Being Mentally Healthy – 3. Life

You can’t explain how life originates by saying it’s just a bunch of chemical compounds. All through history – until the 20th century, when matterism took over – men considered there to be a vital energy inherent to all life. Only the hoary doctrine of vitalism explains abiogenesis, which is the sparking of life from inert matter.

Here’s one of several known examples that show a localized energetic coherence must be the spark kindling the life force.

Tardigrades, commonly called water bears, are tiny, nearly translucent, aquatic animals found all over the world. Water bears emerged over 600 million years ago, with a complex physiology similar to larger animals that independently evolved much later.

Tardigrades are tough: able to withstand extreme heat, freezing, desiccation, and even survive the rigors of space. A tardigrade can completely dry out – literally turn into a tiny dry husk  – and yet miraculously revive with a few drops of water. There is no physiological explanation for how water bears can do that. Vitalism is the only possible answer.

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As animals, we form impressions of how intelligent other life is by how it moves. Many people think that plants are not intelligent because they don’t seem to move.

Plants of course do move. It’s just that plants typically move slower than we appreciate.

As to their intelligence, plants are arguably the smartest organisms on the planet. Surviving in a competitive environment when rooted to the spot requires that you have your wits about you.

That plants have no physical organ of intelligence points out that physicality is unnecessary for either consciousness or a mind. English botanist Anthony Trewavas: “Plant behaviour is active, purposeful, and intentional. The plant gathers information about its surroundings, combines this with information about its internal state and makes decisions that reconcile its well-being with its environment.”

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Viruses comprise a global community, sharing tips on how to be a more prolific parasite. For infection is no simple sport.

American musician Roger Miller: “No phone, no pool, no pets… king of the road.”

Viruses travel light. While hardy enough to survive the elements, they enjoy the comfort of being indoors.

When dirt was young, viruses evolved from cells, losing inessentials to slim down to fighting trim and vivacious virulence. Some bird and pig viruses get by with just 2 genes. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius: “Loss is nothing else but change and change is Nature’s delight.”

Viruses are not even complete cells. They come in a light coat but little underneath: no nucleus, no mitochondria, no ribosomes.

The vitals of a virus are its virion, comprising the virus’ genome packaged within larger molecules. Some viruses carry other equipment, notably enzymes, to accelerate production once a virus is activated.

A virion is encapsulated within a capsid: a protein protective coat put on when leaving lodgings in a host cell. Despite comprising few building blocks, capsids are intricately complex structures, sometimes with enormous conformational diversity. Microbiologist Ekaterina Heldwein: “Viral capsids are marvels of biological engineering. They are sturdy enough to withstand pressure yet can come apart or loosen easily to release the viral genome once the virus penetrates the cell. They are also great examples of genetic economy. Because of the limited coding capacity of viruses, capsids are built by using a few proteins over and over.”

To save effort, many viruses evolved capsids that self-assemble. Pakistani virologist Arshan Nasir: “Capsids became more and more sophisticated with time, allowing viruses to become infectious to cells that had previously resisted them. This is the hallmark of parasitism.”

Viruses make conformational changes in their structure as they attempt to infect. One tactic is deceptive camouflage. Australian molecular biologist Richard Berry: “Some viruses mimic the immune system in order to evade it.”

Once a virus has infected a host, it evaluates its situation. Activation may not be immediate. Viruses may patiently await certain changes within and around a cell that signal an auspicious status. American molecular biologist Arthur Landy: “Viruses make a ‘decision’ when they infect a cell as to whether or not this is a good time to lyse the cell and make more virus or whether it would be more propitious to integrate their chromosome into the infected cell’s chromosome, turn off their genes and sit there for generations. Then, when things look good, they use a certain pathway to excise their chromosome, in order to make more virus and kill the cell.”

Viruses are an existence-proof that savvy does not have to be tied to a physical substrate.

Viruses are social: establishing networks of connections among compatriots. Infection is a team sport, requiring cooperation to have any chance of making it past the sturdy defenses of host immune systems.

The benefit of viral cooperation comes in taking advantage of specialized skill sets. Some viruses are better at certain tasks than others.

Tactical decisions often need to be made during infection. For example, to boost total viral production, viruses may want host cells to live longer. This requires not interfering too much with an infected cell’s self-maintenance.

If a virus is co-infecting with a stranger instead of friends, it may consider this co-conspirator competition. The virus will then work its host cell to death as quickly as possible to thwart its perceived rival.

A ribosome is the organelle responsible for manufacturing biomolecular products within cells. To reproduce, a virus submits its genetic material to a hijacked ribosome.

In getting the instructions for viral replication, a ribosome reads viral genetic code in a convoluted way.

A ribosome reads viral strands like a roller coaster car rolling along a track. But the ride is not straightforward. Specific loops in the viral instructions throw the roller coaster reader off its track, jumping it to a spot thousands of positions away. Other loops force the ribosome to back up a bit and then move forward again in its interpretive reading.

There are no overt physical signals to guide a ribosome in the labyrinth way that it reads viral code. How a ribosome knows how to read viral instructions in the crazy way that it does is a mystery.

What is known is that these viral guides make it possible for entirely distinct proteins to be produced from the same stretch of genic code: an incredible economy in using the same genetic material for multiple, distinct, sets of instructions.

More fundamentally, to arrange genetic instructions so that their information content is orders of magnitude larger than their physical structure is an absolutely ingenious design – especially because it lets viruses be many times smaller than they could otherwise be. If not for the tremendous economy in its reproduction guidebook, a virus would have to lug around a lot more molecules.

Creating a new, viable virus does not just spontaneously happen. A team of numerous distinct proteins coordinate assembly of a new virus. For that to happen, these viral proteins have to be embodied with innate knowledge of how to do what they do, and do so as an effective team. Molecules themselves do not contain this precocious knowledge.

Viruses are a tiny miracle of evolved economy and intelligence. Viruses clearly possess awareness and skill without any physicality for these talents. If matterism was the way of the world, viruses couldn’t possibly exist.

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If brains are unnecessary for intelligence, why have them? Brains are not an asset. They’re a liability. Brains take considerable metabolic energy, and cripple a creature if the brain is damaged. Our brains consume 25% of the body’s energy, and must be protected both physically and by a decent diet. The only real purpose of brains is to put more hazard in the game of life.

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There are 2 takeaways from this lesson, both of which disprove matterism and support energyism. Vitalism is the traditional doctrine of how all life is animated, and is proven by tardigrades’ ability to turn to dust and then be revived. Spores and seeds also prove vitalism: going from inert stasis to springing to life when conditions are considered favorable. Sprouting is far more than a chemical reaction.

The other takeaway is that consciousness and intelligence do not depend on any physical organ. Viruses and enzymes are just molecular structures, not even cells, and yet they are aware of their environment and make decisions on how to behave.

In the next lesson we explore evolution, including how it works and what drives it.