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The Fundamental Building Block of Life Is Not DNA, It’s a Relationship, According to a New Scientific Study

RIDGEFIELD, Wash., July 26, 2016 /PRNewswire/ — All origin-of-life theories have a problem: explaining the gap between chemistry and living cells. A new paper by Doug Marman and Alan Rayner offers a solution by posing that the source of life isn’t DNA, proteins, or any other kind of substance, but the relationship between a life form and its environment. This is consistent with quantum physics, where entangled relationships between particles produce states that can’t be reduced. This creates a bridge between particles and organisms.

“It sounds strange that a relationship would be fundamental,” said Marman. “But quantum theory shows that fundamental particles need relationships to exist in this world. No particle is an island; they are also wave-like. Every biologist knows that the same thing is true for living things: they need their habitat to survive. If we accept this relationship as fundamental, it changes the story of the origin of life and what it means to be alive.”

For example, a cell can survive for a while if its DNA is removed. But DNA is inert, a mere chemical compound, on its own. Therefore, DNA is involved in the process of life only when it’s in the right environment, a living cell. The same thing is true for the proteins and enzymes in a cell.

“It’s a theory that challenges some fundamental assumptions most scientists have been holding,” says Jonathan Reams, associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who has been following the discussion between Marman and Rayner that led to their study. “They are at the early stages of exploring the implications of the theory, but what I think many will find interesting is that their insights offer new possibilities for how to address many challenges in society today. I would encourage readers to imagine how they could use this theory in their own work and life.”

About the Authors:

Doug Marman is author of the recently published book: Lenses of Perception: A Surprising New Look at the Origin of Life, the Laws of Nature, and Our Universe. He was Chief Technology Officer of a $1.7B division of General Electric, co-founder of an artificial intelligence business, and inventor with over 30 patents.

Alan Rayner is a biological scientist, a former Reader in Biology at the University of Bath, and the author of seven academic books. Since spring 2000, he has been pioneering ‘natural inclusionality,’ a new philosophy of ecological and evolutionary diversity and sustainability, based on how we naturally live in the world.

The Littlest Genome and the Question of Life

By Doug Marman and Alan Rayner

(This article has also been published on

In March 2016, a group of biologists led by Craig Venter announced the creation of ‘independently’ living cells with the smallest genome. Their announcement was hailed as a milestone. The big lesson learned by the biologists is that no one can explain why almost one-third of the genes are needed for survival. However, hidden in the subtext of this study, we believe, is an even more important lesson: The most essential ingredient of life may not actually be genes or a substance of any kind, but rather a relationship.

Image of the new freely-living cells with the smallest genome. Image by: Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Imaging and Microscopy Research at the University of California at San Diego.

Image of the new freely-living cells with the smallest genome. Image by: Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Imaging and Microscopy Research at the University of California at San Diego.

Let’s take a look at the experiment. The first thing you should know is that the new cells created by these biologists were NOT made from scratch. No one knows how to do that. Here’s what happened:

They started with bacteria that had the smallest genomes they could find. They began deactivating genes, one at a time, to see which ones were needed for survival. If the bacteria lived and kept reproducing, those genes weren’t necessary and were removed.

Progress was slow, but after many years the genome was reduced to half its original size. Every remaining gene has been tested. None can be eliminated. The biologists can explain what two-thirds of these genes do, but the other third remains a mystery. Their goal is now to identify the role of these mystery genes. They hope this will give them a blueprint of what is needed for living cells to survive as independent entities.

31% of the genes have an unknown function. Illustration by Thomas Shafee via Wikipedia.

31% of the genes have an unknown function. Illustration by Thomas Shafee via Wikipedia.

But there’s more to the story. It turns out that many of the ‘unnecessary’ genes could only be deleted after supplying the petri dish with key nutrients and eliminating potential dangers. As a result, the new cells can no longer survive in the wild because they’ve lost the ability to hunt for food and avoid threats.

Is it fair to say that these are independently living cells? Don’t they need the biologists to feed them and remove their wastes? This is where the story gets interesting.

You see, the genomes of these cells may be tiny compared to other single-celled organisms, but they are still 200 times larger than the genomes of simple viruses. So they aren’t even close to the littlest genomes.

Outside of a cell, a virus shows no signs of life. Photo by Andrzej Pobiedzinski.

Outside of a cell, a virus shows no signs of life. Photo by Andrzej Pobiedzinski.

Viruses, however, are not considered independent life forms because they can’t survive outside a host cell. They need a host in which to live, and they need the genome of the host to reproduce. Viruses are nothing like the life forms that live outside of host organisms. That’s why the biologists wanted to study creatures that live on their own. But do they? Is true independent living even possible?

All organisms depend on their environment for energy, carbon, and mineral nutrients to grow and reproduce. No plant, animal, or microbe can survive without this supply. Cutting them off leaves them as inactive as a car without fuel. All biologists know this. But if we consider the implications of this deeply, it frames the question of life in a new way and it opens the door to a new explanation for how biological life may have emerged.

Trees create habitats that team with life. Painting by Alan Rayner, from Mycological Research, 102, 1441-1449.

Trees create habitats that team with life. Painting by Alan Rayner, from Mycological Research, 102, 1441-1449.

