BIOLOGY 103
FALL, 2003
FORUM 7

From molecules to life ... and beyond


Name:  Maria
Username:  Anonymous
Subject:  general thoughts
Date:  2003-10-22 23:54:50
Message Id:  6962
Comments:
It seems that there continues to be some discomfort with the idea that there is NO such thing as life essence and it occurred to me as I sat in class on Monday that perhaps that is where much of the diffculty comes from in reconciling creationism and evolution. Evolution tells the stroy of how we developed slowly over billions of years from little prokaryotic dots into the creatures that we now are while creationsism is grounded in the belief that our existence is purposeful and intentional. Is it not a bit dangerous though, to confuse our personal and subjective experience of feeling that there is some higher power, that there is some "greater scheme of things" in which we have been placed with the less intentional process of evlution that allowed us to be beings that felt things like "intuition" or "religeous devotion" that those are maybe simply emotional/cognitive functions that we have becasue our minds are such complex things capable of abstract thought and emotions such as "conviction" and "piety" etc? In terms of rearranging atoms to create a dog and how far fetched it seems to be able to put one together...it seems to me that perhaps we just arn't able to concieve of all the tiny complex interaction that go on at an atomic and then cellular level that we don't think of as being the cause of a tail wagging, but which in fact are. That if we don't think of a dog's tail wagging as simply that but rather as the visible culmination of bunches and bunches of smaller things doing thier jobs then it seems less absurd to think that it is, perhaps, possible.
Name:  Nomi
Username:  nkaim@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  
Date:  2003-10-23 12:22:21
Message Id:  6972
Comments:
I was thinking of something -- about this difficult "life essence" concept. If we see or sense that it is there, I think it's fair game to say it exists, for us, as human beings (Functionalism!). The trouble, of course, is how to pinpoint it exactly. Where is it located?

We discussed how the properties of molecules are determined by the arrangements of bonds between atoms -- what kinds of atoms are bound together, in what way, and in what position. Similarly, the properties of cells are determined by the positioning of molecules; of tissues, by the interactions between non-randomly placed cells -- and so on. In other words, the bonds between these materials create new properties that cannot be found ANYWHERE in the atoms -- or molecules or cells -- alone.

What if we viewed the "life essence" as a result of these bonds, connections, interactions? We cannot pinpoint it, just as we cannot pinpoint what makes Na+ and Cl- form table salt when they combine! We know the combining process is key, we know WHAT it does -- changes a substance -- but we can't say HOW it does it.

Have you ever had the experience of meeting a person who seemed to be your "soulmate," who brought out aspects and characteristics of you you never knew you had? Then, later, you realize you do the same for that person. Or maybe a wonderful teacher has clued you in to regions of your mind you never knew you had, patterns of thinking you never knew you were capable of. Do these parts of you exist before your interaction with another brings them out? Well, if you can't use or perceive of these qualities before the interaction, isn't it as though they don't exist? Is a kindness only manifested by the kindness of another, for example, any different from a hydrogen atom that only takes on certain qualities when it interacts with another atom? In both cases, the new qualities arise only out of interacting with some other entity.

In these cases, we can pinpoint the CAUSES of the new qualities (interactions), although we still cannot locate a tangible SOURCE (by source I mean a physical location). But many real things -- states of mind, occurrences like ESP! -- cannot be pinpointed in a tangible way. I say we should not dismiss the notion of "life essence," but rather entertain the possibility that it arises from the combining of pieces, that the whole is always more than the sum of its parts (from Gestaldt psychology), and that whatever it is that completes the whole -- whatever "essence" -- cannot be located in physical space.


Name:  Sarah
Username:  skim@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  
Date:  2003-10-23 16:10:16
Message Id:  6975
Comments:
I found Nomi's comments to be very interesting. I think there's definitely some validity to the concept that maybe the parts together as a whole are more than just the parts separately. I mean, I think that it's even relevant to some of what we were discussing in lab on Tuesday. If you cut out your heart and preserved it in a jar with the appropriate chemicals, it would still beat. But that doesn't mean your heart is ALIVE. You could cut off any part of your body, and it might still function with the proper nutrients or whatever, but it won't REALLY be alive. What makes a person alive is all these parts together, which creates something MORE than just the sum of the parts. Because each of the parts affects every other part, and these interactions are limitless. So yeah...that's about it.
Name:  Brittany
Username:  Anonymous
Subject:  O.o;;;
Date:  2003-10-23 21:52:30
Message Id:  6979
Comments:
Interesting, how we return to the same topics over and over again... well, here's my shpeal.

