Imagine humans one day fulfill what is currently only a dream for the discipline known today as synthetic biology: to create a whole new species from simple organic molecules. No, not by combining biomolecules, or larger structures we obtained from living systems. Imagine we create at some point a new life form from scratch. As any other, this life form will be able to self-sustain and to self-reproduce with variation, and thus able to undergo evolution by natural selection. We will have a new species on our planet — whatever our definition of species, it will be indisputably new.

This species would deserve a place in the history of life on Earth. So, how do we explain its evolutionary debut using concepts from classical evolutionary theory? Was it natural selection? No. Was it allopatric, parapatric, or sympatric speciation [1] —phenomena at the geographical level? No. Was it lateral gene transfer, [2]  polyploidization, [3] or hybridization [4] —phenomena at the molecular level? No.

We may try with less standard concepts. Was it the Baldwin effect? [5]  No. Kin selection? [6]  No. Group selection? [7]  No. Multilevel selection? [8]  No. Epigenetics? [9]  No. . .

This thought experiment is, of course, beginning to get as silly as the brilliant Monty Python’s Cheese Shop skit — only not funny, so I should stop. In lay terms, we would simply and finally say that humans made new life come into being. (Let’s try for now not to make matters worse by saying that humans consciously  made new life come into being.)

That said, one may argue the thought experiment is pointless. Not because creating life from scratch is a fundamental impossibility — that’s a tough case to make — but because we’ll never be smart enough to do it or, rather more cynically, we’re already stupid enough to destroy ourselves before we do it. Granted.

Imagine then the first system able to self-sustain and self-reproduce to have ever existed. Beyond reasonable doubt one such system, however simple, did exist. It turns out that here — apart from the half-suppressed adverb “consciously” — the answer to all explanations suggested in the thought experiment will be the same: No. That first system spontaneously came into being. In other words, it somehow emerged.

Charles Darwin was fully aware of this issue, as evidenced by the wonderful, triumphant, and no less intellectually honest last paragraph of On the Origin of Species. [10]

Yes, at least one agent did emerge spontaneously in the history of the Universe, and another (conscious) agent could figure out how to elicit the spontaneous emergence of a new agent — with no standard (or not-that-standard) evolutionary mechanisms involved whatsoever in either case. The common denominator here is not consciousness, but the spontaneous emergence of systems that are agents, systems with teleological properties: the “end-directed” properties that unequivocally characterize life.

This common denominator is, I suggest, the substantial update evolutionary theory currently lacks. Note, however, that to say even an individual cell is an agent or, in other words, an autonomous, causally efficacious system in the world, is a huge claim. The dynamics of the individual cell, for it to be an agent, must be to some extent indecomposable in a fundamental sense — otherwise said dynamics are only the effect of what molecules, inanimate and purposeless, do. Interestingly, “individual” comes from individuus, which is the Latin for the Ancient Greek átomos, or indivisible.

In this respect, I have argued that a necessary condition for individuation — specifically, for the multicellular individuation unique to eukaryotes — is a regime underpinned by “self-organizing” systems [11]  whose dynamics are statistically independent [12]  from each other (at least within certain critical regions in space). [13]

When two statistically independent “self-organizing” systems found in chromatin14 become coupled across the extracellular space such that the constraints — understood as the thermodynamic boundary conditions that allow energy to be released as work [15] — required by each system are generated by the others, the multicellular individual emerges. And it does so as an intrinsic (with respect to the whole cell population), higher-order constraint on lower-order cellular dynamics. [13]  There is also compelling evidence for aging at the multicellular-individual level explained as a direct byproduct of this emergent higher-order constraint. [16]  (The consensus evolutionary account is that aging is the result of hundreds of millions of years of relaxed selection on late-life maintenance traits.) [17]

The concept of emergent and intrinsic higher-order constraints on lower-order dynamics, or simply teleodynamics, was pioneered by T. Deacon [1820] and has been followed up by others like M. Montévil & M. Mossio, [21]  R. Logan, [22]  J. Sherman, [23]  S. Kauffman, [24] and myself.

What to call a teleodynamics-updated evolutionary theory? I’m not sure “conscious evolution” is a helpful term, because consciousness is usually associated with the mind, and most living systems don’t have one. “Teleological evolution”, on the other hand, suggests (at least to me) the wrongful notion that natural selection is purposeful. Whatever name it will bear — one hopefully descriptive, yet not misleading — we surely need it.