For example, it shows that treating organisms as if they are self-contained entities, isolated from their neighborhood, is a profound mistake because life doesn’t belong to individuals alone. Life is a relationship between creatures and their environment.

We can’t separate life forms from the habitat they live in any more than we can remove our hearts from our bodies and expect them to keep beating without some external source of support. Organs stop functioning when they’re removed, just as we stop breathing if we’re taken out of the atmosphere created by other living organisms.

If this is right, then finding which genes are necessary for survival will not in itself explain how life works, because genes aren’t the cause.

Look at what happens when DNA or RNA are removed from cells. The cells can live on for a while, but DNA and RNA stop participating in life. They become inactive chemical compounds.

“Removed from the context of the cell, RNA does nothing functional in a biological sense.”[1]

But inside cells, DNA and RNA spring into life. Does this mean they are alive?

This doesn’t sound right if we think of life as something that belongs to individuals. Clearly DNA and RNA don’t possess life by themselves. But if life is a relationship between a life form and the world it is nourished by, then yes, DNA and RNA are involved in life when inside a cell.

This offers a new solution to the debate over viruses: Are they living organisms or just bits of inactive genetic material that activate when they’re in the right cells? Viruses show no signs of life outside of a host cell. But they truly do spring into life-as-a-relationship inside cells.

Seeds remain dormant until they are in the right habitat. Photo by Adyna

Seeds remain dormant until they are in the right habitat. Photo by Adyna

Seeds act the same way. If they land on fallow ground with no water, they remain dormant. They need a habitat that welcomes them, to develop.

Are seeds alive before the rain comes? If life is a dynamic, shared relationship between individuals and the world they live in, then we have good reason to say that while seeds are viable, as capsules of living potential, they do not truly come into life until they germinate.

Inactive existence, biologically, is completely different from thriving. The distinction between inert material and active living is the crucial mystery of life we are trying to understand. Seeing it as a relationship completes the picture.

For example, if genes become alive when they’re involved in the life of a living cell, the same can be said for all the other constituents of cellular life, not least the proteins whose two-way relationship with DNA is so central.

This opens a new door on the origin of life. Every day, biologists see the liveliness of enzymes, as they work for the benefit of the cells they belong to. Even atoms are involved, as seen by the way hydrogen moves through ‘proton pumps,’ guided by electrical charges, in a process that is necessary for the respiration of all organic life on planet Earth. In other words, life reaches all the way down, even to molecules and atoms, as long as they are in the right environment.

This shifts the puzzle of life to a new question: How do molecules act in such a directed way, as if they are following a plan? Physics and chemistry alone can’t explain it.

Some scientists propose that self-organizing, self-catalytic chemistry may be the key to explaining the origin of life, but this doesn’t get at the real problem. It doesn’t tell us how molecular reactions alone could ever create something with the ability to preserve life, find food, and avoid threats.

“Scientists don’t have any idea how chemical chain reactions could learn to change themselves or the world around them in order to survive… Why would a mixture of chemicals suddenly produce this behavior?”[2]

But what if cells move our muscles and keep our hearts pumping because they are devoted to us? We would then be the source of the plan they are following. The reason they dedicate themselves to us is because they depend on us. If we die, they die. Our survival is needed for their survival. And we are just as much in need of our cells and neurons to live. This is the relationship we are in. Living is a shared experience.

Which comes first? Photo by Subhadip Mukherjee.

Which comes first? Photo by Subhadip Mukherjee.

Looking at life this way seems enigmatic. It brings to mind the paradox of the chicken and the egg. In this case we have to ask: Which comes first, a nourishing environment or the forms that spring into life and embody it? But this isn’t a paradox, because relationships don’t need cause-and-effect. They are mutual. They don’t belong to one person or the other, but both together. Once we see life as a relationship, the puzzle is solved. Eggs and chicken need each other. They can’t live independently.

This also resolves the mind-body question that has been hounding philosophers for centuries: How do we control our bodies? We just answered that. Our cells do all the work. No life force needed. They move our bodies toward food, away from threats, and into the adventure of life around us, because our life is their world. We depend on each other. Life is only possible when mind and body work together.

Can we explain how this works scientifically? Yes, we only need to turn to quantum mechanics. We find the same principles at work in the subatomic world. There we see that the force of attraction that holds quarks together and forms the bodies of protons emerges from relationships between quarks. Invisible exchanges between quarks create a shared attraction, a bond. The quarks then stop moving as independent particles. They start spinning as one.[3]

Cross section of a Jasmine leaf clearly shows the cells working together as one organism. Photo by Krzysztof Szkurlatowski.

Cross section of a Jasmine leaf clearly shows the cells working together as one organism. Photo by Krzysztof Szkurlatowski.

Doesn’t this sound like cells acting together as one body? And doesn’t the force of attraction between quarks remind us of the attraction we feel in relationships? Something invisible passes between us and others, pulling us together. Our lives then move in synchrony with each other.

This is the nature of relationships. They’re delicate, like the meaning of a poem hidden between its lines. You can’t pull them apart to see what makes them tick. Dissecting organisms will never explain this mystery. It will never reveal the secret because the relationship is essential.

