Critique of TSW Part 20b Origin of Life

Blog 20141001 

Bill holds steadfast to systems theory while his belief in free will shows through when the subject of vitalism comes up.

I am ever so grateful to Bill Westmiller, whose comments are marked "BW: ". The quotes marked TSW are from "The Scientific Worldview" and my comments are marked "[GB: ".

The Origin of Life (Part 2 of 2)

TSW:  "For decades it has been fashionable to apply the prefix 'self' to convergent reactions ascribed to living systems ... For the systems philosopher-neovitalist, it is a no-brainer: 'the complex molecule assembles itself.'"

BW: The prefix was used by Oparin, Wöhler, Ivanovsky, and Engels. I'm not sure whether they were "neovitalists".

[GB: As you should know by now, the current scientific world view is systems philosophy, characterized by its overemphasis on the system and its tendency to ignore the environment of the system. Any use of the word “self” reflects that inclination—univironmental determinism was not invented until 1984. Some have used “self” to emphasize that particular reactions were natural processes not needing any extra help from some imaginary friend. One also could think of the entire universe as “self-organizing,” particularly if one assumed it was finite. The quote was from a particularly pernicious book written by Joel de Rosnay, which purported to be “A New World Scientific System.”]

TSW:  "Ignorance of the macrocosm is transformed into a modern but still uncaused 'vitality'..."

BW: I don't think any scientist or natural philosopher has ever considered life (vitality) to be uncaused. Nor did any of them ignore or deny any "macrocosm" as significant environmental factors.

[GB: You should read it and weep. Later in the book, I gave numerous examples. Perhaps you pooh pooh its significance because of its link to your cherished belief in free will.]

TSW:  "Life as we know it arose through a specific chain of events that will never be repeated exactly nor documented with perfect precision."

BW: Maybe not *exactly*, but there's no reason to believe that it hasn't occurred - naturally - many times over the past several million years, maybe even today. I think it will be done - artificially - within the next 10 years. As for documentation, there are no fossils of living matter, so history is only what we can impute from the process.

[GB: Glad you agree.]

TSW:  "These are all hypothetical, but they demonstrate the basic principles."

BW: Pretty vague speculation. And, it includes a lot of "chance" events that you deride. My own speculation is that the chemical building blocks formed on ice asteroids that subsequently "watered" the planet. Basic cell structures were formed by millions of deep ocean vents, whose cyclical motion of sediment and wet chemicals formed cells. The persistent heating and cooling prompted chemical reactions that produced elementary RNA or DNA, which produced proteins. That environment also facilitated growth, bifurcation, and basic reproduction. At least, that's the scientific "state of the art" in terms of understanding the process that would lead to living cells. Evolution of the most successful forms proceeds from there.

[GB: Sorry but there are no “chance” events involved, even in the simple equations I used to demonstrate abiogenesis. Again, those are the basics. The details you present, though specific, may or may not turn out to be correct. I have not heard about asteroid ice being very significant in producing the oceans. We generally consider the oceans to be a result of outgassing during volcanic eruptions, with a bit thrown in by comets, which are mostly ice. I do like your inclusion of temperature fluctuations, although I would not have used the word “persistent,” which implies a kind of equilibrium or stasis inimical to abiogenesis. Perfectly reversible reactions would not have produced life.]

TSW:  "Indeterminists might consider the convergence of AB and X as a sort of predetermined or predestined event, or even as a matter of absolute chance."

BW: I think a determinist can reasonably assume that, given proper conditions, the creation of living cells was either necessary or probable. It was certainly possible, since it did occur. The evidence and logic also suggests that it's possible on other planets, though only a few "Goldilocks Planets" have so far been detected:

TSW:  "The reactions above are typical of those producing animate as well as inanimate matter by means of Univironmental Determinism."

BW: Perhaps, but I think it's important to define living matter as an independent animated *process*, quite distinct from the indiscriminate chemical *events* that modify inanimate matter. The *boundary conditions* are real and deserve primary focus, as discussed previously.

