The Upside-Down Piano
Does life have an aim? A goal? What makes the beautiful interconnected living things in this world fit together and operate so seamlessly?
In the journal Science in 2008, results were published that should have called into question everything we know about life, but for many it did not. The study is this one: (Hillenmeyer, M.E., et al., The chemical genomic portrait of yeast: uncovering a phenotype for all genes. Science, 2008. 320(5874): p. 362–5.)
In this experiment, researchers deleted all of the genes (protein-encoding regions) in an entire yeast genome, which was about 5000 regions, one by one, to see what effect this had on the resulting organism. They found that under normal conditions, nearly 80% of these “knockouts” were silent. This means that 80% of the genes, when removed, had no specific harmful effect. Could an animal like this yeast survive if all of these seemingly useless genes were removed at the same time? I assume that it could not. So why is the genome so redundant, and why are the links from genes to traits so diffuse? Many do not realize that the question of what a genome is is still an open question. If one was näively asking, “Is the genome a code?” it should be obvious from this experiment that the answer is probably “No.” A code leads specifically from instructions to actions. That’s the meaning of the word “encoded.” So if it is not a code, what is the genome?
Many also do not realize that the biological sciences are engaged in a massive, and so far unsuccessful, search for the organizing principle of life. Every organism must have an organizing principle, otherwise it could not stay alive. We can be relatively certain we have not found that principle because we cannot build a surviving organism from scratch, and we have not explained how an organism like a human can produce general intelligence (the ability to understand context.)
Nevertheless, our entire paradigm of modern biology has assumed that the organizing principle of every biological network in every organism on earth is at bottom a very simple one. That principle is:
Obey DNA code
According to this explanation, living networks are simply obeying the instructions that their DNA encodes as “survival machines” for their genes. All of physiology and behavior is explained by the variation in DNA codes, and differential selection from the environment as organisms survive and reproduce. This is called Neo-Darwinian evolution. It is certainly clear from the fossil record that evolution has indeed occurred.
But recent research into the microbiome has shown that large organisms like ourselves depend for our cognition and metabolism on many trillions of microbiota, all of which have their own distinct DNA. How could DNA provide the instructions for life if complex life depends on many unrelated organisms cooperating in one animal?
In this Neo-Darwinist story, survival and reproduction emerges from the mindless replication of DNA, and intelligence is simply a byproduct of that process. There is no aim, or teleology, to what organisms do. Nor could there be, because to aim for something requires general intelligence, and intelligence isn’t clearly explained by Neo-Darwinism. But suppose, for a moment, that our current paradigm has it backwards, and that intelligence is the aim of life, and it is survival and reproduction that are the byproducts.
In order for this to be true, general intelligence would have to be something that is done not just by the neurons in the human brain, but by every living structure on earth. It would have to be the prime organizing principle of all living beings, driving all of their interactions down to every molecule they use in the processes of life. Intelligence such as this would have to be defined very broadly, something like, “responding sensitively and appropriately to the your context.”
All these networks would have to be applying some formula as they operated, a formula which kept them organized. We have long assumed that genetic evolution provides that formula, but if the genome is not a set of instructions, that is impossible. Without a code that directly controls every action, there would be no way for evolution to specify what we should do… how we should interact with our environment. So the stubborn search continues.
What this Neo-Darwinist story leaves out is that organisms respond to their environments with all of their networks, not just the DNA network. They respond with their muscles, bones, organs, blood, cilia, flagella, nerves, etc. By the time we get down to the DNA, the responses are very stochastic. Two adjacent cells in the same living body may encode the same protein a thousandfold more or less than one another.
The only formula simple enough to accurately describe all of the activities of all living networks when confronted with changes in their environments would be a very simple Lamarckian one:
if used: reinforce; else: mutate.
If this were the organizing principle of life, all of the facts we see supporting Neo-Darwinian evolution would still fit; in fact they would fit better. This would explain that evolution is possible because organisms are responding holistically to their contexts, and that is what keeps them organized. It would show how the entire environment is causally responsible for physiology and behavior, rather than DNA alone. The protein-encoding regions of DNA would be like keys on a piano, a piano that was played by the surroundings of an organism. This is the opposite of how we usually imagine causation working; it’s easy to imagine the consequences of the parts acting on the whole, but the consequences of the whole acting on the parts requires tremendous imagination. The fact that something is hard to imagine does not make it false.
This conclusion is also logically necessary from taking seriously the existing laws of physics, even the layman’s version of them. All physical actions are interactions, caused by the greater conditions of the universe. It is only the physics of the human brain that we describe, mysteriously, as being responsible for “actions,” as if we were manufacturing causes from scratch inside our heads. How can any molecule in the brain “act” on its own? If this were true, we would need new laws of physics. Why has science tried to sidestep this obvious problem?
This conjecture is not just a speculation; it is an empirical, testable scientific hypothesis.
To test it, we simply have to build an artificial network that links sensitivities to motor reactions in an embodied machine. The Lamarckian formula above specifies how the code should run. It is not a difficult engineering project, but it is more than I can handle on my own.
I have begun building this machine, but I need help.
If this argument interests you, and you have intermediate or advanced skills in robotics or software engineering, please follow the link attached here, and comment on my research plan, or email me directly at email@example.com. I have titled this idea “Epistolution.” Much more information is available at my website TalkingOctopus.
To Be is to Know.