All of this leads us to a strange conclusion: The relationship of life reaches all the way down to fundamental particles, as long as they are involved in the right environment. Does this mean that quarks are also dedicated to us because their lives depend on us? That makes no sense. Quarks may form the bodies of protons, but those protons will continue to survive after we die. Is it only our cells that are bound to us in this way?

No. The key to understanding this is that we are not talking about inert existence, we are talking about participating in the experience of life. This is the only reason that cells are involved in a relationship with us. They don’t just need to exist; they need to live. This is what reaches all the way down.

Looking at life this way seems to be circular, as if it can’t be the full story, until we find the right lens to see it clearly. The authors can attest to this. Both of us took different paths to arrive at this same understanding, but now that we see that relationships are fundamental and can’t be broken down, we see the validity of it everywhere.

We need to stop treating organisms and cells as if they’re machines made up of components driven by external forces. If that is the lens we use, we will never see life as it is or experience what it means to belong to a living world. We will see only the inertness of things. Molecules then become mere objects moved around by chemistry.

Mechanisms can’t help us understand the vitality of life. Quantum mechanics has come to a similar conclusion: Cause-and-effect can’t explain the behavior of subatomic particles. We believe this is the issue that has been clouding our understanding of life.

In fact, the parallels between quantum behavior and biological life seem too strong to be coincidental.

Bee and flowers. Photo by Bruno Schievano.

Bee and flowers. Photo by Bruno Schievano.

For example, one of the most fundamental principles of quantum mechanics is that it is impossible to calculate what an individual particle will do next. We can make good statistical guesses, but there is no way to know the actual outcome because it isn’t determined by external influences alone. Mechanical reactions are not the cause.

Don’t we see this same amazing behavior with organisms? Bees and flowers may lead symbiotic lives, but which flower will the bee choose next? No equation can tell us.

The quantum world is stranger than fiction. You might think that every electron is attracted to every proton because they have opposite charges, but this isn’t true. The attraction is completely unpredictable when you look at individual particles. This proves that attraction and repulsion between charged particles are not caused by the electromagnetic force. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Relationships are the true source of all electrical and magnetic phenomena.[4]

Doesn’t this have a striking resemblance to the attraction and repulsion that creatures experience with each other when they bond? We call it ‘chemistry,’ but we aren’t drawn to others because of an external force. It isn’t a mechanical reaction. Attraction emerges. When it’s a shared experience, we accept it as real. This is the nature of relationships.

‘Entanglement’ is another mystery of the quantum world. This is the term used to describe the strange alignment that can form between particles without any physical connection. For example, two entangled electrons will spin in opposite directions, no matter how far apart they might be. How do they know which way the other is spinning? How do they stay aligned? Physicists have no answer. They only know that this is a relationship that reaches across space, as if the electrons share one combined state—a state that is more than the sum of its parts.

This also happens to be one of the most startling qualities of living things: They are more than the sum of their cells and DNA. Organs work together as a single body, as a shared state. In other words, our cells stay aligned because they’re entangled with each other and with us.

Swallowtail butterfly in its natural habitat. Photo by Dale Eurenius.

Swallowtail butterfly in its natural habitat. Photo by Dale Eurenius.

This brings us to one of the characteristic marks of life: its nested relationships. Genes inhabit cells; cells participate in the life of multicellular organisms; organisms live in communities; communities thrive in ecosystems; and ecosystems work together like organs in the biosphere. At the quantum level, we find quarks combining to form the bodies of protons and neutrons, and those protons and neutrons bond to make atoms.

In fact, one of the oddest anomalies in physics takes this to the lowest level. According to quantum theory, fundamental particles such as quarks and electrons should be dimensionless points. But every test shows that they inhabit a volume in space. The only way to get their equations to give the right answers is to treat the bodies of quarks and electrons as if they are formed by a ‘cloud’ of invisible ‘virtual’ particles.[5]

Thus, in each sphere of life we find individuals ‘entangled’ with a world larger than themselves. And each individual is composed of smaller forms that make up their bodies. This is why we see the nesting of forms all the way down to the level of particles. It comes from the relationship we’ve been talking about, between living things and their environment.

The closer you study these forms, the more permeable their boundaries look, because they’re never isolated from each other or their surroundings. They are inescapably living within the influence of each other.

This is the companionship that we see and experience when we open up to nature. Once this relationship sinks in, it transforms the way we think about the evolution of natural diversity and the place of human beings in this story. It reveals the importance of living co-creatively, sustainably, and compassionately, because we are involved in life together.

“Essentially I think this understanding becomes possible as soon as we STOP thinking of ourselves and others as autonomous, free-willed objects subjected to external administration and judgement, and START thinking of ourselves and others as dynamic inhabitants and expressions of our natural neighbourhood, living within each other’s mutual influence…

“Underlying this move is a simple but fundamental shift in the way we perceive all natural, tangible phenomena, including ourselves…”[6]

Living things all have bodies that are dynamic and permeable for a reason: They’re continually sharing and exchanging with the environment. It’s an amazing relationship, a wonderful dance of give and take that shapes organisms and the world around them. This is what makes life so remarkable.

