New Thinking About the Origin of Life (1): Purposes and Selves

How does a living thing differ from a lifeless one? And how might those living characteristics have emerged from the lifeless matter that preceded them?

Jeremy Sherman’s new book, Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves, discusses recent thinking on these questions, especially the work of neuroanthropologist Terrence Deacon. In this post and the next, I’ll summarize highlights.

Sherman is emphatic about one particular difference between living and non-living things: all living things have purpose, non-living entities do not. Purpose here has little to do with a person’s “sense of purpose” and it has nothing to do with divine intention. It refers instead to biological processes aimed at maintaining the state of being alive. For example, the heart’s purpose—its function—is to pump blood. The purpose of a leaf is to produce food for the plant. We take for granted that bodies and all their parts serve functions and yet it may feel strange at first to identify purpose itself as a defining feature of all organisms.

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Non-living stuff, on the other hand, has no such purpose or aim or sustaining function. A fire in the fireplace burns and gives off heat and carbon and other gasses, after which the fire, without more fuel, goes out. Sherman writes, “Most chemical reactions yield a proliferation of molecular products” but such reactions soon peter out. The reactions in living things, on the other hand, don’t fizzle out so easily. Through their biochemistry, living things “are self-regenerative in two senses: they maintain their own existence, and they produce new selves” (9).

New selves? Sherman, following Deacon, refers to organisms as selves. Applying self to an organism calls attention to the ways that even a bacterium as well as a human works to find food, defend its self, repair its self, and make more selves. Inanimate things aren’t selves. Left alone long enough, anything inanimate will become disorganized and break down; an ice cube left on a counter will melt and then evaporate, its molecules finally dispersing into the air.

A related difference between selves and inanimate things is that with selves, we can say that something—fuel, information, a change in temperature—is good or bad or useful or significant for it. But for inanimate things, as Sherman puts it, “Nothing is ever functional, significant, or adaptive for sodium chloride, snowflakes, mountains, fried chicken, or even computers” (25).

But what about natural selection? Didn’t Darwin’s work explain how living things evolve? Yes, but natural selection fails to explain the first appearance of all those selves that do the evolving. “To claim that natural selection explains purpose is like claiming that erosion explains mountains. Erosion…explains how mountains are passively sculpted, but not what’s sculpted. Likewise, natural selection explains how populations of selves are passively sculpted…[as] some lineages produce more offspring than others, but not how selves arise in the first place.” (9).

So, the question: what kinds of inanimate chemical reactions might have come together as stepping-stones towards purposeful, self-regenerative selves? Until now, that question has been explored in terms of possible ingredients. Chemical stews, viruses, RNA molecules, an iron-and-sulfur world have been among the candidates for starting points. But Terrence Deacon has asked instead what kinds of reactions, regardless of their ingredients, could sustain themselves long enough to postpone the terminal fizzle?

His answer, in the abstract, is that you need not one but two reactions, each of which constrains the other before it burns out. I’ll explain in my next post.

Am I a “Self” or an”Organism”?

Self or Organism. Which word would you use to refer to yourself and other individuals?

Self  has a long history of helping us call attention to ourselves. Its earliest root several thousand years ago seems to have been a pronoun that referred back to the subject for emphasis, roughly like saying he himself. Today it evokes the uniqueness and separateness of a single person or a group (ourselves). The Wiktionary list of 242 self- prefix words, such as self-image and self-confident, is a sprawling catalog of all that we do, think, and feel that involve ourselves in any way. And added to these are the many phrases like true self, my old self, sense of self, and of course selfie.

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For many people, self is an essential vocabulary item for reflecting on who they are, how they relate to others, and how they see themselves changing over time.  Phrases such as be yourself and don’t be too hard on yourself are popular tips for surviving in a culture that expects all its members to strive toward individuality.

But for others, self is an illusion that is no help at all. For them, the term conjures up a non-existent entity that demands constant attention and cuts us off from the present moment that we actually live in.

Organism is not an obvious alternative. The technical-sounding word refers not just to humans but to bacteria, whales, trees and every other living thing. Its earliest root meant to do, a sense that is closely preserved in the word work and more loosely in organize and orgy. Organism highlights the material structures and organization of an entity that is actively doing what living things do: growing, responding, reproducing, sustaining itself. In its concreteness, the term seems almost the opposite of the ghost-like self.

But the comparison between organism and self can take some unexpected turns. Wikipedia’s article on organism tells us that “there is a long tradition of defining organisms as self-organizing beings”—my italics. It adds that debates about the definition of organism  have included the suggestion that the term “may well not be adequate in biology.” In science, the self, as some kind of template of organization, may not be quite so dispensable after all.

I asked a friend who is psychologically acute and spiritually oriented which term she preferred for referring to individual people, including herself. For her, organism, even though its source is the immaterial Oneness that everything originates from and returns to, is a more usable term than self. The latter is vague, negative, an expression of our appetite for a specialness that separates us from that Oneness. Given my friend’s spiritual perspective, her preference for the “scientific” term surprised me a little at first, but only briefly.

Conversely, I recently heard the research biologist and religious naturalist Ursula Goodenough use self instead of organism in speaking biologically about “the animal self” and the responses of all “selves” (including bacteria) to their environment. Though it was unexpected to hear her discuss single-celled creatures as selves , the term fit effectively in her explanations of how living things know if they are well off or not, pursue what they need, avoid toxic substances, and repair bodily damage.

The preference for self or organism seems to depend on one’s view of the essential nature of being alive.

These days, I find myself liking organism. There is something clean about the word that suits my inclination to de-clutter my psyche and some of my life issues. The word seems to put all its cards on the table. The “I” part of the Brock organism (the irreducible self, I admit) wants to keep this brain, this heart, these connections with other people, all going along for as long as possible. And with organism I’m free of any of the old business about a true self versus a fake self, about losing oneself in something or being alienated from oneself; about the different sides of the self, deserving and undeserving selves, the blessed and the damned, centuries of European agonizing over the clashing selves.

Selves are cultivated, the product of cultures. Organisms are maintained, products of the cosmos and Earth’s marvelous chain of the self-sustaining. High expectations of my Self at my age don’t ring true, to me; have I “made a difference” (but nearly everyone does), do I “have no regrets” (but I do), am I “wise” (hah)? No thanks. I feel good and grateful enough about the extraordinary experience of being a human organism.