This is a try-out of a new origin story. Current evolutionary theory (synthesis of genetic mutation and natural selection) assumes Comtean reductionism (Darwin was an early fan of Comte) and makes what we know about living creatures conform to it, at no matter what cost and distortion of our intuitions. My mission for the past 25 years has been to come up with stories accounting for what we know about evolution, especially what we know about ourselves, no matter how preposterous the narrative, in hopes they give us a clearer idea what a theory of evolution should account for.
Fundamental to this exercise is the assumption we're lacking any number of concepts essential for understanding evolution. In place of these missing concepts I rely on a combination of rationality and imagination. I welcome responses from readers respecting this method of research--analytical narrative, I believe.
Sometimes you don’t know how ignorant you are until you come across a paradox you can’t resolve. The Ancient Greeks found paradoxes so exasperating they figured out ways to resolve them that we still use to make sense of things today. Sometimes we don’t even need paradoxes, we know we’re ignorant just because there’s something we can’t make head nor tail of. Mind, for example. We can make up our own paradoxes—does matter have a mind? Where is mind? Did mind have to evolve? We haven’t a clue. That’s how ignorant we are about mind.
Haven’t a clue! Well, clues I can come up with. I make up a story that accounts for whatever-it-is, and I extract clues from it. My story isn’t meant to be true, it’s more like a quarry that we can mine for distinctions to help us think about something. Like mind.
Here in brief is my story about mind: mind originated as living creatures evolved, in four stages. Stage one is evolution from scratch up to the creation of the genetic code, stage two is the evolution of single-celled creatures, stage three is the evolution of multi-celled creatures, stage four is the evolution of us humans.
I know only two things about Stage One but that’s enough. I know it began with ordinary non-living matter. And I know it ended in a multitude of microbes. Somehow, non-living matter began turning into life and went on doing so until creatures consisting of single cells abounded.
Turning non-living matter into life is quite a challenge. Even the most primitive living creature has to resist being dissolved away into just the chemicals it consists of, while having to expose itself enough to its surrounding to take in more of just those chemicals, and grow. When it’s grown enough it has to know how to divide into two or more creatures like itself. The appearance of creatures satisfying those conditions tells us that from the beginning evolution’s been very ingenious. How different the innumerable kinds of these creatures were, that eventually came into existence, tells us evolution’s also very creative.
And evolution seems able to devise solutions to problems and implement them as if intelligent. For creatures to divide into two or more creatures like themselves, their characteristics must be replicated in their progeny. Instead of letting this problem take its natural course, by living creatures becoming simpler, evolution “chose” to make them much more complicated. Evolution devised a way of coding creatures' characteristics in long molecular strings, genomes made up genes. Then, by duplicating these strings and passing one on to each of its progeny, a creature could pass on to them specs for all its characteristics. But now, to those specs evolution had to add instructions for reading and executing the code, and instructions for how to make copies of those molecules and how to distribute them.
This made living creatures much more complicated, but it also provided evolution with new tools for making creatures with even more varied, even more elaborate characteristics, more accurately reproducible. This is an example of what I call “engines” that the process of evolution forged to give itself new powers.
More than intelligence seems to be involved. The process of evolution seems able to impose order on nature as if by conscious decision-making. Characteristics of living creatures were spelled out along the chromosome in combinations of molecular sub-units. How a characteristic was spelled shouldn't have made any difference to how "fit" a creature was, it would remain the same characteristic, as “dog” and “chien” are the same thing only spelled in different languages. Any of billions of different ways of spelling genes would have done just as well. But something extraordinary happened. Characteristics of all living creatures got written out in the same particular highly specific “genetic” code. The very slight variation that has been found (in the archaea) shows that variation was possible, but the variation is so slight it suggests something “decided” to limit all living creatures to the same code-spelling. Since all spellings would be equally fit this uniformity raises the question, who decided which spelling would become the standard? Who else was there to make the decision but the process of evolution itself? It "intelligently decided" that all living creatures' genes be written in the same language. All living creatures' genes would "speak" the same language.