Looking at it this way, the question—what is life—suddenly takes on a radical new meaning.

[1] Pamela Lyon, “To Be or Not To Be: Where Is Self-Preservation in Evolutionary Theory?” in The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited, p. 112.

[2] Doug Marman, Lenses of Perception: A Surprising New Look at the Origin of Life, the Laws of Nature, and Our Universe (Washington: Lenses of Perception Press, 2016), p. 392.

[3] Doug Marman, Lenses of Perception: A Surprising New Look at the Origin of Life, the Laws of Nature, and Our Universe (Washington: Lenses of Perception Press, 2016), p. 248-258.

[4] Ibid, p. 239-247.

[5] Ibid, p. 462-465.


The Experience of Consciousness vs Knowing Our Own Mind

By Doug Marman

The New York Times just ran an opinion piece that is a good example about how articles on neuroscience often get the big issues wrong.

Photo by Miranda Knox.

Picture by Miranda Knox.

The author, Alex Rosenberg, isn’t ignorant of the topic. He’s a co-director of the Center for the Social and Philosophical Implications of Neuroscience. In other words, he is fully informed of the science of the brain. So, he clearly has every right to state his opinions. Unfortunately, he misses the point badly.

Right from the opening paragraph, Rosenberg misdirects and misrepresents the issue. I don’t mean to say that he is doing this intentionally. I believe he is stating the problem honestly as he sees it. He’s just using the wrong lens.

Here is how he begins: Ever since Plato, philosophers have made it sound like a truism that we know the reality of our own thoughts:

“They have argued that we can secure certainty about at least some very important conclusions, not through empirical inquiry, but by introspection: the existence, immateriality (and maybe immortality) of the soul, the awareness of our own free will, meaning and moral value.”[1]

Rosenberg then goes on to berate two recent authors for continuing with this tradition, as if something that seems so fundamentally true can “trump science.” Not so, he tells us. We might think that we know what’s going on in our own minds, but numerous studies show that this simply isn’t true. We don’t know.

Here’s the first problem with this article: Plato wasn’t talking about knowing our mind. He was talking about knowing our self. He never said that we can ever truly know our own mind our even the true nature of our thoughts. The fundamental truth that Plato and many other philosophers have pointed to is the experience of being conscious.

Using “introspection” to study our thoughts isn’t even in the same ballpark as the experience of consciousness. Experiences are far more fundamental than thoughts.

A lot of neuroscientists mix these up. They do so for a good reason: They are using third-person lenses. In other words, they are taking the traditional scientific approach of viewing the matter as if they are outside observers—as if they are completely outside of the mind or the experience of consciousness and looking in. This is the objective approach, and it has long been used in science for a good reason, because it is excellent at understanding cause-and-effect relationships like we see in mechanisms and chemical reactions.

However, this is the wrong lens to use for understanding the experience of consciousness. If we insist on using a third-person approach, then we have assured our failure to see it at all. The only way to understand the nature of experience is through experience, not by mental analysis.

Trying to understand the mind by thinking about it with the mind is like trying to find reality in a hall of mirrors. Photo by Bjoern Lotz.

Trying to understand the mind by thinking about it with the mind is like trying to find reality in a hall of mirrors. Photo by Bjoern Lotz.

We might as well use a telescope to look for microbes in a drop of water. We will see nothing. Even worse, we can fool ourselves into thinking that microbes don’t even exist, because we can’t see them.

We need to use the right lens, the right tool. In this case, the only perspective that works is a “first-person” lens. This is how we experience everything, whether it be a new car, eating lunch with a friend, or our own consciousness. Every experience is a first-person perception.

What does an experience mean? That’s a different story. That’s a question we ask with our minds, as if we could interpret an experience or reduce it down to a thought. As soon as we start thinking about our experiences we’ve left the first-person world behind.

Therefore, the point that Rosenberg is making does not prove that science trumps experience. Quite the opposite. It shows us that science doesn’t understand consciousness. This is exactly why philosopher David Chalmers calls consciousness the hard problem. He writes:

“Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain.”[2]

Third-person lenses don’t work because they move us outside the world of experience. Outsiders can’t see consciousness. This is why we need to use a first-person lens. Chalmers says the same thing:

“If one takes the third-person perspective on oneself—viewing oneself from the outside, so to speak—these reactions and abilities are no doubt the main focus of what one sees. But the hard problem is about explaining the view from the first-person perspective.”[3]

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only problem with Rosenberg’s article. In his zeal to show how much scientific evidence there is that we don’t know our mind, he makes some rather serious blunders. He writes:

“In fact, controlled experiments in cognitive science, neuroimaging and social psychology have repeatedly shown how wrong we can be about our real motivations, the justification of firmly held beliefs and the accuracy of our sensory equipment. This trend began even before the work of psychologists such as Benjamin Libet, who showed that the conscious feeling of willing an act actually occurs after the brain process that brings about the act—a result replicated and refined hundreds of times since his original discovery in the 1980s.”

The first sentence in the above paragraph is right. Subconscious influences affect our choices and decisions all the time. We often try to “explain” our behavior as if it is rational, when, in fact, our subconscious colors everything we do. So, the point Rosenberg is making—that we don’t fully know our own minds—is right.

