2018 June: Notes on Seven Clues to the Origin of Life

Notes on Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, by A.G. Cairns-Smith

“What is needed for evolution is natural selection […] There is nothing in the rules to say that such things [our most primitive biological ancestors] had to be ‘living’. We have an odd view now because all of those things that we are aware of that can evolve have evolved.” pg. 3

“In biology both goods [phenotypes] and messages [genes] are passed on from one generation to the next. But it is the messages that are much the most important inheritance: only they can persist over millions and millions of years.

This distinction between goods and information is a case of the ancient distinction between substance and form. While a message may have to be written in some material substance, the message is not to be identified with that substance. The message as such is form.” pg. 12

(He goes on to make the analogy between a score and a performance of that score, by saying that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would not easily be destroyed if a copy got burnt in a fire).

“By [secondary, more recent organisms, as opposed to more primitive primary organisms] acting so indirectly – through RNA, proteins, cells, higher-order structures – those dry DNA messages develop rich and varied meanings: a dull-looking score is orchestrated and performed.” pg. 104

We may make a machine by first designing it, then drawing up a list of components that will be needed, then acquiring the components, and then building the machine. But that can never be the way that evolution works. It has no plan. It has no view of the finished system. It would not know in advance which pieces would be relevant. […] It is the whole machine that makes sense of its components.” pg. 39

(Connected to Cairns-Smith’s chosen quote from Coleridge, that life is “a whole that is presupposed by all its parts”. Quoted on pg. 2, original source unknown to me).

“Printed pages is books are typical of informational structures in having at the same time regular and irregular features [linear layout, uniform font, size of letters, grammar, etc; versus varying combinations of letters interspersed by spaces]. There are more subtle regularities in the letter sequences themselves since these are more or less constrained by grammar etc.; but they are not completely so constrained and it is precisely to that extent that they can convey information. In general we can say of any informational structure that the more random it seems the more information it might contain.” pg. 88

“Evolution did not start with the organic molecules that have now become universal to life: indeed I doubt whether the first organisms, even the first evolved organisms, had any organic molecules in them at all. […] There was a takeover: the first organisms, as they evolved, created within themselves the conditions under which ‘high-tech’ genetic systems could appear, then operate with increasing competence – and then take over. Primary organisms were displaced by secondary organisms, that is to say organisms of a kind that would have been quite unable to generate spontaneously.” pg. 107

On bridging the gap between the hypothesised clay crystal naked genes as primary organisms, to secondary organisms, whose genetic store becomes solely specialised in producing phenotypes via other molecules attached to the organism:

“Indeed there was still more to be done: protein enzymes had to evolve as well as altogether new kinds of membranes etc. to replaces that clumsy clay apparatus. Eventually it was all replaced. The system was then stuck more or less as we see it now. Nothing could compete with this slick super-life made largely from air and sunshine. (Look, no clay!) One particular species of it became the common ancestor of all life now on Earth” pg. 112

(Putting into perspective how current life is a result of one surviving ancestor common to all life that continues to strive today, and trying to imagine life forms that may have led to our kind of life, but that may no longer be around – even inorganic life.)

The third clue from Seven Clues… is ‘from the building trade’:

To make an arch of stones needs scaffolding of some sort; something to support the stones before they are all in place and can support each other. It is often the case that a construction procedure includes things that are absent in the final outcome. Similarly in evolution, things can be subtracted. This can lead to the kind of mutual dependence of components that is such a striking feature of the central bio-chemical control machinery.” pg. 115 (my emphasis)

Does this have something to do with ‘intentional arches’ or analogous to Merleau-Ponty’s arch?

“It is certainly no new idea that this most earthly of materials, clay, should have been the stuff of first life – it is in the Bible.” pg. 116 – and as dad says, the silicon base of computers presents the future side of that trajectory of clay.

Subscript, by Christine Brooke-Rose

This might be a good thing to read next, in relation to the last.


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