Genetic Life

All organisms on Earth, from the simplest cell to man himself, are machines of extraordinary powers, effortlessly performing complex transformations of organic molecules, exhibiting elaborate behaviour patterns, and indefinitely constructing from raw materials in the environment more or less identical copies of themselves. How could machines of such staggering complexity and such stunning beauty ever arise? The answer, for which today there is excellent scientific evidence, was first discerned by the evolutionist Charles Darwin in the years before the publication in 1859 of his epoch-making work, the Origin of Species. A modern rephrasing of his theory of natural selection goes something like this: Hereditary information is carried by large molecules known as genes, composed of nucleic acids. Different genes are responsible for the expression of different characteristics of the organism. During the reproduction of the organism the genes also reproduce, or replicate, passing the instructions for various characteristics on to the next generation. Occasionally, there are imperfections, called mutations, in gene replication. A mutation alters the instructions for a particular characteristic or characteristics. It also breeds true, in the sense that its capability for determining a given characteristic of the organism remains unimpaired for generations until the mutated gene is itself mutated. Some mutations, when expressed, will produce characteristics favourable for the organism; organisms with such favourable genes will reproduce preferentially over those without such genes. Most mutations, however, turn out to be deleterious and often lead to some impairment or to death of the organism. To illustrate, it is unlikely that one can improve the functioning of a finely crafted watch by dropping it from a tall building. The watch may run better, but this is highly improbable. Organisms are so much more finely crafted than the finest watch that any random change is even more likely to be deleterious. The accidental beneficial and inheritable change, however, does on occasion occur; it results in an organism better adapted to its environment. In this way organisms slowly evolve toward better adaptation, and, in most cases, toward greater complexity. This evolution occurs, however, only at enormous cost: man exists today, complex and reasonably well adapted, only because of billions of deaths of organisms slightly less adapted and somewhat less complex. In short, Darwin’s theory of natural selection states that complex organisms developed, or evolved, through time because of replication, mutation, and replication of mutations. A genetic definition of life therefore would be: a system capable of evolution by natural selection. This definition places great emphasis on the importance of replication. Indeed, in any organism enormous biological effort is directed toward replication, although it confers no obvious benefit on the replicating organism. Some organisms, many hybrids for example, do not replicate at all. But their individual cells do. It is also true that life defined i n this way does not rule out synthetic duplication. It should be possible to construct a machine that is capable of producing identical copies of itself from preformed building blocks littering the landscape but that arranges its descendants in a slightly different manner if there is a random change in its instructions. Such a machine would, of course, replicate its instructions as well. But the fact that such a machine would satisfy the genetic definition of life is not an


argument against such a definition; in fact, if the building blocks were simple enough, such a machine would have the capability of evolving into very complex systems that would probably have all the other properties attributed to living systems. The genetic definition has the additional advantage of being expressed purely in functional terms: it does not depend on any particular choice of constituent molecules. The improbability of contemporary organisms– dealt with more fully below–is so great that these organisms could not possibly have arisen by purely random processes and without historical continuity. Fundamental to the genetic definition of life then is the belief that a certain level of complexity cannot be achieved without natural selection.

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