This article aims to take a look at some conundrums of biology, natural selection, and adaptation. I know very very little about the workings of cellular biological organisms; or for that matter about any biology or organisms of any kind at all.
The enquiries I shall be attempting to make will be moreso then philosophical and logical than offering ‘natural science’ scientifically. Some of my enquiries will I am sure appear absurd to biologists because of this my great lack of knowledge of the nitty-gritty detail which the biologists have at their service to use. I hope however that amongst those items which are easily ‘shot-down’ by adequate pertinent knowledge, there will remain a small corpus of enquiries which stand as having been substantial and possibly valid as well?
To begin I’m imagining a world in which an organism exists which has zero selectivity of interaction regarding the world outside it and all around it. Blindly, in every sensory way then, this organism perhaps cannot, does not even, move, but is situated fairly well and is shall we say able to get food just by sheer luck according to what passes by its way – what wind blows in or some other incidental pressure or change in the immediate environmment.
Sometimes it gets bad stuff that kills it; sometimes it gets stuff it can do nothing with but is not fatal; sometimes it gets something it can derive nourishment from; or else it gets something bearing any combination, in any permutation, of these three things.
Now the organism is little more than a rock-bottom basic lifeform. But I am supposing that the history of the trajectory of evolution and of adaptation and of natural selection has been biased towards a creation of ever more complex organisms, at least at the same time as any lateral extensions of such things has been occuring; and wherein only diversity of organisms without added complexity might have happened. Maybe it’s not as simple as this in fact, but to keep our imaginary world and organsim simple we can work with this model.
Now since our organism is blind to sensory interaction with the world and yet it needs food; and since I guess it suffers biologically as an organism under stress, the more as it lacks food, andthus becoming ever more in need of that equilibrium which food supplies to the organism’s physical and chemical wellbeing, proper working etc; then it seems that there is a lot of environmental pressure on our organism to have selected by nature from its offspring those of its kind which are the more successful at obtaining food.
Much of the time it will be just luck that a meal arrives for it; but now and then there might possibly be a mutation which does better for food because of some way it has of advantageously positioning itself in the food absorption stakes? This ‘some advantageous way’ would of course have come to it by sheer chance, as a mutation most probably, fortuitous, accidental, incidental, to its status as a living thing.
Say, and yet even here and so early on I feel I am making a ‘great leap of faith’ and one very much of the kind which many persons who have no religious convictions might look unfavourably upon when they meet and hear people of religious convictions: say here, an organism of our kind, obtains a random mutation which expresses itself in the organism bearing in some parts of its boundary wall against the outer world (ours as humans is called ‘skin’) a property of some kind which either attracts or can obtain or can indicate a presence – say nearby – of food? So it’s just a few delicate micro millimetres of ‘skin’ which has this property in this case.
Such a mutated organism would be at a fantastically greater advantage than one of its kind without that few micro millimetrres. Less stress from lack of food, greater amounts of food, a chance for more regularity of food being able to benefit the organism in other ways. Surely this mutated style organism would just ‘take off’ and reproduce successfully in abundance?
Well, yes, maybe; but I figure, and I am ready to be wrong here, that an organism having that few micro millimetres would need more than just that few micro millimetres in fact; before those micro millimetres were able to be of any use to it or to give it an advantage over its fellows who have none. Just that few micro millimetres alone represents to me, described as an image, that the organism has luckily been offered by nature a pair of glasses; but yet the organism has so far no eyes on which to put its glasses.
Sensitivity or increased means to a proximity of food needs to have had some internal change having gone on as well; inside the organism, and not just a change to a patch of its ‘skin’; a internal change such as, excuse my clumsiness, a very rudimentary nervous system having been established in order for the organism to be able to ‘interpret’ in some very lowlife way, that here ‘coming in’ is a signal that coming into its vicinity is: ‘FOOD!’ .
Now of course the sensitive micro milimetres and the rudimetary nervous system are probably the same thing in terms of organic tissue, yet physiologically they are separate functions – one outward-facing sensitised to ‘foods’ and one inward-facing, rallying the organism to ‘do something about’ having spotted food. It’s no good seeing sticky buns in the baker’s window and being unable to go in and buy one. There’s no advantage in that. Just greater stress as an organism I’d imagine? Torture.
