“Life requires cognition at all levels.” ~ American molecular biologist James Shapiro
There is a vital energy to life. A life force. A vitalism.
Tardigrades are tiny, nearly translucent aquatic animals found all over the world. The term ‘tardigrade’ is Italian for “slow stepper.” Tardigrades are also called water bears.
Tardigrades are tough: able to withstand extreme heat and cold, and even survive in outer space.
A water bear can completely dry out. Desiccate. Turn into a tiny dry husk. Yet, with just a few drops of water, a tardigrade miraculously revives.
There is no physical explanation for how water bears can do that. Vitalism is the only possible answer.
Water bears are not the only life form that can survive suspended animation. So too rotifers and some roundworms. These tiny creatures can revive after being frozen for tens of thousands of years. Within minutes of thawing in a drop of warm water, they are back to living as if nothing had happened.
If life were just a state of matter, revival from suspended animation would be impossible. There would be nothing that could spark life. Or bring it back.
The sprouting of a plant seed is a knowing awakening. Far more than automatic chemical reactions.
A seed senses how moist its new home may be, how warm or cold, and how much sunlight it might expect. A seed knows that spring is the time of year to start its life.
Seeds are patient. A seed monitors its situation and waits until it thinks fortune may smile upon it.
A seed lacks any physical structure for intelligence. Yet seeds have innate knowledge and awareness. Seeds are both conscious and calculating.
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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 dumb because they don’t seem to move.
Plants, of course, do move. It’s just that plants move slower than we appreciate – a mental bias.
Plants are smart. Surviving in a competitive environment when rooted to the spot requires that you have your wits about you.
Plant behavior is purposeful and intentional. A plant constantly monitors its internal state and its surroundings. Using this information, a plant makes decisions to sustain its well-being.
Parts of Africa are dry most of the year. These lands have a pronounced rainy season. Plants there anticipate rain coming and green up before the rain arrives.
These African plants also know when the rainy season ends. They lose their lushness just after the rain stops, thereby conserving their resources.
Plants have no physical organ of intelligence. Plants prove that physicality is unnecessary for either awareness or a mind.
Even the simplest cell has a complex intricacy beyond imagination. Life is by design.
“Biological design appears to be so intelligent.” ~ English evolutionary biologist Richard Watson
“Life uses information to construct itself.” ~ American biologist Sara Imari Walker
Life is more than a collection of chemical compounds. A delicate yet durable vital energy is necessary to be alive.
Life arose on Earth 4.1 billion years ago, when the planet was a water world. To spring to life, the earliest cells had to master 4 techniques simultaneously.
Containment. A cell needs to hold itself together. Membranes did the job. Constructing a membrane that keeps a cell contained but selectively allows interaction with what’s outside is a hard problem to solve.
Metabolism. A cell needs energy to keep itself alive. Transforming food into usable energy is an intricate process that shows design in chemical reaction sequence.
Interaction. Here is where a mind obviously comes in. A cell has to know what it needs to stay alive, and be able to get it. These processes require awareness and intelligence. A cell must interact with its environment to get what it needs.
“Living cells are complex systems that constantly make decisions in response to internal and external signals.” ~ French biologist Emmanuel Levy
Reproduction. The emergence of life would have been a dead end if cells did not have the will to birth future generations. That drive remains strong. You may have noticed that people have biological urges which may result in a new generation.
Viruses were the original parasite. Viruses were cunning cells that got rid of what they didn’t need to adopt a lifestyle of deceit: using other cells to reproduce.
Therein lies an irony. All cells use the same molecular means – DNA – to manage their database for living and reproduction.
As part of their tremendous success, viruses bestowed the invention of DNA to cells. Because viruses could no longer replicate themselves, they wanted their host cells to have a reliable mechanism that viruses understood at the atomic level. Hence the gift: a molecular Trojan horse.
“Proteins are responsible for nearly all cellular processes.” ~ English biochemist Vicki Gold
The atom of life is the cell. The subatomic particles that comprise cells are proteins.
A protein is a large, complex, living molecule. Cells and their components are the handiwork of proteins. Proteins are the molecules of and from which cells are built.