Basically, whether we like it or not, "life" *is* an essential essence. I don't mean it's some sort of liquid, like in that movie "The Dark Crystal," that you can distill, drop into a couple of molecules, and voila!---but a few random molecules are not alive. A few random molecules in a distinct pattern *are.* It's not the molecueles that make the life, it's the pattern they're in, or rather, the level of organization they occupy.

It follows that life itself is just a level of organization, and because a level can't be defined physically, it has to be defined some other way. "Essence" is as good as any. You can take the molecules in a dog, dump them on the ground, and they won't make a dog. You have to infuse them with a complex organization---give them *order*. And for your experiment to work, your order must adhere to the laws of evolution, the "rules" of the periodic table, the laws of genetics, and the exterior environment. Otherwise you just have a bunch of random carbon, oxygen, and water molecules lying in a heap on the ground. Life is an essence; we just call that essence "order."

I guess my main point is that life, while not some sort of magic liquid, could be construed as an "essence" in that it's intangible. Life is order, not matter; the how, not the what.


Name:  enor
Username:  ewagner@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  the barking dog
Date:  2003-10-23 23:49:58
Message Id:  6984
Comments:
Monday in class we discussed the potential for a scientist to be able to produce a barking dog simply by collecting and organizing the molecules/atoms necessary to compose it. I can't help feel that this concept is reminiscent of the continent theory - that at one point there existed only one continent on the planet earth consisting of all of today's known continents - unbeleivable. Someone commented that they could conceive of a dog being formed without barking - a dead dog, essentially. Although this notion sounds physically possible, I still can't help but feel that there is a reason that dogs exist in nature rather than as human products and that structuring them chemically would only yeild a human product that did not work in terms of the same components as a dog in nature.
Wednesday we spoke of two identical molecules which were actually different because of their arrangement. In terms of their components - they were identical. I think this idea is the same one which should be applied to the barkink dog theory. I think that this issue raises the doubt or question that the two supposed "identical" molecules are not infact in some way, identical. That in terms of components - the dog would be the same - however - the fact that it doesn't occur naturally or in organisms render such an arangement of atoms simply just a product.
Name:  Katy McMahon
Username:  kmcmahon@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  scale
Date:  2003-10-24 12:32:14
Message Id:  6991
Comments:
I would like to talk about scale and how that pertains to life. I think it's really interesting how we experience life from one vantage point as humans and Earthlings. I think there is a lot of narcissism not only in terms of how the universe relates to us as we look out into it, but also in terms of what we think of as other potential beings in other places. I am very intrigued by the concept of multiple universes as well as the possiblity that our universe is a small, tiny unit of something much much larger. Did anyone see _Men In Black_? Do you remember the galaxy that the cat wore around its neck or the end of the movie when the camera panned out to view a bunch of aliens playing with marbles, one of which contained our own universe? We can't comprehend the scale of our own universe let alone what might exist beyond it. How can we know how "special" we are when we don't even know for sure what we are a part of?
Name:  su-lyn
Username:  spoon@haverford.edu
Subject:  Levels of organization
Date:  2003-10-24 16:55:03
Message Id:  6993
Comments:

Brittany, life as level of organization -- that's a great thought. I agree with the way you've decided to expand the meaning of 'organization', beyond the physical arrangement of parts. Life arises from a different form of interaction between individual, specialized cells subjugated to a 'collective' end. Would consciousness constitute a higher level of organization? Maybe it arises not from within individuals (i.e. not from parts, such as the brain) but from an interaction of members of a society. Consciousness finds its beginning in an aggregation but is realized in individuals.

What's the relationship between different levels of organization? Presumably they don't replace so much as build on top of one another. Given the assumption above, organisms must exist for societies to exist, for consciousness to arise. And yet, maybe the idea of 'levels' is an inaccurate conception, suggesting a linear progression that every new entity must pass through, as up a ladder. Consciousness is not inevitable, either as an end or even an intermediate step to something 'higher'.

Name:  Brittany
Username:  Anonymous
Subject:  
Date:  2003-10-25 16:15:17
Message Id:  6997
Comments:
Su-Lyn, that's a really fascinating idea---that consciousness requires more than one individual to exist. I've never thought about it before, but now that I do, I think I agree. After all, isn't consciousness itself the recognition that you are separate from your surroundings? Or more importantly, separate from the group of similar entities that surrounds you? "I think, therefore I am" has no meaning if there's no recognition of the "I." In that light, consciousness would fundamentally require social interaction. You need to be able to confirm the existence of others if you are to confirm your own existence.

