THE PATHWAY: ADJUSTMENT AND ADAPTATION: How did we get here from there?
Mistakes are the portals of discovery. James Joyce.
Peter C. Doherty an Australian veterinary surgeon and researcher in the field of infection and immunity and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine said in a recent article about emerging virus diseases:
“A virus is essentially an information system (encoded in DNA or RNA) surrounded by a protective coat and shaped by evolution to ensure its own replication and survival”.
DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid and RNA is ribonucleic acid. These two compounds are the materials in which is coded the essential genetic information of all living things.
I had a similar undergraduate veterinary training to Peter Doherty but spent my professional career principally in preventive medicine of commercial poultry. I gained much practical and theoretical knowledge about evolution in chicken breeding programs and in virus vaccine development. Since retirement I have sought to extend my understanding of evolution and have found many scholars who support the concept that the underlying process of evolution is “universal”. This is accepted in relation to reproduction of living organisms but it is less obvious in relation to non-living systems or to the emergent functions of living organisms.
Information systems can survive in ways other than that of viruses as described by Peter Doherty. Any organism, whether bacterium or human, is also essentially an information system shaped by evolution to ensure its own replication and survival These other methods also act to ensure the survival of the relevant information. The coating of the critical genetic information of any organism certainly has this effect of preserving DNA for its own survival. Replication is not essential to the process and is but part of the underlying survival mechanism.
Richard Dawkins described the organism as the vehicle for the genes. When seen as a “vehicle” it becomes simply a protective coat for the genetic information.
I would add to Doherty’s statement that an unusual entity called a prion a is also essentially an information system (encoded in its proteinaceous structure) shaped by evolution to ensure its own survival. It has no coating.
Likewise, entities like antibodies, nerve impulses, ideas, memes and the information involved in computer technology undergo a similar process in ensuring their survival. These are all examples of closed cyclic systems which maintain their integrity by iteration of their operational information.
In seems that any cyclic system involves the process of iteration of the underlying coded information that controls its survival. Replication (or multiplication) is an emergent phenomenon that adds an extra dimension to the capabilities of an open loop entity (or cyclic system).
I suggest that any information system, whether capable of replication or not, is shaped by an evolutionary process to ensure its own adaptation to a changing environment and thus survival. Otherwise it would be extinct. The essential outcome of the process of evolution therefore is ensuring survival and does not necessarily involve replication.
The quotation from James Joyce at the head of this essay “Mistakes are the portals of discovery” is an insight into the universality of the role of variation in processes.
Replace the key word “mistakes” therein by “variations” and the saying applies widely. I suppose he was thinking of the way we should not give up for fear of making mistakes because we can often benefit from or learn from our mistakes. Whatever he meant, the saying gives us a toehold into the insight that sticking to the beaten track or adhering to behaviour that has previously paid off is not necessarily the best way to go even for impersonal endeavours of the evolutionary process.
All entities are subject to variation. A variant having positive effects will survive only while the entity survives. For an open loop entity this is for an ephemeral period. For a closed loop entity that cannot produce copies of itself, survival is for a persistent period. For a closed loop entity that can produce copies of itself, survival is from generation to generation.
Progress depends upon change. In the absence of human meddling either unintended or intended, some of that change may be random. Change has no intrinsic value but a change may have an effect that is either harmful, neutral or beneficial to the adaptation and survival of the system in which it occurs.
A number of authors have worked on development of a “meta-law” that furthers the ideas of others who have written on universal Darwinism and the origin of life. I suggest that the claims in this essay are consistent with their views.
Subject to the effects of the Conservation laws, Newton’s and Einstein’s laws and the Second law of thermodynamics, and consistent with the Constructor Theory of Deutch and Marletto the following statements apply:
1. An object may interact with other objects to form an entity that progresses towards a state of either high entropy (disorder) or else captures energy and retains its low entropy (orderly) state.
2. This order achieved in an entity is the effect of, or response to, information encoded in its structure. Some have seen the orderly response to information transfer as constituting the acquisition of “knowledge”.
3. An entity that retains its orderly state may be structured in either an open loop arrangement (a non-cyclic system – think of an exploding star) or a closed loop arrangement (a cyclic system – think of a galaxy).