It’s the second sentence that is the problem. Benjamin Libet did not show “that the conscious feeling of willing an act actually occurs after the brain process that brings about the act…” And no other experiment has proven this either. It is easy to show why Rosenberg is just plain wrong about this. Here is how I explained it in my book,

“None of the experiments show the brain making a decision before the person did. Scientists can’t prove such a claim, since they have no way of determining when a choice is made. Decision-making is a subjective process. They can’t observe it scientifically. No instrument can measure the act of choosing. They can only detect outer activity in the brain, not the inner content of consciousness.”[4]

In fact, not only is Rosenberg wrong about what Libet’s experiment shows us, there are quite a few experiments that contradict his conclusion and one shows clearly that he is wrong. In that case, the “readiness potential” brain signals that Libet detected show up whether a person decides to do something or not, so they can’t be an indicator of a decision being made:

“Judy Trevena and Jeff Miller, psychologists from New Zealand, asked a group of subjects to press a key every time they heard a tone. A second group was told to do the same thing—press a key on a computer after a tone sounds—but only half of the time. It was their choice when to push the button and when not to.

“It didn’t matter whether the subjects in the second group pressed the key or not, the same readiness potential signals were detected. This is proof that this brain activity is not the same as a conscious decision. In fact, it suggests that the term ‘readiness potential’ was right all along. The brain is simply getting ready to act.”[5]

Rosenberg makes the matter worse. He goes on to say: “there is compelling evidence” that our own self-awareness is simply our brain trying to guess at what we ourselves might be thinking. This is a misrepresentation. I’m giving Rosenberg the benefit of the doubt when I say this.

If you interpret “self-awareness” the way I do, as the experience of our own consciousness, then Rosenberg is flat out wrong. But I think what Rosenberg is getting at here is that we often guess about our own behavior and our intentions, the same way we guess at the intentions of others. He is absolutely right about that, but this is not the basis of our self-awareness.

If Rosenberg limited his conclusion to the ideas that we form about ourselves and the picture we might have of who we are, then I would agree with him. But that isn’t self-awareness. That’s our ego he is talking about—the image we have about who we are and how we fit in the world.

Self-awareness is something we gain through the direct experience of our consciousness. No thought involved. No guesswork. It is purely an experience—not an interpretation. That’s what makes this an issue that “trumps science.” Science can’t crack that nut, but we can prove to ourselves the reality of it through our own awareness.

Then Rosenberg really does it. He makes an absolutely ridiculous statement that has no scientific foundation at all, while acting as if it is shored up by empirical evidence. He writes:

“The upshot of all these discoveries is deeply significant, not just for philosophy, but for us as human beings: There is no first-person point of view.”

Photo by Gabor Kalman

Photo by Gabor Kalman

Here is the logic that Rosenberg just used to arrive at this conclusion: If you first decide to use a third-person lens, and only a third-person lens, to study the problem, then you will discover that first-person perception doesn’t exit.

Well of course it doesn’t exist if you use a lens that requires you to be an outsider looking in. How could you ever experience consciousness that way? How could you ever experience anything?

What’s the real upshot of all this? Science can’t see, detect, measure, or photograph the experience of consciousness. So, what do some scientists do? Well, they make up a story as if they understood the mind well enough to know that it is just making up the experience of consciousness. In other words, they are doing exactly what Rosenberg was telling us the mind does: guessing at the things it doesn’t understand.

If Rosenberg is right that we can’t know our mind through introspection, and I agree with him on this, then how could anyone ever come to the conclusion that the mind is fabricating the experience of consciousness? That makes no sense.

If a person is smart enough to make such a statement, why wouldn’t they be smart enough to realize that the only way it could be true is if they really did understand their mind?

It baffles me. I don’t have the answer to this question, but if you do, please explain it to me. I really would like to know.

[1] Alex Rosenberg, “Why You Don’t Know Your Own Mind,” The New York Times, July, 18, 2016.

[2] David J. Chalmers, “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2, no. 3 (1995), p. 200. Also posted on

[3] David J. Chalmers, “Moving Forward on the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 4, no. 1 (1997), p. 3–46, Section 2.2. Also posted on moving.html.

[4] Doug Marman, Lenses of Perception: A Surprising New Look at the Origin of Life, the Laws of Nature, and Our Universe (Washington: Lenses of Perception Press, 2016), p. 277.

[5] Ibid., p. 278-281.

From the Blog of Marcha Fox

“Lenses of Perception” by Doug Marman: An Interesting Summer Read for Science Aficionados

Let me start out by saying that this book has 359 references that comprise eleven pages of endnotes. If you’re not impressed by that, then this is probably not the book for you. However, if you love science and appreciate revolutionary ideas supported by considerable research that relate to an enigma no one, including Einstein, Feynman or Hawking, has been able to solve, then you would probably enjoy this book.

As a physicist and science fiction writer myself, I was fascinated by the book’s precepts. When I really get into such a tome, I become a librarian’s worst nightmare: highlighting key passages, scribbling notes in the margin and, heaven forbid, dog-earing pages. For what it’s worth, my copy sports 46 pages in that condition as well as more marginal notes and highlights than I care to count.