In my story the process of evolution itself had to have gone on evolving for a long time before living creatures based on this code appeared, through processes long since lost to view. Evolved in one medium, from raw non-living materials, I imagine it migrating through a succession of substrates until for its fuller expression it settles on life as we know it, coming up for creatures’ genes with a universal language that will become evolution's physical substrate for Stages Two and Three. The process of evolution could then evolve rapidly to become increasingly creative, ingenious, intelligent, and able to arrive at its own decisions. Putting that "arrive at its own decisions" in terms of our own mental capabilities, it became "conscious." At some point it must have become able to transact in consciousness, to be able to make us conscious.
From Stage Two onward we have two mechanisms of evolution to choose between. One is science’s combination of random damage to creatures’ genes followed by selection for those creatures that ended up least impaired, any genes that through random damage contributed more to creatures' "fitness" appearing disproportionately often in future generations. I disqualify this process, since it couldn't function until creatures’ characteristics corresponded one to one to genes strung along chromosomes, which anyway they seem not to. It can’t account for the origin of the process of evolution or for its mastery of all the challenges that process must have overcome to arrive at structures equipped for independent living and competition with one another. Only at that point could science's mechanism have begun to operate.
But did science's mechanism ever become a significant driver of evolution? The other mechanism is the agent I came up with for Stage One--creative, ingenious, capable of conscious decision-making. I see no reason why, having shown such powers in Stage One, it would retire in Stage Two to leave science’s mechanism in charge. Since my mechanism appears to be the more potent of the two, I will assume it continues to be the effective driver of evolution through Stages Two, Three and Four. Logically some genetic damage and natural selection is bound to occur but that doesn't make them what drives evolution. They may no more account for evolution than friction between tires and roads can account for what drives automobiles--such friction is bound to occur but it’s not the driving mechanism.
I pick up my story where I left off at the end of Stage One. Once living creatures became defined by a uniform genetic code they could evolve enormously elaborate characteristics. Now, as it grew, each cell became the substrate for its own intelligence. The process of evolution, whatever physical base it had before, now took the form of these intelligences. Because all cells spoke the same “language” and could communicate through chemical transfers, the exchange of viruses, and so on, the process of evolution could manifest itself at ever larger scales, giving the process ever greater vision and vitality.
I'll refer to this intelligence, associated with each cell, as Max.
While Stage One of the evolution of mind is the most significant, Stage Two continues for the longest time, for half as long as the Earth itself has existed. Here are highlights:
First, Max made himself master of physics and the chemical elements. To tap into the energy given off as heat when something burns he devised the elaborate step-wise processes of photosynthesis. Now living creatures could extract most of the energy of a damaging ray from the sun in a series of tiny sips which it could use to build for itself the chemicals it needed for its own growth.
A billion years on, Max devised for himself a new vehicle, a new kind of cell. Gradually, through the experiences of his creatures, Max became aware of the air, and the land, and the sun, moon and stars. He dreamed of migrating onto the land, and into the air, and maybe one day travelling beyond the Earth and among the stars to discover other intelligences like himself. The new vehicle he created for these travels was a colossus, a vastly more complex cell, with a much more elaborate manner of reproduction, managed from a fortress at the center of the cell, the nucleus, where tissues supporting genetic intelligence could grow without limit. In pursuit of this dream, he diversified this new cell into the ancestors of fungi, plants and animals. He began laying down genes for the building of creatures of great size and powers, composed of trillions of these cells, of hundreds of diverse types. Patiently he laid his plans, all the while embedding in these cells, his planetary rovers, new engines of evolution.
Disaster—Snowball Earth. The Earth froze over, the land became covered by miles of snow, the seas by miles of ice. From conquest Max's passion became survival. Survive he did, along with his new creations. But he had to face his fate; if he was to break out of the sea, onto land and into the air and on to the stars, the process of evolution must once more migrate onto a new form of physical support. In a mighty eruption of creativity he laid down body plans for creatures with many different kinds of cells. To the alien intelligences these creatures would support he entrusted the fulfillment of his vision.
Max remained the intelligence within each cell, master of its vast complexity. But the leading edge of the process of evolution would migrate to creatures made up of many cells, vehicles for a more advanced network of intelligences.
