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Science Still Can't Explain This Biological Mystery, But Scientists Like to Pretend Otherwise

We still have no scientific explanation for organisms.

Photo Credit: pathdoc / Shutterstock

Those of us who embrace science are growing increasingly impatient with religious and spiritual traditions. To us, absolute faith in claims scribed by backwards people thousands of years ago is delusional. We think it’s time for the faithful to get over themselves. The culture wars will end when it finally does. We’re waiting, though not patiently, because much is at stake.

Much is indeed at stake, but we’re actually waiting for the scientific to get over themselves. I say this as an atheist fully committed to science as the best method yet for discovering the nature of reality.

Between science and faith, I think faith is the more honest about what the scientific community seems perversely averse to explaining: Organisms: what they are and how they emerge from chemistry. Scientists explain organisms away or simply assume them without explaining them. At least the faithful recognize that life’s purposefulness needs explaining, even though their explanation is no explanation at all.

Notice your response to my claim that scientists haven’t explained organisms. What camp do you find yourself putting me in? The intelligent design community? The pseudo-scientific? I’ve already declared myself an atheist devoted to science. Please hear me out.

How does science not yet explain organisms? We know that organisms evolve. We know vast amounts about the physiochemical processes and mechanisms that account for organismic behavior.

All true and not in dispute. Still, we have no scientific explanation for organisms.

Unlike inanimate things, organisms engage in functional, fitted effort. Effort is purposeful work, an organism trying to achieve what is functional – of value to it, fitted or representative of its circumstances. Effort value and representation only make sense with respect to organisms. Organisms try to benefit themselves given their environment. Inanimate things don’t.

In the physical sciences, there’s simply no room for explanation from functionally fitted behavior. Any physical scientist who claimed that subatomic, atomic, molecular, geological or galactic phenomena as trying to benefit itself given its circumstances would be drummed out of the physical sciences. A physicist knows better than to say the moon tries to lift the tides for the moon or the tide’s benefit.

In contrast, in the life and social sciences, one can’t do without explanations that assume functional fitted behavior. That’s what’s meant by an adaptation, a trait that enables an organism to engage in effort that functions for itself, fitted to its environment.

What then explains the transition from phenomena that can’t be explained in terms of functional fitted effort to behavior that can’t be explained without reference to functional, fitted effort?

A tacit assumption in the sciences is that evolution explains it. It doesn’t.

This assumption takes three forms. The most popular is that evolution starts (here, 10 billion years into the history of the universe) once there are molecules that replicate – special molecules – probably RNA since it's instrumental in life today. Once there are copying RNA molecules, there’s heredity and variation. According to this view, the differences in replicating molecules is the beginning of evolution and therefore the beginning of life.

This doesn’t explain functional fitted effort. There’s no effort. The molecules aren’t trying to copy. They’re passive, like any molecular products of catalysis. They copy when conditions cause them copy. Is there function or fittedness? Is anything useful or functional for the copying molecules fitted to their environment?

You could say that any molecule that copied better functioned better, but given their passivity (they’re not trying to copy) that’s just an observer’s perspective, no more about true function than it would be to say that of two balls rolled down a ramp the one that arrived at the ground first had more useful, functional features. Yes, from the observer’s perspective it did but that’s just an outsider’s impression. The ball isn’t trying to win any races. Nor is a copying molecule trying to copy, even if it happens to be the kind of molecule that, in us is functional as a repository of functional information that constrains our behavior. A repository. In us, RNA and DNA aren’t making effort to benefit themselves either. Genes are not selfish. There’s no self in those molecules that is trying to do anything for its own sake.

Researchers today are moving toward a second approach to the origin of evolution based on the way that, under certain conditions, order accumulates resulting in the more efficient dissipation of energy. But again, the order is passive in the process. It’s not trying to become more efficient in the dissipation of energy.

Order is measured in regularities, similar molecules lined up in non-random ways. Picture a pot of soap water stirred by some outside force. Regularities emerge, bubbles of lipid molecules all lined up next to each other in an orderly fashion. Are they trying to become orderly? If the soap water foams up into lots of baby bubbles, is that evidence of functional fitted effort, bubbles trying to make baby bubbles? Again an observer who values foam might get that impression. But no proliferation of orderly soap bubbles is at all like an organism.

The third approach is just a vague hand-wave as though evolution somehow gets imposed two-thirds of the way into the history of the universe. Never mind how it produces organisms. It just does. By this account, so long as you know that an organism is evolved you have permission to assume functional fitted effort even though you haven’t explained it. You hear it, for example in the renown bio-philosopher Dan Dennett’s triumphant claim that “Evolutionary processes brought purposes and reasons into existence…”

This approach, broadened to include the evolution of everything from culture to technology makes scientists feel safe attributing functional fitted effort to all manner of things. It’s how we arrive at the false impression that AI or computers, in general, all engage in functional fitted effort, the idea that they’re coming alive and that organisms are just complex computers.

None of this explains the emergence of organisms. All of it sidesteps what must be explained by the sciences, how mattering emerges from matter, currencies of value from energetic currents, objectives from objects, an organism’s means-to-ends trying from chemistry’s cause-and-effect phenomena.

Evolution doesn’t start organisms. Organisms start evolution and we still have no explanation for what they are and how they emerge by chance from chemistry.

We still have no explanation for the major transition that occurs at the origin of life, and with it the emergence of everything that matters to anyone – all value, representation and effort. Organisms engage in self-directed work, effort produced by themselves, of value for themselves fitted to their circumstances. Nothing else does. What’s the difference between us and inanimate things? Scientists really have no answer.

Scientists acknowledge that though our understanding of evolution is deep and detailed we still don’t have an explanation for the origin of life. Still they treat the origins of life challenge as a mystery of material mechanism, chemistry that produces a proliferation of “special” molecules or order as though once that gets going you’ve got evolution and therefore organisms and purpose.

You don’t. A molecule never makes effort on its own behalf, nor does the kind of self-organized order that has become the focus of recent research. Only organisms make effort on their own behalf and how they emerge with the ability to do this has remained a mystery, one that scientists barely acknowledge.

So far, the science community has benefited from the Intelligent Design community ignoring this broad target of attack. Intelligent design focuses on whether evolution can explain our traits, which it actually explains readily. What it can’t explain is the existence of organisms in the first place, and no quantity of persistent scientific insistence about the nature of evolution can explain it. This is the sciences’ greatest vulnerability, our greatest blind spot, our big lacuna. The burden is on scientists to explain how functional fitted effort emerges from chemistry, a burden it has yet to address in earnest let alone acknowledge as a mystery to be solved.

I work with scientists who address it. Our approach recognizes that organisms have to make an ongoing effort to stay in existence rather than petering out, something ignored when one treats life as starting with special molecules or order. The first function couldn’t have evolved since evolution only begins once there is function that can be honed by natural selection. The first function is preventing petering out. Living is first and foremost death prevention and has been from before evolution. Our research team has an explanation for how this would emerge from chemistry and if we’re right, we have a physical science explanation for the emergence of functional fitted effort.

And if we’re wrong and other scientists don’t admit to or get around to explaining organisms, the culture wars will roll on and on. Faith-based sects will continue crowing triumphantly in ways that resonate with the general public because at least they sound like they explain functional fitted effort, even though they don’t.

They don’t but scientists don’t either. The culture wars are at present a battle between two movements that claim to have explained what neither has explained, what organisms are and how they emerged from chemistry.  

For a quick sketch of our theory for the emergence and nature of selves, here are some YouTube videos I've produced.

Jeremy Sherman Ph.D. researches how the living interpret, from their cradle at the origin of life to our current grave situation.

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