The premise of this fascinating book has been touched on ever since the double-slit experiment suggested some mysterious interaction existed between consciousness and physical matter. Rather than argue this, the author makes an a priori assumption that such a relationship exists. That in and of itself is not particularly remarkable, since it has been the stance of various other authors for decades. Marman, however, does not stop there. It’s not simply a matter of human consciousness influencing subatomic particles. He systematically builds a credible case for the tiniest subatomic particles possessing consciousness as well.

The author is an engineer and inventor who holds various patents and is thus experienced on the technical side, but is not a PhD physicist. This is a good thing. Stepping beyond the bounds of conventional science tends to be a career-limiting experience. Some have referred to scientific progression as occurring only via funerals, e.g., German physicist, Max Planck, who stated, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Marman’s theory is imaginative to the point of resembling one of Einstein’s thought experiments. While he doesn’t do the math, it goes beyond philosophizing, conjecture or excursions of fantasy. As indicated in the first sentence of this review, this book is well documented. The author states his theory then backs it up with existing scientific research.

[To read the rest of March’s blog post, go HERE.]

The Vital Question — Part I

By Doug Marman

Nick Lane recently published a new book, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. It isn’t an easy book to read, but it is packed with the latest research about the evolution of early life, and it offers a number of provocative new theories.

The Vital Question by Nick Lane.

The Vital Question by Nick Lane.

Everything in Lane’s book fits perfectly with the theory of how life began that I presented in Lenses of Perception. However, Lenses fills in some important gaps in Lane’s story. That’s what I’ll be reviewing in this post.

Lane explains why we need to start looking at living organisms in a different way. The question we should be asking ourselves, he says, is not what is life, but how do creatures live? How do they extract energy from the world to keep them going? It’s an interesting perspective.

Lane then describes the process that all living things use to control energy. He even has a good story about where such a process probably began. But he can’t explain how living things gained the ability to intelligently control energy in the first place. This is where current science hits a wall. Fortunately, the Lenses of Perception theory shows a way to understand this missing key of life.

Lane’s book is filled with valuable insights. For example, out of date origin-of-life stories don’t work. The idea that lightning hitting the “primordial soup” (in the oceans) was able to create larger, more complex molecules, is a dead end. There is no way these molecules just arranged themselves into the right pattern and leaped the hurdle to life. Lane says the whole conjecture is misguided and should be forgotten.

The problem isn’t making complex molecules, he says. It is how to extract the energy needed to survive. Lightning can’t create the spark of life, because organisms need a continuous source of controllable energy to live. Lane believes the whole idea of the primordial soup is a big mistake that has led countless researchers in the wrong direction.

Lane then dives deep into describing how all life forms on Earth use energy:

“Essentially all living cells power themselves through the flow of protons… The energy we gain from burning food in respiration is used to pump protons across a membrane, forming a reservoir on one side of the membrane. The flow of protons back from this reservoir can be used to power work in the same way as a turbine in a hydroelectric dam… At the level of proteins, we now know how proton power works in detail. We also know that the use of proton gradients is universal across life on earth—proton power is as much an integral part of all life as the universal genetic code. Yet we know next to nothing about how or why this counterintuitive mechanism of energy harnessing first evolved.”[1]

In other words, even the simplest forms of life have a way of moving protons, one at a time, across a membrane, where they are stored like money in a bank. Later, they spend their proton loot to power everything they need to do, in order to survive. It’s an amazing discovery, but how exactly does the cell intelligently control this process? And how did the first life form learn this trick? Biologists don’t know.

That’s where the Lenses of Perception theory comes in. It proposes that the “all-for-one” bond is the secret of life we are looking for. This bond compels molecules of a cell to work in a coordinated way together for the cell’s survival. Outside forces can’t pull this off. The forces known to physics can’t make inorganic matter alive. Chemists and physicists haven’t found the right lens to see how this happens. But an understanding of relationships can explain it.

The process must start within the cell. The molecules must act in just the right way, to allow the cell to live. Why do they do this? According to Lenses of Perception, a special form of entanglement makes this possible.

The molecules in a cell are not only entangled with each other, forming a cohesive group, but they are also entangled with the cell itself. As a result, the molecules act as a team that is aligned to the cell.

This is admittedly a controversial theory, because most physicists believe that the unpredictable nature of quantum particles is, first of all, completely random, and second, it only happens at the subatomic level. Neither of these are true, however, since we see the same unpredictable behavior at the level of living cells, as well as at the level of complex organisms such as animals.

Lenses of Perception shows that the relationships between living creatures display all the same puzzles and paradoxes of quantum mechanics. This isn’t a coincidence. Fundamental particles are unpredictable because they, too, are conscious. This turns out to be a useful explanation because the spontaneous actions of quanta can’t be explained by outer forces.

If particles are conscious, then they should form relationships. This ends up being the true cause of attraction and repulsion between particles that creates the forces of physics. This might sound preposterous, but it’s completely consistent with quantum theory. (See Lenses of Perception for a detailed discussion.)