On the notion that different "levels" of organization lead first to life, then to consciousness... it sounds plausible, but I'm more inclined to agree with your second point on the subject: that this type of "mind" evolution isn't linear. Evolution itself isn't linear. Organisms adapt to their surroudings, but the movement isn't ever in a progressive direction. Your point made me realize something about my first post. There *may* be levels of organization that govern life, but they're not levels in any quantitative, chronological form. For example, life probably isn't a system where level "A" is life, level "B" is eukaryotic life, level "C" is multicellular life, and level "D" is consciousness. The word "level" suggests some sort of biological one-upmanship, that one "level" is better than the next. That's probably not true. Thus, maybe the word "type" would be a suitable replacement for "level," both in my earlier post and this one.

Even if we can't evaluate the levels/types, though, you've got a point about how different "types" might build up to create consciousness. Like putting a puzzle together, when disparate types of organization combine, they can birth an entirely new type. For example, put puzzle piece A (single celled life), piece B (multicellularism), piece C (primate bipedalism) and piece D (social organization) together, and you get piece E: consciousness. It's not linear progression; it's creation of a mosaic.

What really interests me is what will happen when we conjoin piece E to another puzzle piece. What's the next part of the puzzle? Will it ever be completed? *Can* it ever be completed? (and if it does, will it mean that evolution has stopped altogether)?


Name:  Ramatu Kallon
Username:  rkallon@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  Life Essence
Date:  2003-10-25 17:38:11
Message Id:  6998
Comments:
This whole thing abut "Life Essence" is troubling to me. How can we say there is no essence to life? How is that scientifically proven? It seems to me that a days, with science being so unpredicable, it is hard to tell what is truth and what is not.
Name:  Adina
Username:  ahalpern@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  barking dog
Date:  2003-10-26 19:27:43
Message Id:  7001
Comments:
Why is it that we could imagine a dead dog being formed and not a barking dog? In my view, evolution helped to combine many characteristics that caused dogs to be able to bark. It was some time during this process that this thing that we call "life essence" came into existance, but maybe if someone had put all these atoms together in their exact positions with all of those protein chains and things in exactly the right places, dogs would still exist and they would still bark, even if they had not evolved at all. Barking seems like kind of an arbitrary function when the environment is not taken into account, so maybe if we take all these dog atoms and change the structure of the dog, instead of making a dog that barks or a dog that is dead, we could make a dog that sings.
Name:  su-lyn
Username:  spoon@hc
Subject:  Magic Mosaic!
Date:  2003-10-26 21:20:04
Message Id:  7002
Comments:

Brittany, "mosaic" - magic word! This is somewhat dorky and forgive my Photoshop skills, but the image (sorta) helps:



Imagine pieces A through E (the series that you suggested in your post) in a theoretical 'space' that includes all possible types of organization. The circular form should help us get away from the idea of hierarchy/ linearity/ predetermination. By putting the origin (A) in the center, we can imagine the evolution of forms of life more as a process of exploration rather than purpose. Each of the pieces can develop in an indefinite number of ways, as indicated by the dotted lines. This space itself, rather than being finite, is always expanding (an idea inspired by the Big Bang Theory of the universe). The major implication of this diagram, if it is actually applicable for our purposes, is that the series we are familiar with is not inevitable. It is not the only possible outcome of all the interactions around us and even before us.

Problems: can we ever know where A lies, or is it an infinitely receding point? Could multiple theoretical spaces exist, as with the idea of parallel universes? Can we use the mapping of the universe as an analogy in mapping different forms of organization? Are they even distinguishable - one being an application of the other on a different scale?
Name:  Julia
Username:  jdwise@brynmawr.edu
Subject:  barking dogs
Date:  2003-10-26 22:27:50
Message Id:  7004
Comments:
The problem with making a Frankenstein-dog out of single molecules seems to be that we don't have any way to keep stuff in living condition long enough to put it all together. A jigsaw puzzle is hard to put together, but the pieces aren't deteriorating as we work. A dog, though, would not only be harder to assemble, but would have do be done much more quickly so the bits wouldn't always be, um, rotting. Maybe you assemble the liver, but how would you keep it working while you were working on lungs, ears, etc?
Forgive this utterly pointless statement.


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