4. An open loop arrangement is less stable and will dissipate sooner. A closed loop arrangement employs feedback mechanisms, is more stable and will persist longer.
5. Both open and closed loop entities may undergo variations in their structure.
6. A variant incorporated in either an open or closed loop entity amends the coded information and will have effects that may be harmful, neutral (inactive or benign) or beneficial to its ability to adapt and to survive the effects of any variations in its environment.
7. A harmful effect leads to demise of the entity (think extinction or death or erosion). A neutral effect is inert (think “junk” DNA). A beneficial effect leads to the emergence of a new phenomenon (think living organisms).
8. An open loop entity does not repeat itself, is less persistent and will dissipate. Any incorporated variant alters the coded information and allows adjustment b to its behaviour. The alteration will be unstable or ephemeral c and be lost with the demise of the entity.
9. A closed loop entity repeats itself (iterates) and will be more stable and persistent d. Any incorporated variant will persist as an integral part of the entity.
10. If the affected entity is incapable of copying itself, a beneficial change will affect the system’s ability to survive in its environment.
11. It the entity is capable of repeating itself (by iteration or copying) a beneficial change can affect both its own ability to survive in its environment and will also be transmitted to its successor entities.
12. In the case of multiplying entities, beneficial change can affect both the ability of the entity and the ability of the populations they form to survive in their environment.
13. Suitably adapted entities survive as modified systems or emergent phenomena.
Each of us has our own choices to make in matters that range from food choices to career or relationship decisions. We are urged into a particular direction by our biology, our culture and our own reasoning. Choosing to make no decision is of course a decision itself so we are captured by our own circumstances. Making some decisions is easy because we are usually not aware of the options that are actually available but we should be aware of the possible unintended consequences of such actions. The choices we must make are based in our biology (and its forebears, physics and chemistry and astronomy and geology), our culture (including religion, tradition and education) and our own limited area of free choice.
It may not be clear just how inanimate systems took the step or steps to the emergence of living organisms or how animal forms of awareness emerged into what we humans experience as qualia or as consciousness but the role of the evolutionary mechanism in preserving beneficial changes provides a clear explanatory pathway.
A critical missing evolutionary event that is of importance is that of the emergence of the ability of an open loop entity to make copies of itself. Autocatalysis has been suggested as an essential precursor to life but a pathway for the emergence of autocatalysis from a precursor is still not evident. Crystals may be the outcome of an evolutionary attempt to make copies but there seems to be no pathway from crystals to autocatalysis.
The existence of a mechanism that allows the preservation of variations which turn out to be beneficial to the adaptation and survival of systems is evident. The possible fates of variants in such systems are determined by their ability to aid adaptation and survival of the mechanism in a changing environment.
a A prion is one of several proteinaceous infectious particles that cause a group of degenerative diseases of the nervous system including scrapie in sheep and “mad cow disease”. They only seem to be able to replicate in association with a living organism. Prions have a structure different from that of normal protein, lack detectable nucleic acid, do not elicit an immune response and have no coating. It is unknown whether a prion is an atavistic reversion from a virus or an intermediate step between chemistry and life.
b I define the response to the incorporation of a variant into the structure of an open loop entity as adjustment, while the response to the incorporation of a variant into the structure a closed loop entity adaptation. Both affect the fitness of the entity to survive but have distinctly different prospects of persistence. Adjustment is used here in a sense similar to “acclimatization” or “becoming accustomed to” and is used to refer to the type of response or alteration that is ephemeral, while adaptation is used to refer to sustained or persistent alteration. In organisms the distinction is clear. Adjustment occurs in the “phenotype” and aids survival of the organism. Adaptation occurs in the “genotype” and aids survival of the coded information.
c Ephemeral (unstable) entities include: Sub-atomic particles. Stars. Volcanoes. Waterfalls. Clouds. Storms. Organisms. Organs. Tissues. Nerve impulses. Ideas. Qualia. Words. Artifacts (Art. Words. Fiction. Computers etc.)
d Persistent (stable) entities include: The Universe. Galaxies. Solar systems. Planets. Atoms. Molecules. Crystals. Genes. Populations. Memes.