One type of relationship that forms naturally when beings come together is for them to work as a group. They form unified teams if they have good leaders. This bond, I believe, is the key to unlocking the secret of life. Once we realize the universal nature of what I call the “all-for-one bond,” we gain a new lens that shows us life in a completely different light.

For example, at the subatomic level, we see quarks coming together to form protons and neutrons. The units they form are so tightly bound together that they act as singular entities. They don’t spin like a group of quarks—they spin as one.

Protons and neutrons also bond together in the same way to form atoms. And this shows us one of the amazing results of this bond: It creates hierarchies. Not only do quarks combine to form protons, and protons combine to form atoms, but atoms also bind together to create stars, and stars form galaxies.

You might think that stars spin in galaxies only because of the force of gravity, but this is wrong. Scientists say that dark matter is needed to explain a strange problem: Why do the outer stars in galaxies spin as one? Gravity, alone, can’t explain this. The outer stars should spin slower, if only gravity is involved.

Unfortunately, physicists have no idea what dark matter is. And they don’t know why the outer sheath of the sun spins faster than it should, as well. Plus, a similar situation exists at the level of protons and atoms, called the “mass gap problem.” All of these problems are resolved, once we see the role of all-for-one bonds. (While I’m trying my best to make this understandable to newcomers, I can’t possibly cover all of the background in Lenses of Perception, so this is understandably a very quick summary.)

All-for-one bonds always create hierarchies because the group is held together by following a higher level leader. This is exactly why cells work together to allow complex organisms to live, and are even willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the creature. We see the same thing on a human level, when parents make sacrifices for their family, and when people come together to work for a company or a cause larger than themselves.

If this theory is right, then it paints a new picture of how cells first formed. In fact, the LoP theory is quite specific about how this must have happened. It had to start with a group that formed behind a leader who was one of their own. In other words, one molecule stepped forward to lead, but this role was temporary.

Any leader that steps forward from a group can be replaced. Actually, the members of the group can be replaced as well. This is exactly what we see in companies. They might get started with an entrepreneur, but other leaders take over as they expand, and employees come and go.

This first step is called a weak all-for-one bond, according to Lenses of Perception. The group isn’t held together as tightly as a cell, an atom, or an organism. In fact, weak all-for-one bonds can easily split into separate groups that go off in different directions. This is exactly what we see with companies. It also shows that reproduction probably existed before the first true cells emerged.

But weak all-for-one bonds have one big advantage over strong all-for-one bonds: They can survive indefinitely, as long as individuals continue stepping in to keep them going. That’s not true with organisms. When an animal dies, the cells that form its body all fall apart and decompose. This shows how closely their lives are entangled.

So, the first stage in the emergence of life is a loosely formed group that follows a temporary leader. A major evolutionary leap was needed to transform this group into a cell with a will of its own, creating a strong all-for-one bond. But I’m not going to discuss that stage in this post. I’ll address it in Part II.

Back to the pre-cellular stage. It probably survived for a long time, replacing leaders and members, before making the leap to becoming a unified conscious cell. In other words, it started as a community of molecules, and it must have taken a long time to evolve the ability to keep the group going. How did this happen? you might ask.

Hydrothermal vents deep under the ocean, near the Marianas Trench. Photo by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Hydrothermal vents deep under the ocean, near the Marianas Trench. Photo by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Let’s turn back to Nick Lane. He tells an interesting story. Deep in the oceans on Earth are alkaline hydrothermal vents that offered exactly the right conditions for this process to begin. The vents are porous, with millions of tiny openings, making a perfect gathering place for molecules to settle and combine. The vents also supply a continuous flow of charged ions, while the rest of the ocean was much more acidic in those early days.

This allowed molecules to gather in the porous openings, creating something similar to membranes. And the vents supplied a natural source of protons, in the form of hydrogen ions, making a reservoir on one side. This created an electrical potential compared to the acidic ocean on the other side of the membrane. Therefore, there was a steady flow of energy that lasted for hundreds of millions of years. This is how long it took for a community of molecules to develop the ability to survive as a group.

This picture that Lane paints is consistent with the origin of life story in Lenses of Perception. It does seem like a realistic place for life to emerge. However, I don’t see how molecules could have evolved the ability to act as a group for its own self-preservation without the all-for-one bond. It can’t be created by external forces. That’s impossible. How could outside forces give creatures a will of their own? It must, by definition, come from within. This means that molecules must have first learned to keep the group going. Then the leap to cellular life was possible.

If consciousness exists first, and all particles possess it, then groups should naturally form, and the way they relate to each other should develop. In other words, they will gradually begin working as groups. That’s where molecules come from. But their abilities are very limited.

However, when molecules work together, they have far more flexibility (degrees of freedom). With a continuous source of energy and hundreds of millions of years, they could have learned how to work to preserve the life of the group, to keep the community alive. This makes sense if particles and molecules have some element of consciousness. And alkaline hydrothermal vents offer exactly the right environment, as Lane says.

The gaps in Lane’s story are where the Lenses of Perception theory shines. For example, he admits that he can’t explain how the first cells formed, or why molecules joined together to form genes:

“I was evasive on details such as how the genetic code arose, but focused on the conceptual argument that these conditions could theoretically have produced rudimentary cells with genes and proteins.”[2]

Unfortunately, when he tries to explain how this happened, he makes a common mistake. He says:

“Populations of cells were subject to perfectly normal natural selection.”[3]

Natural selection isn’t some kind of magic wand that we should wave to explain the things we don’t understand. Unfortunately, biologists do it all this time.