There are three kinds of evolution. One is the evolution of one species into another, which turns out to be nothing more than intelligent agents of evolution simply bringing to mind one species’ characteristics, re-thinking them, and storing them back into chromosomes as altered genes, genes coding for a variation on the original species or even a new species. Second there’s how the agents of evolution themselves evolve over time. Finally there's change in the physical substrate that provides the process of evolution with new realms of mind to colonize. That’s responsible for the deepest groundswells in evolution, allowing agents of evolution to imagine and sketch out the chemistry for entirely new kinds of creatures. Such changes mark the boundaries between Stages One, Two, Three and Four.
Processes of evolution are minds. I think of minds as like bank accounts, they don’t have physical properties like size and location, they exist simply as sets of services. As agents of evolution evolve they develop within mind services of ever greater power. What they can achieve depends on the powers of the services in mind they have access to. Unlike us, agents of evolution can read each other’s “minds,” and "think" together, so they've each other's powers to call on as well as their own.
In Stage Two evolution’s substrate was the free flow of genetic information horizontally from one microbe to another. Stage Three opens with genetic information being limited to flowing vertically down the generations within channels carved by sex preferences. Along with sex went a new chemistry of cell division that gave agents of evolution more control, during meiosis, over how characteristics of creatures paired up together. Within each channel an agent could devise new engines of evolution that it could communicate to agents in other channels. So a similar organ could evolve within widely separated channels, like the eyes of mammals and mollusks, and creatures in one channel could pre-adapt to environments already populated by creatures from other channels.
I ended Stage Two with Max yielding direction of life to new intelligences entirely alien to him. These intelligences occupied life at scales from Max himself, in each of a creature's cells, up to agents for a creature’s tissues, its organs, individual living creatures themselves, up through species and orders to phyla and the entire living kingdom. In Stage Three this hierarchy of intelligent agents starts out by generating within discrete channels the creatures we're familiar with from the fossil record, among them the “chordates,” “annelids,” “arthropods” and so on, continuing up to those we're familiar with today.
At this point we've so much information about which creatures evolved into others that we can begin crafting biographies for each of these agents. Between dinosaur skeletons and those of mammals there's a dazzling leap in refinement of craftsmanship. Trilobites evolved continuously for hundreds of millions of years, sharks introduced many new characteristics at once but then varied little. The lancelot has evolved barely at all in hundreds of millions of years yet continues to be tolerated by creatures with more-recently enhanced predatory powers.
Convergent evolution and pre-adaptation show us that information can be exchanged between widely-separated channels. But sometimes an agent may intuit a new kind of creature, even a creature offering evolution an entirely new substrate, and devise a complete set of engines for creating such a creature. This must be possible, because it's what made us humans so exceptional.
Here, in more detail, is how living creatures evolve. When we think, when we want to remember something for example, we translate our thoughts into chemistry which we store as memories in brain cells, memories we can later recall. So thinking in us can be translated into chemistry, and back again. If agents of evolution can think like this they'd be about to recall "thoughts" (characteristics) written into their “brain chemistry” (the genes they correspond to), rethink those characteristics, and then store them back into those genomes. Since genes are what define a species, recalling a species’ characteristics, re-thinking them and storing them back as changes to genes is going to create a new species. For agents of evolution, thinking is equivalent to something evolving.
Stage Four opens with agents in the channel devoted to the evolution of mammals thinking novel mental powers into their creatures. They made some mammal species social, and gave them enhanced social communications. Two agents added "dreaming," a channel, that would open up while the creatures slept, that they could use for more rapid conscious communications between themselves.
To the agent dedicated to ape evolution this opened up an awesome prospect. If agents of evolution could communicate more rapidly through creatures' dreaming, perhaps dreaming could be made a substrate for the more rapid evolution of the process of evolution itself. In time, perhaps the process of evolution would migrate to this new substrate.
Let’s call this agent of the ape channel “Charlie.” Charlie first imagined a series of steps through which he could fulfill his vision, and for it thought into existence a channel for hominids. To equip his hominids for step one he "re-thought" into their genes many new characteristics. He maintained in them the simultaneous evolution of all the talents he could imagine needed for the first step in his plan, the invention by the hominid homo sapiens sapiens--us humans--of civilization. And several thousand years ago civilizations did spring up around the world.