Proteins are both the building blocks of cells and their labor force. Some proteins work for a living, traveling about. Others serve in an active, aware structure. Smart bricks.
To do its job, a protein must be aware of its environment. Awareness requires consciousness and a mind. The basics of being alive.
A single protein decides when a plant starts flowering. Plants would flower too early if this protein were not aware of the time of year and exercise prudent self-control.
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Proteins are produced in a linear sequence, like a straight piece of string. The last step in making a protein is folding it just so. This folding is an elaborate process guided by a supervising protein. Proteins making proteins.
The final shape a protein takes is the restful one. No stress. It is in this final assembly that a protein is endowed with the vital energy, consciousness, and mind that brings it to life.
A protein partly unfolds to work. An energetic exercise.
Taking a precise shape is essential for a protein to properly do its job. Many diseases result from misfolded proteins.
The space a protein takes defines its function. In proteins, matter and space in perfect relation become a skilled resource.
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The protein in your food is the stuff from which proteins in your body are made. The digestive tract breaks down eaten protein into usable bits: amino acids.
An animal cell requests from other cells the amino acids it needs. Using specific amino acids, the cell then manufactures the proteins that faithfully serve the cell.
Food protein begets cell proteins via breakdown into amino acids and precise reassembly within a cell – an intricate process.
Cells come in a variety of forms, shapes, and sizes.
Bacteria are about 1,000 times larger than viruses. The cells in your body are roughly 10 times larger than bacterial cells.
To be able to stealthily slip into cells, viruses keep themselves as small as possible. They do so through cunning design devices.
Bacteria too must be motile: able to move. Many travel on the wind to get about. Settling down to reside within soil, or in plants or animals. Bacteria stay small to keep their mobility options open.
The size of a cell is constrained by a tradeoff: the need for a suitable surface area along with just-so volume within. No wasted space.
The interior of a cell needs to be large enough for all the factories and furnishings it needs to fit inside, yet snug enough that the different work areas can readily work together.
Surface area is important in allowing sufficient exchange between a cell and its external environment. Cell volume limits the amount of nutrient intake and waste disposal. Cell surface area constrains the interface space available for such uptake and excretion.
The sizes of cells are ideal compromises, depending on what they do. A tradeoff well met. Cells stay within the range that optimizes material flow and spatial requirements for processing.
In their functional needs, all cells have much in common. The requirements for living are similar regardless of cell type.
Cells are coordinated operations. Compartments, called organelles, keep cells organized. These factories and facilities function harmoniously to keep a cell alive.
Many organelles are enclosed in membranes. Not all. Design fits function.
Organelles communicate and work together. Cells distribute and position their organelles for peak productivity: optimal organelle-organelle interaction.
Proteins on organelles’ outer membranes recognize their counterparts on other organelles. They share information and molecular produce. A cell is a self-organizing enterprise.
The ribosome – an organelle – is the cell’s protein factory.
“The ribosome is universal biology.” ~ American biochemist Loren Williams
Nearly all the proteins that cells need are manufactured by their ribosomes. A ribosome is a sophisticated factory. Built by proteins. Staffed by proteins: 55 to 80, depending on the organism. Proteins producing proteins.
The number and composition of proteins that make up a ribosome are just so. Mathematically, to get the most work done efficiently, a ribosomal protein should be 3 times smaller than the average cell protein. And they should all be about the same size. Just as they are in actual cells.
The design of ribosomes is ideal. Maximum productivity.
Some ribosomes churn out a wide variety of proteins. Others specialize. A single cell may have thousands of tailored ribosomes.
The protein production process is demanding. Quality is crucial. Malfunctioning proteins would kill a cell.
The proteins that comprise the ribosomal machinery are subject to quality control. Proteins that work the ribosome inspect the proteins that are the ribosome. Defective proteins are replaced. “It’s the most elegant and efficient way to produce perfect ribosomes.” marvels American molecular biologist Katrin Karbstein.
The ribosome factory has far too much traffic to bother with a membrane. Ribosome commerce goes unhindered. Viruses find that terribly convenient.
Viruses travel light. While hardy enough to survive outside, they enjoy the comfort of being indoors.
