7 Dirty Secrets of Biology

Is known physics and chemistry sufficient to explain how living beings do what they do? Erwin Schrödinger said “no” in a prescient book 75 years ago.

  1. We’ve been told that life evolved just once on this planet, and all life is related, based on a common use of DNA, proteins, and the genetic code. But we don’t know that. A great many more microbes have not been characterized and catalogued compared to those that we have studied.
  2. Life uses tricks of physics and chemistry that humans haven’t yet figured out. This is the dawning field of Quantum Biology. Only a few quantum tricks have been documented, but there may be a great many more. Life may be a quantum-based phenomenon. We just don’t know yet.
  3. We have no idea how life got started. Scientists are very far from being able to construct a living cell, and all suggestions (so far) about how life arose from non-living matter are inadequate, or make unrealistic assumptions.
  4. There is a “mesoscopic” realm of life that we don’t understand at all. We understand molecules a little, we understand tissues pretty well, but how matter is transported across a cell, how cells move, how organelles work—these are questions we have not begun to ask.
  5. “Random mutation plus survival of the fittest” is not sufficient to explain evolution. The neo-Darwinian paradigm is just one small part of how evolution works.
  6. Lamarckian inheritance is reality. This is inheritance of traits acquired during your lifetime. If you work out, your kids will be stronger. If you starve yourself, your kids will be hungry all the time. The story we’ve been told is that “Lamarck got it wrong, then Darwin got it right.” But in fact, Darwin believed in the effect of what he called “use and disuse”. Lamarckian inheritance has been documented for epigenetic effects that last up to 5 generations. And there is some evidence for Lamarckian genetic inheritance as well.
  7. The idea that “life evolved on earth, so it’s likely that life has also appeared on many of the billions of earth-like planets in our galaxy”—this idea is hogwash. It’s logically flawed. Listen to Davies to hear why.Image result for gorilla contemplating skull

It is mere rubbish thinking (at present) of the origin of life;
one might as well talk about the origin of matter.
— Charles Darwin


Molecular machine

A car has a generator that runs off the car’s engine and turns the mechanical energy of rotation into electrical energy so it can charge the battery (chemical energy).

Image result for generator charges battery

Every living cells stores energy chemically in a high-energy molecule called ATP. ATP is made using electrical energy. The electrical energy moves protons across a membrane, and as they pass, they turn a paddle wheel that makes the ATP. The paddle wheel is a single molecule, a protein called FTP-ase.

Every protein is just a string of amino acids in a particular order (specified by DNA) that has a propensity to fold spontaneously into a shape all its own. This one has been around for billions of years because it is so useful. It is a self-assembling machine, made of atoms.

ATP-ase has a conversion efficiency of 38%, comparable to state-of-the-art experimental automobile engines today.

The Scientific World-view needs an Update

We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.
— John Archibald Wheeler

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.
— Mrs Haine, my 6th Grade teacher (1961)

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
— erroneously attributed to Mark Twain

Yesterday, I posted at ScienceBlog an essay that I won’t reproduce here. The gist was

  • Parapsychology research has solid findings, consistent enough that physicists should stand up and pay attention.
  • The smartest people looking for a physical Theory of Everything are limiting themselves to reductionist theories, while the parapsychology research is pointing in other directions.
  • Mainstream science treats mind as an epiphenomenon, arising from computation by some yet-to-be-discovered mechanisms. But there is evidence from parapsychology and more mainstream research that mind is a fundamental constituent of the Universe, with effects including non-local physical interactions and (perhaps) determining the very physical laws that keep the whole show running.

I go on to speculate that the mechanical world-view derived from 19th century physics has never been replaced, even though it is inconsistent with 20th century quantum physics; and that the mechanistic/reductionist world-view has taken the meaning out of our lives and spawned the existential angst and chronic depression that are epidemic in modern Western socieities.

Finally, I speculate on the future of quantum biology. Life is a bulk quantum state, continually monitored from the inside by a chunk of consciousness that has taken up residence.

Please read and comment if you’re interested in such things.


The mothering you wish you had had

The psychotherapy that offers the deepest healing is the perfect mothering you missed the first time around, according to an Aeon article by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska.

(There are other useful modes of therapy (123) that address symptoms, and can change your life more quickly, if less deeply.)

(Others promote guided psychedelic journeys as a shortcut to spiritual transformation and an unexpectedly effective remedy for despair.)

Applied Parapsychology

In 2013, a University of Colorado professor of quantum engineering organized a project with his class, based on precognition. “I’m going to show you a picture this time tomorrow, and I want you to describe what you will see at that time.”

The picture was chosen by chance from two possible pictures, and, as frequently happens with such experiments, the students’ descriptions fit better with the picture that they were actually to be shown than the one they would never be shown (even though at the time they were describing the picture, they had not yet seen it).

Prof. Moddel added a variation:  He decided in advance that if the stock market goes up tomorrow, he will show the student Picture A, and if the stock market goes down, Picture B.

