that can predict the future.

pg 70: Reflecting on the future - Primitive forms of learning

.... propagation, as in a ripple or a photon, is a feed-forward mechanism. One effect becomes the cause for another, and the whole thing happens in the linear chain. Autocatalysis, on the other hand, is a feedback system, .... a reaction product becomes an ingredient in the recipe for its own creation. Adaption is also a feedback process. Changes in the environment feed back on the organism through its senses and cause changes in its behaviour. When a creature walks into a rock, the feedback from its senses cause it to alter its behaviour and stop or turn.

Primitive forms of learning become possible when the feedback is not directly coupled to the creature's behaviour but instead is applied to some kind of memory of the event, so that instead of reacting now, after the fact, the creature modifies its future behaviour. Such a mechanism is a simple form of prediction, because it is predicting (on the basis of past experience) that in situation A, action B will be a good response. Since it is a form of prediction, it is also a primitive form of intelligence. There are far more sophisticated mechanisms for intelligent behaviour than this, but whatever kind of machinery it uses, intelligence can be seen as a new mode of persistence - something that came into being and won't go away.

At some stage in the history of persistent phenomena, something genuinely new and rather special emerged: a mechanism somehow became capable of being aware of its own existence and able to reflect on its own present, past and future. Such a capacity allows an organism to contemplate and cogitate, to rehearse and imagine, to place itself in someone else's shoes. This is self-awareness.

Use your own consciousness to reflect on this fact: mind is another persistent phenomena on - something that has come into being and now won't go away: Mind is not different from matter and yet it is not matter, nor is the property of matter; both matter and mind are made of the same non-stuff.

The Tower of Persistent Systems: We now have quite a towering hierarchy of more more sophisticated forms of persistence: photons, particles, atoms, molecules, autocatalytic networks, self reproducing systems, adaptive systems, intelligence and mind.

On top of that, or somewhere to one side, we can perhaps add society as another level of being. A society as a self-sustaining emergent phenomenon that comes into existence among populations of communicating and interdependent organisms, just as an organism is an emergent phenomenon that comes into being among populations of interdependent cells. Some of these persistent phenomena look like familiar machines built from smaller physical components, in the way that brains are built from neurones. Some seem to be immaterial things built from material things, such as mind is growing out of the operation of brains. Other seem even less tangible and rootless, for example societies or fashions. Yet all are persistent phenomena that emerge out of other persistent phenomena.

photons, particles, atoms, molecules, autocatalytic networks, self reproducing systems, adaptive systems, intelligence, mind, society.

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