As Charlie intended as step two in his plan, adapting to civilization plunged the human mind into a frenzied evolution of new powers--technology, logic, maths, art and so on. Just three thousand years ago, as step three, he gave humans further scope for the exercise of these new powers by extending into wakefulness the dreaming state. We could now be conscious of our thoughts, as the agents of evolution were of theirs. As, for them, thinking was equivalent to creatures evolving, thinking in us became our thoughts evolving--thinking is one thought evolving into another. Charlie denied us only the ability to communicate with one another through consciousness, to read each other's minds, so we could not read the minds of the agents of evolution. Each human being would be alone in his and her conscious experience.
In step four of Charlie's plan, technology led us to advances in public health and medicine that within the past century have doubled our life expectancy. A child born today can look forward to an almost certain three-score years and ten. We have removed ourselves almost entirely from predation. Instead our thoughts evolve in our place. We have become agents of the evolution of our thoughts.
Having become agents of evolution (step five of Charlie's plan), are we about to embark on step six, our consciousnesses becoming the substrate for the next stage in the evolution of the process of evolution itself?
This story as an account of evolution
This story can account, in its own terms, for:
- The origin of pre-microbial life forms.
- The genetic code having only one spelling, though in other instances evolution is very tolerant of variation.
- Species typically remaining unchanged for millions of years, then appearing to evolve suddenly into new species.
- The Cambrian Explosion, the sudden emergence of most kinds of animal.
- and so on, up to the appearance of dreaming, and human exceptionalism including the origin of our current state of consciousness and creativity.
Exploring meaning and mission.
An outstanding anomaly in evolution is how rapidly, and simultaneously, we evolved many remarkable new characteristics, such as upright stance freeing our forelegs to develop hands for carrying and toolmaking, mastery of fire for cooking that freed out skulls to accommodate more brain, multiple talents for mimicry, enlargement of the brain and parts of it along with our vocal cavity being reconfigured to manage speech, capacity for developing language, and so on. How eerily efficiently this equipped us to invent civilization and achieve our current creative and technical powers I think should raise a host of questions, as it did for Alfred Wallace. Was this torrent of talents directed? If so, by what or whom? What does all this imply about human nature? How can we not be curious about such issues?
The Ancient Stoic were curious about them. My story amounts to an updating of their doctrines: the process of evolution grants us a share of its own powers, that we can use to learn more about those powers and draw on them to enhance our own existence. Of course that reasoning is circular: we project our intuitions about ourselves onto nature, and then project what we know about nature back onto ourselves. But engaging what we know about ourselves with what we've discovered about nature in this way may be the best we can do so soon (only two centuries) after learning we evolved.
That the methods of science apply only to what's physical disqualifies it from addressing these issues. They would be more appropriately addressed today, as I've tried to demonstrate here, through the methods of the arts and the humanities. For students in the arts and the humanities, consciousness and creativity which are discounted in the scientific account are primary realities. I want to show it's possible to come up with origin stories based on what we know about evolution and ourselves that give those realities due prominence and provide for the humanities new territory to explore.
Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
By Gregory Bateson
I experienced this as a report on a profound source of wisdom delivered by someone who had never fully understood it and at the time of writing recalled nothing more than scattered phrases. On my first reading I ploughed through, enduring what I assumed was the incoherence of an aging intellectual, egged on only by his identification of thinking with evolving, an association dear to me. To gather more reflections on this theme I read the book a second time, this time picking up his phrase “patterns of connection.” It has haunted me since. In what follows I cannot distinguish between what came from him and what I’ve devised myself.
Patterns of connection are what distinguishes life from non-life. Chemical phenomena may exhibit scattered patterns of connection, but they are seldom embedded in other patterns of connection as is typical of life. Patterns of connection are found in both human minds and evolution. Patterns of connection are the very substance of life. Life consists of matter, and patterns of connection. That came to seem the essence of what life consists of.
Bateson is not a pantheist, he does not believe these patterns of connection lie inherent in matter. They are forms matter can be given. They arise de novo in life. Evolution is the creation of these patterns. A theory of evolution must first of all account for how they arise.
I tried to come up with a pithier alternative to “patterns of connection,” but couldn’t find one. It seems to express a concept we’re poorly equipped to operate. Essentially it’s a pattern of channels that connect two contexts. Here are examples: a switchboard connecting telephone customers; a dashboard providing a driver with control over the operation of a car; a model, such as a computer model, that maps the patterns of connection between other contexts on the basis of which a dashboard could be made; metaphor, or more elaborately a form of discourse connecting a familiar context with another to be explored; a story that models connections as events happening over time; theories about evolution. More: the Krebs cycle, that connects oxygen-rich and energy-poor environments through a brew of catalysts and chemical flows; the mental apparatus by which the imagination of a dancer gets turned into precisely-corresponding bodily movements; whatever connects epigenetic management of genome function to the outside world. These can be satisfactorily accounted for only through a definition of the pattern of connections between two contexts.
The rest of Bateson’s text can be looked at as descriptions of the habits of thought required for seeing the world in these terms. It is quite possible that young students might gain enormously from these—I found them inscrutable.
He makes a great deal of stochastic processes. From his glossary: “…a sequence of events that combines a random component with a selective process so that only certain outcomes of the random are allowed to endure…” He sees both human thought and evolution as being driven by this kind of process--the combination of mutation and natural selection would be an example. Here we differ. I see patterns of connection providing scope for probes and tests within which randomness is severely channeled, and failure being detected within the pattern of connection before it can take effect in the destination context. Such a process amounts to intelligent trial and error.
“I shall assume that thought resembles evolution in being a stochastic process.” “We face, then, two great stochastic systems that are partly in interaction and partly isolated from each other. One system is within the individual and is called learning, the other is imminent in heredity and in populations and is called evolution. One is a matter of the single lifetime, the other is a matter of multiple generations or many individuals.” “If you want to understand mental process, look at biological evolution and conversely if you want to understand biological evolution, go look at mental process.”
After listing properties of mind: “I shall argue that the phenomena which we call thought, evolution, ecology, life, learning, and the like occur only in systems that satisfy these criteria…. I do not believe that single subatomic particles are ‘minds’ in my sense because I do believe that mental process is always a sequence of interactions between parts…. The theory of mind presented here is holistic and, like all serious holisms, is premised upon the differentiation and interaction of parts.”
“…the sort of system I call mind is capable of purpose and choice by way of its self-corrective possibilities…. It is influenced by ‘maps,’ never by territory, and is therefore limited by the generalization that its receipt of information will never prove anything about the world or about itself.”
“In sum, I shall assume that evolutionary change and somatic change (including learning and thought) are fundamentally similar, that both are stochastic in nature, although surely the ideas (injunctions, descriptive propositions, and so on) on which each process works are of totally different logical typing from the typing of ideas in the other process.”
“In any case, there are no doubt many ways of looking at animal forms. And because we are embarked on a Platonic study of the parallelism between creative thinking and that vast mental processes called biological evolution, it is worthwhile to ask in every instance: Is this way of looking at the phenomena somehow represented or paralleled within the organizational system of the phenomena themselves? Do any of the genetic messages and static signs that determine the phenotype have any sort of syntax (for lack of a better word) which would divide ‘typological’ from ‘syntactic’ thinking. Can we recognize, among the very messages which create and shape animal forms, some messages more typological and some more synthetic?” [He is distinguishing between a world of pattern and number, and a world of quantities. I didn’t understand.]
Why bother to buck the tide and oppose Darwinism? One reason is no doubt simply to be a dissident, today's equivalent of épater le bourgeoisie. But my experience of my fellow anti-Darwinists is that more often it stems from a compulsion to give ourselves a privileged place in the scheme of things. In this respect I suspect we’re not much different from Christians who reacted against Darwin in the 19th Century. Stephen Gould tried to correct for such human exceptionalism by insisting humans were an insignificant side branch of a mere sidebranch of the entire tree of life. The story of life on Earth was primarily concerned with bacteria, he said.
One form of exceptionalism is to provide us with an exclusive alternate realm of existence. Human life cannot be limited to popping into the world as an egg cell from nothing more than two people having sex, and ceasing to exist at dying, perhaps in a meaningless car crash. Life feels too significant to be so circumstantial. It must have some meaningful extension into a more solemn environment than this vale of tears. Darwinism, which allows us no more dignity than a rabbit ending as road kill under our wheels, must be opposed. Since the afterlife contains mostly humans, else we’d drown in a vast sea of beetles and bacteria, I take it to be an example of human exceptionalism.
