2. Identifying and Defining Levels and Limits of Biological Life, and Evolution
National Chemical Laboratory, Pune 411 008
Life on planet Earth is manifest in myriad forms at different levels of organization. However, a universally acceptable definition of life has eluded formulation to date. Difficulties also exist in identification of the different organizational strata of life expressed on Earth. Even identification of `intelligent' life is rendered dubious due to disagreement on definitions. Whereas at the upper, and later end of the spectrum, the human species may be labeled as definitively `intelligent', existence or otherwise of `life' itself in some entities at the lower end continues to puzzle.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs),
irrespective of their organizational level, pose separate problems
of rigorous definition. Pending the evolution of definitive assertions,
working definitions of dubious, obvious, intelligent and artificially
modified life may need to be formulated with suitable pragmatism
to accommodate ethico-legal propensities, apart from strictly
scientific parameters. Human evolution needs to be treated as
a uniquely distinct process. Scientific dogma and Puritanism need
to be replaced with a more pragmatic and secular approach for
the whole gamut of the phenomena of life, conscious intelligence,
and evolution, especially so in the human context.
Intuitive recognition of life by life,
or at least conscious life, may be pragmatically admitted, even
as the age old problem of universally acceptable and applicable
definition continues unresolved. The classical Indian non-definition
of `Neti, Neti ' - 'Not this, not this' for the Brahma as
the source of all creation may well describe a hyperbole around
the whole vexed question of the created. For life in all its myriad
manifestation on this planet seems to defy the setting of limits
and boundaries at the more fundamental levels. Exobiological possibilities
enlarge this to truly mind-boggling proportions.
The fall of the Icons
Classical, and convenient icons of life
have fallen with the advent of robotics, the computers and the
whole gamut of automated intelligence systems. Once again, one
has to fall back on intuitive, and at best (or worst) metaphysical
cognition of the phenomenon. The loss of objective reality, or
its convincing limitation to subjective awareness further (1)
inhibits formulation of dogmas. Carrying the `Cyminie Socrates'
analysis to its logical end, perception of life, as indeed of
the Universe must be deemed to rest on the associative functionality
of neuronal lattices, and that in turn on the cornucopia of coded
sequences of some nucleic/amino acids.
Picking up the pieces
The lamentation on the disintegration
of classical models of yore may, however, be hasty. Holistic integration
at and of the different levels of organization can now define
the existential status of their constituent entities. In the process,
segments of the universe too become ' alive' or 'real' by direct,
indirect or even through remote/ephemeral interactivity.
The intuitive objectivity
The mutation of chaos into order to form
islands of disentropy is manifest in the ubiquitous assembly of
discrete boundaries --- both spatial and temporal, of all life
forms, at least on this planet. This phenomenon can be traced
back to the very origins of life, the most primitive entities
exhibiting the proclivity towards order, organization and singularities
of lesser or greater complexity (2). This brings us back
full circle to the intuitive recognition of life, though the exercise
becomes a little strained at the inceptive end of the spectrum.
Viruses are still a question mark (3), to which the genetically
engineered entities (the so called GMOs) may constitute dubious
siblings (4). Even organelles of uncertain definition such as
mitochondria and chloroplasts, resident and dependent on a (host?)
life system defy conventional classification (4). In such
cases, of course, intuitive perception also becomes confused.
Up the hierarchy
Vexed questions of borderline entities
aside, the advent of conscious awareness, transcending to intelligence
incorporating symbolic abstraction, language and other distinctive
human traits (5), bring further dilemmas in their wake. These
relate to levels of organization, and categorizations thereof.
The issues are best focused by the still unresolved debate on
the status of the human embryo from fertilization, through fetal
development, to the full term pre-delivery infant. Here, equations
are sought or denied, between life and the right to it, and developed/continuing/potential
conscious awareness (6). Which inevitably leads on to the dimension
of ethics so unique to the human species.
The Fundamentalism of Science
In a supposedly rigorous adherence to
'objectivity' in scientific thought and inquiry, Humans have perennially
strayed from the truly secular path we profess allegiance to.
In this acolytes, of Darwin and Freud have been the most wayward.
Whereas Freud's theories have undergone radical revision, transformation
and even rejection as a part of continuing scientific and intellectual
renaissance, Darwin's evolutionary paradigm has been sought to
be installed as a permanent, immutable, unquestionable tenet of
biology on Earth. For this, Darwin's English antecedents, the
redoubtable Huxley, and his modern Avatar, Richard Dawkins, are
largely responsible. Intuition, like ethics, is an integral component
of the human psyche. The philosophers have held the intuitive,
universal (transcending Time and Space) belief in God as one of
the important proofs of Gods existence - the death of God
so vociferously proclaimed by other social and natural
scientists notwithstanding. Darwin's Evolutionary precepts need
a thoroughly objective and unemotional, secular scrutiny.
There has been an intuitive resistance against the natural selection
hypothesis. Contrast this with an overwhelming, admittedly essentially
intuitive hitherto, propensity towards Lamarckian inheritance,
notwithstanding that for almost a century Lamarckism has the become
the classic Untouchable for fundamental Science. Apart from merits
or otherwise or otherwise of the two tenets, Dawkins like fervor
can lead even the best of thinkers, Dawkins included, astray.
This is becoming more and more apparent with every new prognostication
of Richard Dawkin (7-9). His obsession with the selfish gene,
and now going to the roots, DNA (10), seems to have become
too unilateral, if not actually paranoid.
Towards a secular vision
The Brahmins of modern science, in their
supposedly puritanical quests, have lost sight of the holistic,
which I may call the secular vision. Thus, whatever the
etiology, and truth of the selfish gene syndrome, this ceases
to have relevance in the human being. Not only through
the still nascent genetic modifications, but as an unquestionable
and inevitable consequence of the progression of the human species
in the noospherical domain, the mindless gene has lost its alleged
totipotency. Despite all the apparently fissiparous and self-destructive
traits and tendencies of human kind, hope, as also logic, dictate
that human evolution can no longer be left to Darwin-Dawkins kind
of directions (10). If eugenics is an unacceptable means, probably
the slower but hopefully more pragmatic cultural consensus must
evolve the guidelines. An offbeat chemical with dull nomenclature
cannot surely prevail on the celebration of life the human species
Life, as we have known or hope to transform/perhaps even create, some time on this planet, or imagine it on other worlds, is obviously without any limits. Definitions seek to impose boundaries, and to that extent are anomalous in the context of life, except in narrow windows of time, space or specific needs. Even as humankind battles with definitions, boundaries and parameters for ethico-legal pronunciations, the deep and still silent woods holding the immense potential of human evolution must not be lost sight of for mundane trees such as the nucleic acids, or the natural selection dogma in the immediate and apparent foreground.
Zukav, Gary The Dancing Wuli Masters. Flamingo: Fontana Paperbacks, 1979.
Cairns-Smith, AG Genetic takeover and the mineral origins of Life. Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Cavalier-Smith, T. The evolution of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, pp 271- 278 in Fundamentals of Medical Cell Biology, Vol. 1 Ed Bittar, Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1991.
Chefas, Jeremy Man Made Life. Basil Blackwell 1982.
Leaky Richard The Origin Of HumanKind Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1994.
Cohen Simon l. Whose Life Is It Anyhow? Robson Books , London 1993, 206pp.
Dawkins Richard The Extended Phenotype NY: Oxford University Press 1989.
Dawkins Richard The Blind Watchmaker NY: W.W. Norton 1986.
Dawkins Richard The Selfish Gene, new ed . NY: Oxford University Press 1989.
Dawkins Richard River Out Of Eden. Weiden field and Nicolson 1995.
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