Before dirt was young, viruses evolved from cells to become the ultimate parasite. A life of adventure as a swindler of cells. Losing what was not necessary. Slimming down for stealth.
That small size is vital. If viruses were not so tiny, they could not slip into the cells they seek to infect.
Viruses are a marvel of biological engineering. A tiny miracle of evolved economy and intelligence.
A virus has 2 parts: a core (virion) and a protective coat (capsid).
The vitals of a virus are its virion. The virion contains what a virus needs to get a cell to make viral copies.
A virion is tucked within a capsid: a working sphere of protection.
Because of the limited coding capacity of viruses, capsids are built by using a few proteins over and over. Despite comprising few building blocks, capsids are complex structures.
Capsids have an ingenious design. They are sturdy enough to withstand pressure yet readily come apart to release the virion once a virus penetrates a cell. To save effort, many viruses evolved capsids that self-assemble.
A virus is particular about the cells it infects. Not just any cell will do.
The adventure of infection begins with a virus navigating its way to the specific type of cell it wants for its host. Viruses have a mental map of their host’s body. They travel knowingly to reach their destination.
Target cells already occupied by a virus are bypassed. A successful virus leaves a subtle sign on the outside of its host cell which another virus reads as “occupied.”
Viruses have infected cells for billions of years. Cells learned to fight back. Built a defense. An immune system.
Infection and immunity have long been competing to best the other. A competition that continues to evolve.
Viruses still manage to sneak in. It is never easy. Ultimately, a virus must trick a cell into letting the virus in. Viruses are too small to use brute force to infect.
Viruses willfully change their structure as they attempt to infect. One tactic is deceptive camouflage. Some viruses mimic the immune system to evade it. Viruses have many gimmicks to gain entry into a cell.
Viral infection is a group assault. A cooperative effort. This is necessary to have any chance of making it past the sturdy defenses of immune systems. If a virus decides that it is necessary, it may sacrifice itself to give its companions an advantage.
The benefit of viral cooperation comes from specialized skill sets. Some viruses are better at certain tasks than others.
Viruses trade tips on stratagems, on being a more prolific parasite. This knowledge is passed on to offspring. How is a mystery. But the process is an intelligent one, as viral evolution decidedly trends to greater contagion.
A virus must hijack a cell’s ribosome to have offspring. Fool a cell’s factory into making the molecules that smart viral proteins then assemble.
Like comedy, timing matters. Having infected a cell, a virus evaluates its situation.
If there are many companions about in other cells, a virus is in no rush to reproduce. The virus nestles into a safe place within its host cell and waits.
To boost total viral production, a virus may want its host to live longer. This requires not interfering with the cell. Viruses practice patience when it is the smart move.
If a virus is co-infecting with a stranger instead of friends, it may consider the other virus competition. The virus will then work its host cell to death as quickly as possible to thwart its perceived rival.
Most viruses do eventually kill their host cell. A few never do. Those viruses which can keep their host intact have mastered the prime parasite craft: accommodation.
Many viruses seek this skill. Few attain it. Most that do descend from a most ancient lineage: a wisdom of grace passed down through the ages.
When the virus decides the time is right, it hijacks a ribosome and submits its virion copybook.
Ribosomes read viral replication instructions in a convoluted way. The odd reading owes to the virus keeping its code compact.
A ribosome reads viral strands like a roller coaster car running along a track. But the ride is not straightforward.
Specific loops in the viral instructions throw the roller coaster reader off its track, jumping to a spot thousands of positions away. Other loops force a reading ribosome to back up a bit and then move forward again. A snaky reading route.
How a ribosome knows how to interpret 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 genetic code. This is an incredible economy, using the same genetic material for multiple sets of instructions.
The viral reproduction guidebook has much more information content than its molecular structure. It is an ingenious design that lets viruses stay tiny.
If not for this tremendous economy, a virus would have to lug around a lot more molecules. Viruses rely upon a miraculous efficiency to exist.
What comes out of a ribosome are viral pieces. Creating a new virus does not just spontaneously happen. A team of viral proteins coordinate assembly.
For that to happen, viral proteins have to know how to do what they do. And work as a team.