Another way to celebrate human exceptionalism is to project it over the rest of the living world. One expression of this kind of human exceptionalism is to believe in a God who created all creatures but loves only us, gives only us souls, and sends his son to die just for us, not for any other species—they are all formed so as to serve our needs. A modern form is to search for a pattern in human history that can then be projected back as the pattern driving the evolution of all living kingdoms. Since human exceptionalism demands such a coherent pattern in human history, once it is identified the randomness inherent in Darwinism will signal it cannot be what drives the evolution of all living creatures.
Another kind of human exceptionalism is to invest life as a whole with dignity worthy of a tree of life including us. One way is to suppose life came from another astronomical body, presumably with a natural greater dignity than exists on Earth. Life’s provenance may even be extended to the heart of stars, even to the big bang, so the roots of human existence can be celebrated as infinite and eternal.
My kind of human exceptionalism is to demand that a theory of evolution be able to account for the consciousness and free will I experience. Since Darwinism can’t, since in fact it endorses physicalism’s denial of a volitional self, I claim Darwinism must be wrong. Then, only then, do I look for reasons why.
Physicalism represents the opposite form of human exceptionalism to mine. The pinnacle of human achievement to date is modern science’s comprehensive understanding of matter and physical processes. That achievement must be honored by projecting physics over all phenomena, even those to which physics has not yet been (may not allow itself to be) applied, such as evolution and human consciousness. The experience of free will must be sacrificed in homage to the achievement represented by modern physics.
It’s possible there are people who oppose Darwinism simply because they see errors in it. So far, though, I haven’t seen any one like that in my own circle of anti-Darwinists. Maybe James Shapiro?
Given that we all celebrate human exceptionalism in different ways, could there be some better way we can contribute, in our different ways, to that goal , some more direct way, than attacking Darwinism? Maybe by collaborating to write a set of fantasy and science fiction stories celebrating human exceptionalism. Of course, our stories probably wouldn't stand out much. That's what most fantasy and science fiction is about.
(Note, I wrote this before writing "Evolution for the Humanities" where I did come up with a new kind of human exceptionalism.)
Stanley Salthe has turned me on to Ilya Prigogine's neat term, "dissipative structures." It updates the idea of pantheism. Instead of looking for the origins of intelligence and consciousness in matter itself it suggests looking for them in the processes by which concentrations of energy in natural systems dissipate. This appeals to me because it neatly labels a continuum of concepts from non-living matter all the way to our own conscious experience. It may not suggest any answers to how life or consciousness arose but it could furnish us with a better language in which to phrase the questions.
Here's how Salthe introduced the phrase. Of the inapplicability of physics to such unique events as the origin of life, the big bang, and consciousness he wrote
Well, of course, the emergence of consciousness is 'the hard problem' It too is inconceivable by way of physicochemical discourse. I have concluded that it is best to assume that all dissipative structures have some degree of consciousness as generated by their activities. This obviates the need to imagine its emergence in brains. Brains would just happen to be forms that facilitate FOCUSING. Non-brain types, like trees would be experiencing something like the meditative state, and big ones like drainage systems would be so 'slow' compared to our scale as to be undetectable by us.
I see a cascade of terms supported by the phrase "dissipative structures" starting thus: the emergence of a purely physical dissipative structure such as a river basin invokes network effects amounting to some rudiment of intelligence. Next: associated with this intelligence would be a potential for consciousness. Further: evolution of life would be an increment in the efficiency of such dissipative structures. Finally: in organisms with brains evolution would focus sufficient potential for consciousness for it to become volitional consciousness.
Note: this is not intended to be defensible in terms of physics and logic. Rather, it harnesses traditional terms such as "network," "intelligence," "potential for consciousness," implicitly the actualization of a potential, and "consciousness of consciousness" into a primitive vocabulary stretching from processes in non-living matter to volitional consciousness. That's all I value in it.
To my question, Does what one can deduce about dissipative structures illuminate the nature of evolution, he replied:
Many of them do not last long enough to evolve. They do, however, develop in simple ways. But more complex ones, like drainage systems, could certainly be seen to evolve. They also develop, and their evolution amounts to individuation This occurs even with simple ones like tornadoes. Organic evolution occurs the way we see it because of the internally stored information. So, organisms are exceptionally stable dissipative structures (again because of that stored info), and it is that stability that affords a 'visible' evolution.
