Lee Cronin: Making matter come alive

I love it when the technical and philosophical parts of my brain get tickled at the same time … especially on such basic concepts as ‘life’. Very cool. Consider this after watching the talk.

I challenge the crystal was alive. Another way to say the same thing is to say the crystal was dying. There really isn’t a difference, right? Fundamentally, humans are no different than the crystal garden. They are both just different mutations with varying levels of complexity. We can think of the cell splitting as growth, but even in ‘life’ growth is still limited by its environment. We’re all just different versions of the same carbon that’s been on earth for a long time.

It’s evolution that’s the interesting bit. It would seem information is available somewhere that can help dying/living things adapt and survive in their environment more successfully … and certain parts are in fact using this information effectively. This survival knowledge must exist at multiple levels and areas within the single organism, with all parts collaborating in successful concert (in the progressive scenarios). So where is the information hiding? In the formulas that define the nature of our specific mutation. In the patterns of carbonic combinations - just like the crystal garden.

Is some level of consciousness required for life? Let’s say yes. But isn’t the presence and level of self awareness just a characteristic of the complexity of the mutation and its result? At the lowest level, it’s the self awareness to split yourself into two cells. Humans are at the other end of the spectrum, and there are lots of levels in between … including the levels of self-awareness between different humans beings.

Lee touches on the real key when talking about “Energy and Disorder”. How the organism interacts with its environment is just as important as it’s own mutation and how it interacts with other organisms in its survival. While the environment has to be able to sustain the organism, it also must provide enough complexity to challenge it. I suggest this complexity should be both chaotic and temporal. Perhaps time was missing from Lee’s thoughts on “Energy and Disorder” and the environment was missing from his Theory of General Evolution. What matters is when the relationship between the organism and its environment ceases to be symbiotic, the mutation stops; like in his crystal garden.

So I don’t really share Lee’s opinion that life is difficult to define. Using some shared terms, life is the mutation of matter over time in a constantly changing environment. I love the work Lee is doing. Sure, there are some scary aspects to what we’ll learn as a result, but we haven’t killed ourselves yet.

UPDATE: In the time between first posting this and adding this update, I’ve continued to study biological systems at multiple levels. I no longer reduce live to simply mutations and thus, no longer consider crystals to be alive - if for no other reason than they don’t regenerate and don’t undergo metabolic exchanges. I also have a much deeper understanding of the forces of evolution and environmental fitness. So I don’t necessarily agree with my initial thoughts, but regardless, I’ll leave them intact for prosterity :)