Viruses and their protein team clearly possess awareness and skill without any physicality for these talents. If matterism was the way of the world, viruses couldn’t possibly exist.
If brains are unnecessary for intelligence, why have them?
Brains are not an asset. They are instead a liability.
Brains take considerable metabolic energy and cripple a creature if the brain is damaged. Your brain consumes 25% of your body’s energy, and must be protected both physically and by a decent diet.
The only purpose of brains is to put more hazard in the game of life. American biologist James Traniello knows that “the brain is a costly organ to operate. It demands a lot of energy.”
A few animals reduce and enlarge their brains based on their energy situation.
Indian jumping ants shrink their brains and unshrink them within a few weeks. When an ant queen dies, worker ants compete to become the new queen. To have as much energy as possible for combat, ants shrink their brains for this tournament. The workers who lose the queen contest grow their brains back to normal worker size. Queens, who live in the dark, don’t need worker-sized brains. They retain smaller brains.
The Etruscan pygmy shrew is the smallest mammal. It hibernates during the winter. To conserve energy during hibernation, a shrew’s brain shrinks. Once spring arrives and it is time to revive, the shrew’s brain enlarges to its active size.
“Evolution exhibits an identifiable driving force.” ~ Israeli biochemist Addy Pross
Evolution is adaptation. Adaptation is the process of adjusting to better the chance of survival and having the legacy of offspring. Adaptation aims at sustaining life.
The caveat is that living is a struggle. Life is designed to be a challenge.
What we see as evolution are changed traits. That disguises what is really going on.
There is a localized cöherence behind every organism. This cöherence considers the organism’s life experience, then decides how to improve prospects for the next generation.
This is the process of evolution. Intelligent adaptation based on careful assessment. Creative proposals for better living.
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Evolutionary changes are often incremental. Modest attempts at improvement.
Sometimes a local cöherence makes a bold, imaginative move. Saltation is a leap in evolution. Turtles exemplify saltation.
It’s a dangerous world. One common adaptation among animals and plants is for defense.
There is no other animal like a turtle. Their shell is made of modified ribs which have drastically overgrown.
Turtle shoulders are inside their rib cage. A novel arrangement.
Also unique to turtles is their ability to quickly extend or retract their heads. This trait is not just for defense. Some turtles quickly spring their head forward to snatch prey. These turtles act as ambush hunters, their shell casually looking like a rock.
Turtles abruptly appeared in the fossil record 250 million years ago. The shells of such bony creatures would have been preserved if they had existed. Nothing turtle-like has been found except turtles.
A testimony to the success of turtle saltation is that their body basics have scarcely changed since they first emerged.
Evolution aims at survival. Regardless of life form, the tools to stay alive are much the same. A common need for all involves senses – and corresponding minds – to comprehend the environment. Adaptation often converges toward the same solution.
Vision independently evolved over 50 times in unrelated animals, often using quite different types of eyes. Though they don’t have eyes, plants in different families also convergently evolved vision numerous times.
Algae are seafaring single-cell organisms that feed off sunlight. Land plants evolved from algae.
Erythropsidinium is a single-celled alga. It has an eye that it uses to catch prey and avoid predators. No brain nor nervous system. But a functional eye and a mind that knows how to use it.
Camouflage is a stratagem: a trickery that may protect or help a predator catch prey. A tremendous number of microbes, plants, and animals independently turned to camouflage to raise their odds of survival. The local cöherence behind these organisms often converged to the same solution.
“There is a pervasive occurrence of convergence across the tree of life. Many roads can lead to evolved similarity in disparate branches.” ~ Hungarian evolutionary geneticist László Nagy
Adaptations may not work out because environments change. The challenge of living is ongoing.
There is an intricate order to life and its evolution. A cöherence which cannot be accounted for by the random arrangement of matter. Further, the vitality of life cannot be explained by molecules shuffling about.
Every life form is aware and intelligent. Even molecules such as proteins and viruses are conscious and have minds.
Vitalism. Cöherence. Consciousness. Intelligence. Adaptation. All are far beyond what matterism could muster.
“A purpose, an intention, a design, strikes everywhere even the careless, the most stupid thinker.” ~ 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume