Monday, February 27, 2006

Life, the Universe and Everything

The Rise of Auto-Catalysis

The National Geographic for March, 2006, has a single page, "The Origin of Life … Through Chemistry" that says we’re close to understanding the whole thing.

This is probably not what opponents … want to hear, but it seems that a kind of molecular natural selection applies even to the world of geochemistry. Some types of molecular chains outcompeted other molecular chains for the planet’s resources, and gradually they led to the kind of molecules that life depends upon – all this before the first living thing oozed forth. …

[L]ife wasn’t a freak accident at all, but the likely outcome … "Life is an elaboration of something very simple," …

But of course! We have really known this since The Selfish Gene was written. We have really known it since the 50’s, when amino acids were created in simulated versions of the early Earth’s environment. Loren Eiseley had thoughts on it. Heck, we have really known it since 1859. Everything since then has been a matter of digesting the meme. I myself use the term "auto-catalysis". I notice that Susan Blackmore uses the same word. I suspect she got it from Dawkins who got it from Heidegger by way of the daughter of Heidegger’s student.

Autocatalytic reactions proceed slowly at the start because there is a little product present, the rate of reaction increases progressively as the reaction proceeds then it again slows down as the reactant concentration decreases.

Imagine a world of rocks and sand, pitted and pockmarked, and hammered with asteroids, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, ice, storms and blistering sun. The chemical complexity has been increasing since the beginning, each puddle a composite of its history. Minerals leech into the water, acid rain and organic compounds rain down upon the rocks, interacting in strange ways. The environment amounts to a mass-produced chemical experiment. Each hole in the ground is a separate test-tube, subjected to different amounts of heat and radiation, different levels of exposure, evaporation cycles, drainage frequency, altitude, pressure, salinity, chemical constituency, molar concentration. The contents of one puddle flush unpredictably into other puddles and they all drain to the deep sea where hot smokers add more variations. As you cross the isopleths of the multiple control variables, you find that every possibility is tried – repeatedly over Deep Time. Strange things are bound to happen. We can only imagine.


Auto-catalysis, in my definition, is the property of a chemical, simple or complex, to foster its own production within a given environment. The consequence of that property is that there will be more of it. A byproduct of that property is that other, possibly similar, chemicals will also be promoted. I contend that this aspect serves one of Darwin’s requirements, the need for variation.

At some point, within the n-dimensional filtering mechanism represented by the early Earth, some mildly auto-catalytic chemical occurred by chance. Actually, given that the opportunities were so great, it’s hard to maintain that there was any chance involved. In my mind’s eye, the very color of the planet began to change as a new regime took over. Stagnant chemical bywaters were changed irreversibly by the infusion of small splashes of solution or contamination by peculiar motes of dust. Complexity increased. I suppose in some places complexity decreased, but the tendency of the auto-catalytic process to produce variants would eventually lead to competition among more and more alternatives. Scarce resources were used up and cannibalistic reactions were rewarded. Those chemicals resistant in any small way to being recycled would come to predominate.

I picture, in my fantasy, the calculating eyes of H.G. Wells’ Martians watching the planet Earth go through slow, but visible, changes. The rate of such changes, some subtle, some startling, increased in frequency and rapidity until some plateau of stability was attained. That was the beginning of Life, at least on Earth.

The article asks, "Did life begin in a small warm pond at the edge of a primordial sea …? Or deep beneath that sea …?" This is a false dichotomy. It probably began everywhere. Each environment contributed part of the process, subjecting auto-catalytic reactions to different chemical stresses. The puddle on the left contributed a twist and a proton; the puddle on the right contributed a curl and a radical. The significant action moved from sea to shore to desert and mountain slope. The different experiments merged and overlapped, influencing everything else. Chemicals were evolving and honing their "survival" skills. Darwin's theory requires inheritance, variation and natural selection. Auto-catalysis of chemicals in a complex environment exhibits these features. RNA came later.

Related Thoughts:

  • The Physics of Ice might give you some idea of how complex even the simplest seeming chemical process can be.
  • Kurt Vonnegut suggests that chemical evolution may not be finished, but it might not be good for us.
  • Mad Cow Disease represents a possible model for continued organic chemical evolution.
  • Natural Selection is postulated to be involved in the Origin of Universes. The related concept of the Anthropic Principle warns us that any generalizations we make about the Cosmos and our exclusive position in it are biased by the fact and nature of our existence. We don't get to look at all the other possibilities.

2/27/2006 12:41 PM

In terms of auto-catalysis, it is not even necessary for a single chemical to have that property. If a system of chemicals working together have a net auto-catalytic result, then the necessary environment has been established in order for evolution to commence.
3/06/2006 2:40PM

Links to this post

Links to this post:

Create a Link


At Monday, February 27, 2006 4:44:00 PM, Blogger island said...

Not even close... and your interpretation of the anthropic principle is as lame as it gets.

At Tuesday, February 28, 2006 7:31:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Speak to me, O Sage! Place my errant feet upon the steps of the righteous cha-cha dancers. I admit I am prone to error and foolish obsession with semi-broiled distractions. Believe me, I have striven to free myself. I am open to your advice.

At Tuesday, February 28, 2006 8:05:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

"Island" -> troll -> indifference.

At Tuesday, February 28, 2006 2:27:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...


One must assume that there is a continuum from sage to troll. I can afford the time to listen in order to determine which variety I've encountered. It is a shame that some people would get enjoyment from defacing your site or distracting your audience, but part of our job is to develop bullshit filters in order to evolve more productive memes. I don't think it's possible to identify a troll on the basis of one datapoint. Maybe you have outside experience? And I don't think that even true trolls are uniformly useless. I have been called a troll myself, and I've seen people troll their own sites in order to pep up the discussion.

