The Inorganic to the Biological

The inorganic can be subdivided into three levels:

  1. Sub-Atomic
  2. Atomic
  3. Molecular

I am not going to speak much about the subatomic level as I currently have only a vague understanding of exactly what is going on at that level. The current major questions that we should observe at the subatomic level is the question between a collapsing quantum reality or a reality that has branching universes. My speculative inclination is to think that we will find reality emerging out of infinite randomness.

The thing about the subatomic level that we have observed that is really important is how it supports the atomic level and what it tells us about that level. Ultimately we find the very important fact that an atom of one element is fundamentally the same as another element of the same type under the same forces. An atom of oxygen on earth, and an atom of oxygen on Mars will react in the same way to the local forces if swapped. Now of course the forces present on Mars and Earth are very different, but the reaction of that molecule can be predicted and will be consistent.

Because these molecules are consistent, they behave reliably. The reliable behavior that we see is the grouping of atoms into molecules.

The fact that this behavior happens, and happens reliably, is at the core of most of our 'hard' sciences. If you heat water at -2 degrees C to 10 degrees C, it behaves in a very predictable way and a scientist on the other side of the planet can reproduce the same experiment and see the same results.

Fortunately for us, atoms did not stick to just forming a finite set of molecules. One particular atam, Carbon, has properties that allow it to make many different formations. These formations are so dynamic and have such emergent properties that we call them 'organic.' Organic chemistry is the study of carbon based molecules that are often made up of tens, hundred, or even, in the case of DNA, millions of atoms. The behavior of organic molecules are much, much more diverse than standard molecules and much harder to predict.

This step up from the standard molecules to massively complex molecules is what we call a bootstrap. We will ultimately see the bootstrap at many different levels of reality and ultimately we will base much of our theories on a conclusion that the universe is ultimately in the business of bootstraps.

This inorganic bootstrap takes us from a very predictable set of behaviors in basic molecules to advanced organic molecules that we begin to see as biological system. These biological systems are able to reproduce themselves and diversify themselves. While the methods that biological systems use to reproduce and diversify themselves are built on the underlying interactions of forces at the inorganic level, they ultimately overcome those forces and interact at a level that is independent of the organic level.

There is a fairly thin line here that must be observed. It is probably a bit heretical in scientific circles to say that the biological has no dependency on the inorganic, but that is exactly what I mean to say. Of course the inorganic still has a causal relationship with the biological and the biological is built on the inorganic, but I'm specifically talking, in terms of economics and value here. Biological basis of value is completely different that the basis of value in inorganic things.

It is typical here to be very hesitant to think about an inorganic molecule 'wanting' or 'valuing' something. It even seems unrealistic to think of small biological systems like bacteria 'valuing' or 'wanting.' I don't mean to over anthropomorphize here and I invite you to try to take as much of the humanness out of those words as possible. We are simply talking about what is exchanged and used in each of those systems to move the system forward.

Let us take a step back and consider the inorganic and try to define an economics of that level of organization.

You can consult with your local University chemistry professor to get all the hairy details, but what we find at the center of value in the inorganic realm is a set of forces. This manifests itself in the form of orbiting electrons. The supply and demand curves at this level are remarkably simple. Molecules want their outermost shell of electrons to be full. An oxygen molecule needs two extra electrons to have its outer shell full. It turns out that hydrogen has one electron so two of them together can complete oxygen's outer shell, and all of a sudden we have a new entity called H2O that exerts its own unique set of forces on the universe.

In the 'hard' atoms we see some rumblings of the life creating structure and processes, but it is not until we get to carbon that the the whole array begins to shine and we head toward our bootstrap condition.

Chris Alexander introduces his 15 life structures and associated life creating processes in his Nature of Order. They are:

  1. Levels of Scale
  2. Strong Centers
  3. Thick Boundaries
  4. Alternating Repetition
  5. Positive Space
  6. Good Shape
  7. Local Symmetry
  8. Deep interlock and ambiguity
  9. Contrast
  10. Gradients
  11. Roughness
  12. Echos
  13. The Void
  14. Simplicity and Inner Calm
  15. Each in the Other

Carbon allows such a myriad of different combinations (including itself) that it can exhibit all of these characteristics and achieve the bootstrap to biological reality. We will refer to this organization as 'patterned forces.' If you prefer to think in the frame of the classic / romantic split, the forces are romantic, and the patterned forces are the classic. You need both working together to achieve the bootstrap.

We will return to this list of characteristics and processes at each level as the seem to be at the core of what consider to be 'life'. They are a common red thread woven through a tapestry of very different fabrics.

What we are left with at the top of the bootstrap is a new biological system. The value at this level of reality is very different than at the inorganic level. In fact, we see that most of the functionality we see at this level is centered around overcoming the forces that were valued at the lower level.

At the biological level we meet fitness. Reproduction and survival are valued above all else. Evolution wants to spread genes as far and as wide as it can. The inorganic bootstrap culminated in a molecule that is able to reproduce itself and spread across its environment.

The biological level is above the inorganic. As a result, it has access to the inorganic level even if it has a different value structure. In fact inorganic material is often the major tool of biological systems. Biological systems have adapted to create structure out of inorganic material in a way that increases the biological system's ability to further overcome the inorganic forces.

What we end up with is the biological level operating on two different and distinct economies. We find it trying to achieve two different and distinct bootstraps. First we will address Biology dealing with the inorganic level.

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