[GB: The thinking expressed in those sentences obviously would be anathema to those studying abiogenesis. When we study transformation of one thing into another, we need to emphasize the similarities, not the dissimilarities. For example, in pedogenesis (soil formation) we need to know the composition of the initial material in order to understand the final product and the rate at which it formed. Thus granite of the Sierra Nevada contains biotite (black platy flakes), which oxidizes to vermiculite (the shiny, platy “fools gold” seen in streams), which eventually forms smectite (an expansive clay). Anyone studying soils knows that the “boundary conditions” are real, but that they are seldom distinct. Specialists not involved in the study of pedogenesis may choose to focus exclusively on the rock (geologists) or on the soil (farmers). Incidentally, each will have a tendency to overemphasize the part that is their primary focus. Some might even denigrate the chemical events outside their bailiwick as being “indiscriminate.”]

TSW:  "If one wishes, one may see competition and cooperation, even the survival of the fittest individual or group in these reactions."

BW: Anything can be anthropomorphized, but those characteristics are acts of *conscious* beings, not inanimate matter. It doesn't add to our understanding of nature, anymore than the inverse: "I am a rock!"

[GB: You really do have a problem with the Sixth Assumption of Science, complementarity (All things are subject to divergence and convergence from other things). That is a fact of life (and nonlife), whether you anthropomorphize it or not. Looks like your compartmentalization may get the better of you.]     

TSW:  "The complexity of the reactions will be so great that from thenceforth it will be nearly impossible for all but the most naïve to view biopoesis as a 'self-assembly' process."

BW: I get your point, but this sentence seems to imply "other-assembly", which suggests a mystical conscious intervention or teleology. One of the features of life is that it's primary processes are contained within itself, not that those processes are isolated from its environment. Nature "selected" living things (animals) that could seek out a favorable environment by "intentional" motion (consciously or not). Humans are capable of creating their own environments, so they are even less dependent on favorable conditions.

[GB: A bit out of context. That discussion was about creating life in a test tube, which obviously needs a person to do it, or at least to plan the process. The scientist becomes an undeniable part of the macrocosm. I do not think that the scientist necessarily will be mystical or prone to think that teleology has merit. It is not true that life’s “primary processes are contained within itself.” Life cannot exist without the macrocosm. As a believer in free will, you have missed the whole point of univironmental determinism. Perhaps your understanding would improve if you turned your idea of natural selection on its head. Instead of “survival of the fittest,” think of it as “destruction of the least fit.” What is left over, we deem to have been fit—for at least a few microseconds. No microcosm survives forever, fit or not. There is no grand “purpose” to any of this, and none of it occurs by chance. It just is what it is.]

TSW:  "Today some people already accept the production of live viruses from inanimate matter as sufficient proof of the creation of life in the laboratory."

BW: See the first 'virology' link above for discussion of whether viruses are "living" and the errors in the early assumptions about viruses being precursors to life.

TSW:  "Miss one turn in the road, goes the logic, and there goes a planet’s chances for verdancy."

BW: To some degree, that's true, reflected in the search for Goldilocks Planets (conditions which an overwhelming number of planets - even in our solar system - fail). It isn't *necessary* to nature that there be other planets with life, but there's no reason to believe that Earth is exceptional in a universe with trillions of planets.

TSW:  "... every organism, if it lives long enough, eventually becomes cancerous."

BW: I don't think that's true, but I love the "probably maybe" from this expert geneticist:

[GB: Of course, the point of that statement was to reiterate that all organisms contain the substrate for abiogenesis, which in this case occurs as cancer. The macrocosm is always present and always changing, introducing new supermicrocosms whose matter or motion interact with the pre-cancerous microcosm. That is why cancer is not a single disease affecting only one organ. It must affect all organs, though it may be possible that some have such latency that we have no record of cancer ever occurring in them.]

BW: Since cancer is a destructive genetic mutation, sufficient knowledge will certainly allow humans to mitigate - if not eliminate - its effects. The bigger "threat" to seeking immortality is the exact inverse: the method nature selected to *constrain* runaway tissue reproduction were DNA telomeres:

[GB: Agree, although I would refrain from emphasizing mutation. Even if organisms had no genes as we know they must, cancer would still occur because the chemical elements required for abiogenesis obviously do not have to be in DNA form.]   

BW: It isn't directly related to my Unimid Theory, but I do have an idea for an electronic "Variable Inference Processor" (VIP Chip) that can emulate the human abstraction process. It probably can't be realized before we die, but sometime in the future, sapients will be able to download their consciousness into an android and have a better chance of surviving whatever challenges nature dispenses (including The End of The World).

Next: The Biological Microcosm

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