This doesn’t mean that natural selection isn’t real, but that we shouldn’t use it to paint over the things that we don’t know. Doing so stops us from looking for real explanations.

In this case, it is a serious mistake because natural selection doesn’t work with molecules. Chemical reactions, by themselves, can and do adapt to their surroundings, but they can’t evolve the ability to work together for the purpose of helping their group survive. It’s only wishful thinking to imagine that natural selection could magically pull this off. Something is clearly missing.

How did the first molecules gain the ability to work together as groups? Until we can answer this, we have no idea how genes first formed. Yes, we can see that genes play an important role in life, but what holds them together? How do they act at exactly the right times in synchrony with all the other genes to allow organisms to find food, excrete wastes, and reproduce?

Everything starts to make sense if consciousness is involved from the start. Then molecules will form relationships and groups. Over a billion years, it is possible for more complex combinations to form that allow individual molecules to work as a team, creating something that is larger than any of them individually. Once they experience the benefits, they will want to preserve the group by acting in a unified way.

Here’s another example of a big gap. In Chapter 3 of his book, Lane asks the question, why are proton gradients the source of power for all living things on this planet. Why not thermal or mechanical energy? Why not electrical discharges or ultraviolet radiation?

This deep sea hydrothermal vent is encrusted with tiny crabs and surrounded by life, which is a good sign that this is where life may have begun on planet Earth.

This deep sea hydrothermal vent is encrusted with tiny crabs and surrounded by life, which is a good sign that this is where life may have begun on planet Earth. Photo from Wikipedia by A. D. Rogers et al.

He goes on to suggest that the reason for this is that life began in these alkaline hydrothermal vents in the ocean. But this misses the real answer.

Thermal and mechanical energy, electrical discharges, and ultraviolet radiation, will never work because these are all classical forces based on cause and effect. Those forces only work at the level of masses of particles, not individuals.

We need a quantum process. We need to understand how forces themselves emerge from quantum fields and quantum interactions. That’s where the secret of life can be explained.

Mechanical and electrical forces all play roles in the lives of cells, but they will never explain how organisms act under their own volition or how they act to preserve their own lives. We need consciousness to begin with. Consciousness isn’t a byproduct, it is a necessary cause.

This becomes clear when we look at exactly how living things use proton gradients to power their lifestyles. Lane compares the flow of protons through the molecular structures in cells to shielded wires carrying flows of electricity. But this is wrong. A wire is one long conductor, with atoms lined up end-to-end. Electricity does indeed flow through copper like water through a pipe. Just add a voltage potential, such as a battery, and the current will flow.

This is not even close to what happens in cells. Lane shows this quite clearly. Proton gradients are constructed from 45 proteins, with each protein being made of hundreds of amino acids. This complex structure is needed for cells to move protons across a membrane and then use those protons to create the chemical energy needed to survive.

The protons are moved from one end of this chain to the other. Protons are moved one at a time through the structure, across a series of these landing spots. Each step is a carefully controlled distance from the next, because electrons must make quantum leaps to get from one to the next. In other words, protons are not moved like water or electricity. They’re moved one at a time through the structure with a quantum process guiding them.

A better analogy to what is happening here would be workers in a town, where farmers grow food, food preparers convert the food into usable forms, and movers bring the food to stores and restaurants where consumers can buy them. These consumers are the very same workers, food preparers, and movers. We have a functioning community.

We can’t just connect a battery to a circuit and make a town work. Food doesn’t flow through a pipe. It is passed along from one person to the next. It isn’t forced through the pipe by an external force. Yes, there is an exchange of money each step of the way, but it is the hunger of people that drives the process.

Money is not the cause. Cash flows through a town because there’s a need for food and other goods. In a cell, protons are the goods needed. Electrons are the money.

As electrons jump from one landing pad to the next, protons are handed off and routed to where they are needed.

This is a community effort. Everyone must work together to pull this off. In other words, all of the individual molecules must be aligned to a purpose, guided by common goals, and led by leaders to keep everything coordinated. These are relationships that make this work. Individuals helping each other and the group.

It seems hard to believe that molecules could act intelligently. I admit it. We’ve learned to look at matter as lifeless for so long that it is hard to buy this. But, as difficult as this is to picture, it does explain everything from the origin of particles to the origin of life. And after you get used to the idea, it makes sense.

There are no other solutions to the origin of life without huge gaps. Unless you want to believe that natural selection magically solved the problem, or that electrical currents somehow drive protons exactly to where and when they are needed for cells to survive.

In Part II, of this two-part series, we’ll explore a leap in evolution that is just as amazing as the origin of cellular life. This is the jump that cells took when they changed from being single cells to multicellular creatures such as plants, fungi, animals, and insects. In other words, all of complex life depends on this event when cells changed.

[1] Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life (New York City, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015), p. 13.

[2] Nick Lane, The Vital Question, p. 149.

[3] Ibid.