It is this internal and necessary alteration, which has to ‘twin’ with the outward ‘sheer luck’ alteration – being a sensitised ‘skin’; so as for the organism to be able to make use of the surface sensitivity, and this is intriguing. The ‘twinning’ has to be precisely suited to the outward change of the organism; ‘joined-up’ so to speak,so as to make a viable advantageous step forward for the organism. The sensitised ‘skin’ may not be allowed merely to rest as a solely localised change and go no further; it has to be taken into the – the what? – the rudimentary, blind, assertive, ‘will’ or ‘direction’ or else the integral ‘metadata’ which regulates the organism overall?
It is something I feel that is fundamentally purposive here which is necessary, over and above mere surface ‘skin’ mutation, for the advantage of this sensitised ‘skin’ to be had by such an organism? If it is not ‘purposive’, and a biologist argues that this rudimentary ‘nervous system’ is itself, or else comes along with as part of, the random mutation; then something very complex and special has happened in the making and in the blind endowment of a mutation; something hardly explicable, short of via magic and marvel.
Now dead dead things (inorganic matter) never accommodate themselves by way of random and chance mutation to any other state of being than they are originally. A property of, a distinguishing mark of living things, is thus mutation, which miraculously seems ‘just to happen’ – but it does not, it never happens, with or within dead dead things. Further these random mutations of living things have a long long history of being very often mutations which act to morph into more complex entities their organisms than they were previous to a mutation having happened blindly to them.
Why this trajectory? Why very often greater complexity. Why, as far as I know, never devolution, into more simple organisms than they were before? Is there not some ‘intent’ or ‘purposiveness’ going on? The arrow of time is a lesser mystery than is this propensity of organisms to increase in complexity historically. Especially since the dead dead world resolutely just does not follow suit.
Both the dead dead world and the living world and the dead living world (caracasses) are all chemically based and physically based, and operate upon themselves and upon one another as matter chemically and physically constituted; they obey the same natural laws of chemistry and physics; and there is no difference between them other than the fact that one is or has been ‘life’ and the other is ‘dead dead stuff’.
Wordsworth comes to mind here; one of his ‘Lucy’ poems:
“SHE dwelt among the untrodden ways Beside the springs of Dove, A Maid whom there were none to praise And very few to love: A violet by a mossy stone Half hidden from the eye! Fair as a star, when only one Is shining in the sky. She lived unknown, and few could know When Lucy ceased to be; But she is in her grave, and, oh, The difference to me!”
The difference between life and death; not as having been alive and being now dead; but that difference between alive things, once alive things, and those dead dead things. Qualitatively something is superadded when an item of matter is deemed alive; even when the same matter at some time has been alive; but this superadded factor is wholly absent in our apprehensions, and is absent also in the apprehensions of many of the higher organisms; when an object or a piece of matter is assuredly of the dead dead kind.
Our responses are utterly changed where life is concerned as opposed to our responses to dead dead objects. (I know there are photographs and works of art etc etc; but please don’t quibble). Life is a phenomenon quickening to the spirit; not as a tautology in olde worlde language; but our minds and hearts there ‘leaps within us’ a joyous vitality of apprehension when living things are under our consideration; whereas our outlook on dead dead matter is, in the same contexts, as unresponsive as is the deadness of that dead dead matter we are contemplating.
Something has been superadded; but to pin down clearly what has been superadded so as to call something ‘alive’ is the conundrum.
Let’s now move on now and look a little at the conundrums raised by such a phenomenon as that of resistance in certain bacteria to certain once efficacious antibiotics which would once kill them no problem.
We have noted the basic general idea expressed in the fact that no matter how many times one tries to set light to granite (under normal conditions) granite will never burn. Yet were one to keep dosing a type of bacteria with the same killer poison, over time very usually the bacteria will grow a resistance, become inured, and eventually it will no longer succumb to a dosage of what was once lethal poison to it. Emperors and Kings in olden times dosed themselves with nasty poisons gradually increasing doses so as to build up a resistance to poisons which an enemy might pour into their food unseen.
