That Warm Pond

Thoughts on the origin of life via replicators, and a possible missing perspective; “the self-organizing properties of matter”

– by Ruwan Rajapakse

The life-sciences, unlike the physical-sciences, are often shrouded in mystery when delivered to the general public. For example, whilst its commonplace for The Special Theory of Relativity to be described in a few words using the analogy of localized clocks and high-speed space travelers, there is no comparable analogy provided when it comes to describing the origin and nature of life. There certainly is much talk about RNA Replicators and the arising of a protocell (which functioned supposedly in a similar way to modern-day ribosomes) in the “primordial soup”. But the physical chemistry or rather the molecular bonding process for the creation of such a protocell is either not discovered (which is most likely the case) or else is never clearly described. All we have seen are long romantic accounts of how DNA was discovered, or of how Stanley Miller boiled down his primordial soup. I mean no disrespect to gents like Watson or Miller, or ladies like Franklin. On the contrary it was reading about their inspiring work and lives that made me, an uneducated layman, to dare to pen a few thoughts on the subject.

Let me immediately state the core of my hypothesis. Unless we can theoretically demonstrate the transcendence of complex molecules from static, randomly colliding bits of matter obeying the laws of chemical interaction as they are known today, into similar bits of matter that can replicate themselves and thus get subjected to evolutionary forces, we are missing an entire perspective. Now, I’m not going to propose that God in Heaven sending down His magical lightning bolt is what synthesized this first protocell (although one has to admit that one cannot rule that hypothesis entirely out, scientifically). Nope. The perspective we are missing is a bootstrapping process we don’t quite understand as yet, and whose boundary conditions are not as yet discovered. Hence Miller’s soup bubbling away to failure.  It is a bit like knowing that the “Sun Burns” and trying to figure its source of energy, without understanding Nuclear Chemistry in general and the process of Nuclear Fusion in particular. I am going to call the perspective we are missing today as “Organizing Chemistry” (not to be confused with Organic Chemistry, although the former may turn out to be a subset of the latter). Or, alternatively, we may call it “Algorithmic Chemistry“, and we shall shortly see why so.

What would be the salient philosophy of this new branch of Chemistry? Well, for starters, it would recognize that life is an operational paradigm-shift in nature and the result of a counter-entropic chain reaction. As opposed to the entropic chain reactions of Nuclear Fission or Fusion that we are presently familiar with. This Organizing chain reaction would have certain definitive boundary conditions, and may involve certain types of molecules only, with particular amounts of heat or energy levels and taking particular time scales to propagate (though not necessarily the humongous ones subtly suggested by Richard Dawkins – Chapter 13 in The Greatest Show On Earth). There would be an algorithm (or class of algorithms) underpinning the evolutionary process, once started. The convergence of many early evolutionary lines towards common archetypes suggests that there is broadly a “winning algorithm” of sorts, at least in a statistical sense. However it would be the matter in itself which would have this propensity for replication (and hence evolution), and the informational aspect in RNA or DNA would cease meaning outside their molecular structure. Matter evolves, not information. Information just seems to evolve.

At this juncture I hazard a guess that one cannot have a replicating informational entity in a computer that would evolve to anything like life, contrary to the supposed evidence available in computer simulation models as discussed, for example, by Dan Dennett. These computer models show “successful evolution” in a certain limited context, keeping in mind that the actual criteria for choosing the fittest at each generation is defined by us humans. In reality, evolutionary pressures are A) a changing dynamic and more importantly B) have a recursive relationship with the evolving creatures. In short, evolutionary pressures are tightly bound with the evolving creatures and are inseparable. The “designer’s evolution” of Dennett’s variety is a good model to prove to us that the concept of evolution by artificial selection works, but has little more to offer to the story of evolution of life on Earth.

There is a faint possibility that the correct “boundary conditions” for replication exists in the chemistry of the modern day cell. I don’t exactly mean in the context of what Craig Venter has done recently, to modify the genome “artificially” and change the characteristics of a cell. What I mean is that the most primitive of molecular replicators or artificially produced nucleic acids may be made to replicate within the modern cellular environment, rather than trying to “figure out” the parameters of the primeval oceans. The cell, after all, is like a bit of “cut off ocean” retained from billions of years ago, when the necessary boundary conditions were perhaps abundant “outside”.  So artificially synthesized replicator molecules may “have a go” (or chain react) in today’s cells. At least, its worth a try to “mess around” with cells and complex molecules.

Let me leave you with this concluding thought. It has been supposed by Dawkins and others that the original protocell or replicator was a “one off” chance “knocking together” of the right kind of organic molecules after billions of years, and its arising was an astronomically rare event (Chapter 13 in The Greatest Show On Earth). For example, Dawkins mentions that it probably didn’t happen too many times on earth, maybe only just once. The implication is that the origin of life is such a rare, time consuming bit of chemistry that its basically a fluke. This is the core concept which I refute; I believe that given the right conditions life would arise readily, and it would do so because it is a fundamental property of matter to get triggered into a self-organizing process. Under the right conditions, which we are yet to discover.

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