Another question: Is there a process of complexification among dissipative structures that one can imagine grading into evolution of life? To this he replied:
I can't imagine anything "grading into" the genetic system. The way I see it, the origin of life (infection by genome) took place in a larger scale, fairly stable dissipative structure involving water. This larger structure gradually evolved into microscopic and mesoscopic living forms.
I plan to link "dissipative structures" with "patterns of connection," as in "dissipative structures are the physical counterpart of the intelligence implicit in patterns of connection."
Stanley N. Salthe is Professor Emeritus, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Visiting Scientist in Biological Sciences, Binghamton University, and Associate Researcher of the Center for the Philosophy of Nature and Science Studies of the University of Copenhagen.
Imagine reaching through a sausage skin from one end, grabbing the other end and pulling it back towards you, then joining the two ends together. You've made a torus. Now fill the space enclosed between the two layers with protoplasm, and suppose the skin of the torus to be cell membrane. You've made a cell with unusual properties that Pivar refers to as "germ plasm".
For this cell to become mobile, imagine the skin on the inside crawling or being pulled towards one end. The torus as a whole will move, like a tank, as it extends its skin at one end and pulls it up inside at the other. This would allow it to migrate within a cluster of such cells.
If cuts across the torus are self-healing it will duplicate itself. If it could continuously grow itself then by repeated budding it could duplicate itself endlessly to form masses of similar cells or columns of them to form segments.
Form could be generated in the developing embryo by what happens to the inner surface of the torus as it is compressed to fit within the outer surface. As that inner surface is squeezed it could be compressed into three, four or five evenly-spaced "spokes," with or without bulbs at the ends that become new tissues. This is how an everted blastula could generate a complex cross section that through further differentiation and growth could become organs, bones and muscle blocks. Now imagine a torus sending out an extension. This extension could now take on similar forms to become antennae or limbs. Finally, such tori can be imagined splitting across into circular disks and along their sides to form flat sheets.
Summary: this urform is how specifications for the basic forms of a living creative could be passed on from egg to egg and from one cell to each of many cells, and what could generate form in early development in the embryo. That much I got from a first reading of Stuart Pivar's The Urform Theory: Evolution Without Darwin. And it's a lot. I found the idea plausible and persuasive. This could account for the generation and replication of characteristic cell, tube, segment and sheet elements of living tissues.
Having a generator of 3D form elements that could be programmed through a sequence of instructions would nicely narrow our prescription for a complete mechanism for development and evolution. A generator of form such as this urform surely must synch with some higher-order system that directs its growth and development. Mating among birds of paradise combines form with characteristic movements and colors and sounds, so the control of form is not separate from control of other aspects of performance. And in the embryo form and time are intricately connected.
What must that system consist of? Something like video editing software, with multiple control tracks arranged parallel over time. There would be channels for form that manage the growth and development of urform elements, channels calling on protein production, other channels of switches for turning sub-channels on and off, and so on. For me, having something like the urform provide a three-dimensional form-generation capability helps by reducing form to merely one of many quite similar linear time-linked control capabilities. This nicely ties in with recent research on the role of the genome in the direction of life processes, as reported in James Shapiro's "Evolution: View from the 21st Century."
If we imagine life to be controlled from such a multitrack dashboard, the same in essence for all life but differing from species to species in the programming of the tracks, then we can refer all living processes to it, including development, homeostasis, repair, and evolution. Such a dashboard has been implied in books such as Shapiro's. We may even see evolution in terms of the organization and increase in number of these tracks over time. We could reinterpret Lamarckism's two mechanisms thus: use and disuse result in shifting settings along the tracks, major creative leaps involve the additions of new tracks
This could give us an improved context in which to consider mechanisms of evolution. For example, one might ask, could such a dashboard evolve through selection of point mutations of genes? Change of settings in a channel, perhaps yes. The addition of new channels, perhaps not. And, how is the time dimension maintained constant across all the tracks? Can that be specified by the genome, or is it a property of protoplasm?
Pivar's promotion of the urform concept encourages major rethinking about living processes.