I have decided, in my life, that I am more interested in being right than being praised. Assuming that island is a sage, is it not reasonable to assume he knows something that makes my entire argument look foolish? If so, I am interested in knowing what that may be. He caught my attention because he chose to single out the point of discussion in which I am least confident. Maybe, as a troll, he just picked it because it was at the end of the post. Maybe, as a sage, he decided there was hope for me and picked the point I most needed help with. I admit he raises my blood pressure and causes temporary confusion, but confusion is the state of maximum learning.

We each carry within our own meme-processing equipment multiple sages and trolls. If we are mentally well balanced, the trolls are heeded only so far as they contribute.

Wikipedia has some good stuff on trolls. And this is their troll policy:

It is better to humor a troll for too long than to drive away a sincere but misguided user. Remember and apply the principles laid out at Wikipedia:Don't bite the newcomers.

It's worth a try anyway.

At Tuesday, February 28, 2006 8:28:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

I think Wikipedia's policy suits Wikipedia, but to me someone who leaves a remark like that while logged in as a Blogger user with a concealed profile is probably just trolling.

Your perspective has merit, though. Here's (apparently) Island and Island with something to actually say (maybe, I only skimmed a bit).

Island could have effortlessly avoided seeming the troll. That she didn't is rather trollish in itself.

At Wednesday, March 01, 2006 12:27:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...


I have to thank you. You really taught me a lot, possibly inadvertantly. I never knew what I didn't know and you probably couldn't guess at it either. Your search method was completely new to me. I thought that the word "Island" was too common to bother looking for. Now you've led me to a whole buncha good sites that I didn't know about. Woo hoo! (Rubs his hands together.) What else you got up that sleeve?

At Wednesday, March 01, 2006 12:33:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

From the few comments I have read, she (I'm assuming you're right about her sex) seems like a very bright young person who is having some difficulty getting the respect she desires. She doesn't know that you have to prime the pump.

At Wednesday, March 01, 2006 11:42:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

I never knew what I didn't know...

Careful JJ. Remember how Rumsfeld was skewered for making a similar observation not too long ago.

I'm home sick today and find myself indulging this Island business a bit more. Maybe you caught this review of The Privileged Planet? As I scanned the review the reference to Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back jumped out at me, so naturally I had to read it all, including Island's comment.

I feel like the dog receiving a lecture on string theory at the beginning of Brian Green's Nova series, The Elegant Universe. I'm not sure I'm capable of comprehending Island's message, which seems to be that both IDers and anti-ID scientists are zealots overlooking a phenomenon in nature that results in guidance or design in nature as a result of certain thermodynamic implications of vacuum in an expanding universe.

Sounds interesting, but I'm prepared to defer to Island. I mean no disrespect to Island or anyone else when I turn my attention elsewhere, to things closer to home for me.

At Friday, March 03, 2006 10:44:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I looked up the dog. The analogy is painful. It's a nice doggie too. My daughter's musical last night had a dog in most of the scenes. It did amazingly well.

One thing that's interesting to me is how much more competent the pair, human and dog, is than a human alone. Maybe not in the string theory context, but even there you have to think about variety of skills and specialization. Today most scientific articles have lists of authors rather than one or two.

There is loss involved in coordination, but is there any reason to doubt that this multi-skill contributory relationship is able to process all natural phenomena? Does "comprehend" imply anything more than that? You have a system for evaluation and decision-making.

We are selfish about wanting the whole process to take place within the confines of our own heads, but it never has done. We swim in the Zeitgeist.

At Friday, March 03, 2006 3:18:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

is there any reason to doubt that this multi-skill contributory relationship is able to process all natural phenomena?

Sure. Well, I guess that depends on what you mean by "process", but I see no sign of an ability to deal with the consequences of steady growth (which seems to be a natural phenomenon). Plenty of people have picked up where such as Hardin and the Club of Rome left off, all of it apparently for nothing. I am extremely pessimistic.

At Friday, March 03, 2006 7:34:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Pessimism is certainly more justified than blind optimism. I think we all need to just get busy and design a better form of governance.

The problem is that you know what you know. And the free market libertarian/conservative "pragmatic" types, they know what they know. Both groups have contempt for the other group and no one is forced to integrate their ideas. The result is that differences are stovepiped up the political chain unmixed until politicians resolve them by skipping lightly through the various political minefields. Nothing is thought through.

My point is that just as integration of an individual self was accomplished through internal meme-meshing, an external "self" can also be established, as witnessed by these large scientific teams. I think that an integrated political identity has already been established in the US, but it's only capable of performing well under enormous pressure. WWII maybe. Normally it's a self-indulgent, paycheck to paycheck kind of self. We let sub-systems just run their own course. But it doesn't have to be that way.

China has a more integrated, if dysfunctional, directed personality. It is making long-term decisions. An example of a well-run disciplined system in the US is the Fed. Within its narrow scope of control, it is ruthlessly centered on honest parameters of economic health. Maybe we could use that model, expanding it to other areas, copying it to other areas. Maybe we could come up with different models.

There is grounds for pessimism, but there are also things that can be done. And I also think that there is a working solution out there. It merely involves upgrading the polity to a level of self-awareness rather than allowing unconnected subsystems to thrash around dangerously.

I often think about Chuck Yeager in the Right Stuff plummeting toward the ground, consciously ticking off one possible solution after the other. I don't want to hit the ground without having tried.


Post a Comment

<< Home