Now I am assuming here that those mutations which have provided an increase in resistance, an inurement, in their bacteria to antibiotics, are mutations of a single class or kind; in that they operate chemically and physically directly upon and within the mutated bacteria so as to neutralise what was once poison to the organism. I am assuming that no mutations resulting in inurement to antibiotics are of a kind which say prevent the antibiotic from entering the bacteria in the first place; and I am assuming that nor else does the resistance, the inurement, work in any other way than by debilitating the antibiotic, by chemical and physical means upon the bacteria having ingested it?
If this understanding is correct; then a question arises as to why only this way of dealing with the antibiotic has been developed in bacteria under random and blind mutations; and why no other alternative means and type of mutation have arisen for dealing with the threat to life of bacteria which antibiotics pose?
It seems a drastic way for bacteria to have to ‘learn’ how to beat the antibiotic by way of a long and gradual increase of its resistance. Like having had to hang two score of of innocent men before the real murderer relents. Nature’s profligate wastage.
The question also arises as to why the bacteria concerned possess a passive but receptive facility to overcome via mutation such poisons? Is it merely the monkeys and the typewriters and the works of Shakespeare? (I believe that is a myth). Why should it not be impossible for a bacteria to mutate so as gradually to be able to survive antibiotics? You can’t set fire to granite. You can’t mutate a human to gradually grow wings and fly – well scientist biologists might be able to but in the natural process of things it’s unlikely ever to happen. No matter how many monkeys and typewriters. Some things, some mutations are just not likely, perhaps some not possible? This is all hypothetical however so let’s move on.
There seems there has to be a ‘life-force’ which asserts itself, often aggressively, against extinction of a life form, one aspect of such a force showing by way of a throwing up billions of mutations in a cosmic lottery of a handful of winners. The sheer profligacy of this scale of trial and error, so many errors for every win, (it seems to mirror the pharmaceuticals companies’ business models) is ungraspable in its quantities. So why then are there arisen (I assume) preferential ways of mutation which either arise, or else arise and by chance ‘catch-on’? Is there a biological law which has been formulated which expresses how nature governs such preferential showing forths?
The fact that so many billions, like flower pollens and insect life, of mutations necessarily have to generate in order to preserve the numbers at each generation of individual species, this says something about life as a phenomenon; about its tenacious obstinacy not to be defeated and wiped by hostile aspects of nature and its environment. (This is a bit too anthropomorphic!)
Given that (nearly) all life forms eventually die as individuals; that there is a cycle of birth renewal death birth etc, which is almost universal to life and to its manifold forms: does not a metaphysical questionmark WHY? arise inescapably? Post-Enlightenment Answer: Because it does because it does because it does? Is that really sufficient? – like Job before The Almighty being wholly ‘put down’ and ‘put in his place’ by I AM because I AM.
Should one be able to posit with a rigorous scholarly certitude the existence of a ‘life-force’ being common to, universal to, all objects which have been, and are, and will be, classed as being alive; and such a posited ‘life-force’ should it remain inscrutable; and perhaps that ‘fuse’ of Fern Hill fame which electrically emanates throughout the green and pleasant land of Wales, and also through the remainder of the world, is ever open to speculative and (I daringly say) to metaphysical interpretation and suggestive explanations.
There is no doubt in my mind that foundational questions and conundrums are existent in biology a d other sciences at the present time, and will remain existent indefinitely, and probably beyond the lifetime of sentience as a temporal earthly phenomenon; remaining unsolved because unsolvable by scientific efforts. That these foundational conundrums are airbrushed away and face-lifted out of serious conversation in schools and in academies of our times far too often; and because our general citzenries are so force-fed the deliberate dish of the day that they are unable often, even mostly, to see that such foundational conundrums exist.
Because these things are as they are, the task before any person who believes approaching to certainty in ‘something better’ than our ‘closed systems of self-perpetuation’ – so don’t mention anything beyond them! – her or his task is arduous and yet absolutely necessary. Otherwise we are captives in the castles of the kingdom of science and certainty, empiricism and materialism, which we built for our succours and as our would-be salvations.
Just as dead living things inevitably decompose, descending from complexity into simpler elements, so shall our spirits and our autonomies and our self-beliefs and our dearest hopes and loves; stand in mortal danger of also descending into dead dead things, from their once having been vibrantly alive; For a short while, which is happening in the present day, they are as if wraiths of dead living things; until we let them go entirely (God forbid!) and we and they become universally wholly dead dead things to our inmost hearts.