Being Mentally Healthy – 4. Evolution

Evolutionary biology offers the richest vein of evidence of a guiding force behind Nature’s wondrous exhibition. American evolutionary biologist David Gresham expresses common knowledge when he states that “adaptive evolution affects all species.” Israeli biochemist Addy Pross: “Evolution exhibits an identifiable driving force.” That force is coherence.

Adaptation is the process of an organic entity better adjusting to its ecological circumstance. Adaptation aims at sustaining life, with the caveat that Nature’s sense of balance always makes living a challenging struggle.

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Multicellular life arose 2 and a half billion years by cells realizing they can yield a mutual advantage by unifying their distinctive talents. As life grew more complex, cells made symbiotic friends.

Greater complexity was achieved mostly through modularity. Once a structure is established, the potential exists for fractal repetition for different functionality. In 1753, French philosopher Denis Diderot observed: “It seems that Nature has taken pleasure in varying the same mechanism in an infinity of different ways.” Over 2 centuries later, Russian evolutionary biologist Alexander Badyaev concurred: “In complex organisms, novel adaptations result mostly from reorganization of existing structures.”

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The vast majority of life needs other life to feed itself. The only self-sustaining organisms are a tiny minority of microbes, and photosynthetic beings – algae and plants – that generate their own food by transforming minerals and making sugar from water and sunlight. Most other life, from viruses to animals, kill to stay alive.

The upshot of this dangerous world is the need for protection, including immune systems to ward off parasites, and armor and weapons to fend off predators.

Bones illustrate how evolution proceeds opportunistically, and with intention.

Calcium carbonate became available to seafaring life 1 and a half billion years ago, in the aftermath of violent maneuvers by continental tectonic plates, which copiously washed the mineral into the oceans.

At first, organisms used calcium carbonate to regulate mineral intake. By a half billion years later, calcium carbonate was being put to more creative purposes: strength, stability, protection, and motility. The evolutionary explosion of the Cambrian period owed largely to mineralized body parts. Shells, spines, and skeletons evolved.

To build bones, localized coherences behind organisms’ evolution opted for calcium phosphate rather than calcium carbonate, as the phosphate form afforded greater chemical stability, especially in the acidic environments that are created after intense physical activity.

The evolved properties of bone owe to an intricate, fractal, hierarchical organization. The principal building blocks of bone at the nanometer scale are curved, needle-shaped nanocrystals that form larger twisted platelets which resemble propeller blades.

The platelet blades continuously merge and split during bone development. Interweaving mineral and protein form continuous networks that provide superior strength.

Besides numerous nested structures in bone, a common feature of all of them is a slight curvature enacting twisted geometry. The mineral crystals are curved, the protein strands – called collagen – are braided. The mineralized collagen fibrils coil, and entire bones themselves have a twist, such as those seen in the curving shape of a rib.

Clearly, bones evolved not only with purpose, but with a highly coherent structure that optimizes certain properties inherent within the chemistry of the ingredients and the combination of materials. The employment of fractals in the construction of bone illustrates Nature’s fondness for novelty and labyrinthine order via modular self-similarity.

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All life must be aware of their environment, whether viruses looking to infect, cells working in concert to animate animals, or plants with roots seeking nutrients.

Perception is the fundamental mechanism a mind uses to function in the world. The process of perception begins with sensation: the collation of sensory stimuli. Perception turns sensations into symbolic representations, which it then recognizes by memory or innate knowledge.

American physiologist David Julius: “Sensory systems adapt to suit the lifestyle or environmental niche through discrete molecular and biophysical modifications.”

That every organic entity has a mind is indisputable. Even the macromolecules we call proteins and enzymes must know what they are about and have jobs to do that require awareness. Most organic entities, such as cells and organs, have minds but no physiological correlate.

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If energyism is true, physicality is a magnificent deception. We are fooled by our minds into belief.

Deception is common in Nature. Illusion is often used as a defensive measure and a way of baiting prey.

Camouflage illustrates the intricacy with which adaptation takes place. For camouflage to work, the organism that adopts it must understand how it will be perceived by its intended audience.

The colors of plants and animals are produced by pigments and nanostructures which reflect light is specific ways. One purpose of coloration is creating misconception.

Some plants hide their tender, tasty shoots from herbivores by giving them a reddish color. Most mammal herbivores cannot see red. Instead of red, such a shoot looks a decayed yellow: certainly not worth taking a bite of. In order for this floral deception to evolve, plants must have understood the limits of herbivore vision systems.

More dramatic are deliberately crafted displays of color by animals to achieve an effect. Over the course of a few hours, horned ghost crabs in the sea around Singapore change color to match their background. How they know to create just the right level of reflective luminance to make themselves indistinguishable from their surroundings is a mystery.

Cephalopods have impressive control over their coloration. Some cuttlefish quickly change color and shape according to the predator they are faced with, thereby maximizing their concealment for a specific observer. They create exact patterns in milliseconds purely by intention.

Both in look and behavior, mimic octopus perform an astonishing imitation of a predator to the predator that an octopus is trying to scare off. A mimic octopus knows what frightens its enemies. A mimic octopus also knows what its prey likes: it may imitate a potential mate to devour a deceived suitor.

Many animals can rapidly change color: to communicate, camouflage, or regulate their temperature. Some can actively tune the color of their skin at will. Among them are squid and chameleons.

The skin of chameleons has 2 layers of specialized cells called iridophores. Each layer has light-reflecting nanocrystals.

By altering the spacing between the crystals in the upper layer, cells shift from reflecting blue light to reflecting yellow or red. This creates a skin color change from green to yellow or orange.

A chameleon may quickly switch between camouflage or an ostentatious display to attract mates or expel a rival. It does so by mentally tuning specific skin cells.

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Convergent evolution is the independent adoption of some desirable functionality by unrelated species. Convergent evolution illustrates that adaptation proceeds teleologically: with intention.

There are innumerable examples of convergent evolution. The evolution of vision systems is one of the most impressive. The facility for sight evolved in a vast variety of organisms, including most animals and even plants. German biochemist Justus von Liebig: “Plants search for food as if they had eyes.”

The physical mechanics by which vision systems work are incredibly diverse. But all evolved to take advantage of the range of the electromagnetic spectrum which provides the richest amount of information. This bandwidth affording sight centers on the range we call light.

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The lesson of this short discourse is that evolution is intentional adaptation aimed at supporting life, guided by a localized coherence.

Coming up next: why existence is as it is.