Result: The students correctly predicted the picture 7 out of 7 times, and Prof Moddel’s investment in DJIA futures made $4,000.

write-up in the Journal of Scientific Exploration

Comment: I believe such things happen far more often than chance would predict (in this case, 1 time in 128). But I also think they are less consistent than the “7 for 7” would indicate, otherwise the research field of parapsychology would not remain underfunded, as it chronically is ☺.

As the article describes the investment, they would have made $28,000 instead of $4000 if they had invested just as they had planned to do, but they mistimed their 7th and last trade, and suffered a large loss.

If you believe it possible that people can sense in advance what picture they will see tomorrow, you probably also think it possible that human events are arranged so as to warn people away from life paths that are venal and unrewarding.

Even if precognition lacks sufficient consistency to support a hedge fund, the phenomenon is consistent enough to justify a rethinking of the foundation of Western science.    — JJM


Leibniz was no dummy

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.

— Jonathan Swift: Poetry, a Rhapsody

Gottfried Leibniz was a Renaissance genius on a par with Isaac Newton, and in fact he developed an equivalent formulation of what we now call “calculus” at the same time Newton was doing it.

Both Leibniz and Newton inherited a Christian-animist view of the world that was so embedded in their culture that they would not wholly reject it. They both came to believe that motions of the heavenly bodies and also objects on earth were governed by universal laws that predicted behavior. How did they reconcile that with a God who made the world go ’round and with the living beings that appear to be acting from their free will?

Image result for mechanical universe

Leibniz struggled deeply with this question, and connected it to his concept of the infinitely small, which was an essential epiphany on the way to the calculus. His solution was that non-living things have a finite chain of causation. In other words (he didn’t imagine atoms), at a very small scale, water or air or a rock were just uniform substances.

The special thing about life is that it is subject to infinite chains of causality. Living things are mechanical, like the non-living world, but the mechanisms cannot be traced to a first cause, because their is no first cause. At each level, there is another level beneath it that is responsible for the behavior at the next level up. “And so proceed ad infinitum.

Justin E. H. Smith’s review of Ohad Nachtomy’s book on Leibniz

We may think of this as a mistake, or we may think of it as an ingenious solution to a problem that is not fully resolved in 21st Century physics. Modern approaches to the question of free will tend to start from quantum mechanics, but who knows but that a hundred years from now, scientists might believe that Leibniz was closer to the truth in the 17th Century than we are in the 21st.

In this quote, Leibniz sounds like a panpsychist.

My philosophical views approach somewhat closely those of the late Countess of Conway, and hold a middle position between Plato and Democritus, because I hold that all things take place mechanically as Democritus and Descartes contend against the views of Henry More and his followers, and hold too, nevertheless, that everything takes place according to a living principle and according to final causes — all things are full of life and consciousness, contrary to the views of the Atomists.

Chaque substance est comme un monde à part, indépendant de toute autre chose, hors de Dieu…
(Every substance is as a world apart, independent of everything else except God.)

…and here he sounds more like an Platonist or perhaps a Kastrup-style idealist.

Although the whole of this life were said to be nothing but a dream and the physical world nothing but a phantasm, I should call this dream or phantasm real enough, if, using reason well, we were never deceived by it.

He took seriously the question that every atheist asks today, “If God is all-good and all-powerful, how come the human world is so fucked-up?”

Il y a deux labyrinthes fameux où notre raison s’égare bien souvent : l’un regarde la grande question du libre et du nécessaire, surtout dans la production et dans l’origine du mal ; l’autre consiste dans la discussion de la continuité et des indivisibles qui en paraissent les éléments, et où doit entrer la considération de l’infini.

There are two famous labyrinths where our reason very often goes astray. One concerns the great question of the free and the necessary, above all in the production and the origin of Evil. The other consists in the discussion of continuity, and of the indivisibles which appear to be the elements thereof, and where the consideration of the infinite must enter in.

Image result for devil cartoon

I do not believe that a world without evil, preferable in order to ours, is possible; otherwise it would have been preferred. It is necessary to believe that the mixture of evil has produced the greatest possible good: otherwise the evil would not have been permitted. The combination of all the tendencies to the good has produced the best; but as there are goods that are incompatible together, this combination and this result can introduce the destruction of some good, and as a result some evil.

Leibniz also foreshadowed the modern penchant for many universes, which has become the mainstream approach to the Anthropic Coincidences, and which only Max Tegmark carries to its logical conclusion.

Omne possibile exigit existere. (Everything that is possible demands to exist.)


In other cultures, schizophrenia is a gift

I have sometimes wondered why schizophrenia survives in the human gene pool.  Perhaps it is a way of knowing things that are not accessible to the five senses, but that are supremely useful to a community (even if that knowledge is less dependable than the five senses).

Phil Borges tells about visiting shamans the world over, experiencing firsthand their trances and the knowledge that comes through them, asking their stories and (usually) traumatic childhoods.