Life? – after physics, before biology, and fallen through the cracks

After not having written throughout this year, I will take the chance for a quick summary of my own path in the philosophy of biology as a condensation of what this blog aims for. A core issue that I see is that our current paradigm has a naive view of the nature of life. Whatever life is has been reduced to a living thing or better, the collection of living things. But what is a living thing? No such concept comes out of physics in its terms of mass, length, time, and forces. But biology is just as clueless; so evolutionary theory conveniently begins with the first living thing, presumably a first cell, or maybe a collection of protocells in what amounts to undefined almost living things. This is astounding when put in context. Many people today get excited about the “mysteries” at the edge of physics such as dark matter or string theory, but why is life not a much more important mystery as we are of it and it is all around us? While science has generally been considered to be mature and to have done a formidable job ofmapping out the nature of matter and the universe, this core characteristic of human existence on this planet is treated as a black box – living things exist but you can’t open up the box to see what is going on. On the plus side we do know that after thousands of experimental checks there has never been observed any single process within living things that breaks the laws of physics.

Meanwhile we go through life thinking that I’m a living thing, you’re a living thing, the dog is a living thing, a cell is a living thing, etc. And here we have the makings of a simplistic view of nature that carries over into our lives and how we carry on. These of course have immense consequences for the importance of individuals as crowning achievements competing in an otherwise bleak world of material lumps. In other words, our view of life matters a lot.

One big question that comes out of this ignorance about life is what is going on in biology. There are three general trends that I see that we all should support more. The first is that origin-of-life studies might be in the dark but are making many intrepid strides in laboratories across the world. The second is that evolutionary theory itself, the queen anchor of biology, is, rather than being all sewn up, running into more and more anomalies. These do not challenge general Darwinism but they do make the picture a lot more complicated and interesting than just rolling the dice with genes. And the third is also underappreciated to the extent that it is almost completely overlooked. It involves the question of what is going on in the last 10,000 years. After over three billion years of the evolution of species, one of them – us – starts building skyscrapers and airports. If another species had done something like this back in the evolutionary record – say, dinosaurs – the evolutionary biologists would be all over it. Now, there is almost no scientific appraisal of the civilization turn in evolution. So, we are back to the original assumption about life; it’s just living things, and living things such as humans can do things, build things. And there we end up with a scientific view that does not differ much from ancient mythologies – superior beings like Hercules do stupendous things.

This blog is written to biologists and to a wider public to draw attention to the importance of focusing more on the above three biological questions – the nature /origin of life, the appearance of a new but untheorized richness in evolutionary theory, and the civilization gap in the evolutionary timeline. Each is a gap in science, and each carries enormous importance for how we understand our place in the cosmos. And they are interrelated. Evolutionary theory without any understanding of the nature and origin of life is a structure without foundation. Evolutionary theory without an understanding of its last 10 thousand years is a theory of time with an ending that goes off the rails. An understanding of the civilization epoch as a special time for the humanities to explain things is the understanding of an orphan in the cosmos. An understanding of civilization or evolutionary theory without an understanding of the nature or origin of life is the equivalent to theories of zombies to the extent that living beings/ things are bunches of matter doing unusual things including being unique, self-determining centers of the universe.

We are living in a big gap. The incompleteness of evolutionary theory and biology are huge gaps in understanding our place in nature. On the other hand many researchers in the life sciences are making big strides to explore this gap. The gap and the researchers reaching into its curious maw deserve more of our support and attention. I too want to support these efforts and to connect with others with similar passion.

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