Otherwise, biology will forever be the reverse-engineering of uber-fancy organic robots that get imperfectly replicated — and thus overhauled — throughout the eons by a process we call evolution. Even sillier than Monty Python’s Cheese Shop, and making no one laugh. A bad joke within an increasingly science-distrusting society [25]  that seems to long for any everyday life purpose, if not explained, at least acknowledged by science. Because teleology does exist. You — not the roughly 134 trillion trillion atoms in your brain [26,27] — purposefully decided to read this commentary, didn’t you?

 

Read the entire “Conscious Evolution” series:

  1. Can Evolution Be Conscious? Introducing a Collection of Commentaries Published on This View of Life by David Sloan Wilson, Mel Andrews, and Maximus Thaler
  2. Cultural Evolution, Insight, and Fundamental Theories of Consciousness by Liane Gabora
  3. Conscious Evolution is a Category Mistake by Massimo Pigliucci
  4. The Origins and Evolutionary Effects of Consciousness by Eva Jablonka and Simona Ginsburg
  5. The Evolution of Consciousness Enables Conscious Evolution by Steve Hayes
  6. Welcome to the Noösphere by Alice Andrews
  7. The Consciousness of Detachment and the Detachment of Consciousness by Lenny Moss
  8. Can Evolution Be Conscious of Itself? Yes, It Can! by Joe Brewer
  9. One Culture, Two Cultures? How Many Cultures, How Long? by Kurt Johnson
  10. Can Evolution be Understood as a Conscious Process? by Stanley N. Salthe
  11. Why Teleology is the Elephant in Evolutionary Theory’s Room by Felipe A. Veloso

 

Acknowledgments:

I wish to thank David Sloan Wilson, Maximus Thaler, and Mel Andrews for inviting me to contribute to this commentary.

References:

1. S. Gavrilets, Perspective: Models of speciation: what have we learned in 40 years?, Evolution 57 (10) (2003) 2197–2215. DOI:10.1554/02-727.

2. P. J. Keeling, J. D. Palmer, Horizontal gene transfer in eukaryotic evolution, Nat. Rev. Genet. 9 (8) (2008) 605–618. DOI:10.1038/nrg2386.

3. S. P. Otto, J. Whitton, Polyploid Incidence and Evolution, Annu. Rev. Genet. 34 (1) (2000) 401–437. DOI:10.1146/annurev.genet.34.1.401.

4. M. L. Arnold, Natural hybridization and evolution, Oxford University Press, 1997.

5. J. M. Baldwin, A New Factor in Evolution, Am. Nat. 30 (354) (1896) 441–451. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1086%2F276408, DOI:10.1086/276408.

6. D. C. Queller, J. E. Strassmann, Kin selection, Curr. Biol. 12 (24) (2002) R832. DOI:10.1016/s0960-9822(02)01344-1.

7. V. C. Wynne-Edwards, Intergroup Selection in the Evolution of Social Systems, Nature 200 (4907) (1963) 623–626. DOI:10.1038/200623a0.

8. D. S. Wilson, E. Sober, Reintroducing group selection to the human behavioral sciences, Behav. Brain Sci. 17 (4) (1994) 585–608. DOI:10.1017/s0140525x00036104.

9. V. E. A. Russo, R. A. Martienssen, A. D. Riggs, Epigenetic mechanisms of gene regulation, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1996.

10. C. Darwin, On the origin of species, 1859, Routledge, 2004.

11. J.-M. Lehn, Toward Self-Organization and Complex Matter, Science 295 (5564) (2002) 2400–2403. DOI:10.1126/science.1071063.

12. E. W. Weisstein, Independent Statistics. Available from MathWorld—a Wolfram web resource: http://mathworld.wolfram.com/IndependentStatistics.html.

13. F. A. Veloso, On the developmental self-regulatory dynamics and evolution of individuated multicellular organisms, J. Theor. Biol. 417 (2017) 84–99. DOI:10.1016/j.jtbi.2016.12.025.

14. A. T. Annunziato, DNA packaging: nucleosomes and chromatin, Nat. Educ. 1 (1) (2008) 26. Available from: https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/dna-packaging-nucleosomes-and-chromatin-310.

15. P. W. Atkins, The second law, Scientific American Library, 1984.

16. F. A. Veloso, Senescence of multicellular individuals: imbalance of epigenetic and non-epigenetic information in histone modifications, bioRxiv (2018) DOI:10.1101/310300.

17. D. Gems, L. Partridge, Genetics of Longevity in Model Organisms: Debates and Paradigm Shifts, Annu. Rev. Physiol. 75 (1) (2013) 621–644. DOI:10.1146/annurev-physiol-030212-183712.

18. T. W. Deacon, Incomplete nature: How mind emerged from matter, WW Norton & Company, 2011.

19. T. W. Deacon, S. Koutroufinis, Complexity and Dynamical Depth, Information 5 (3) (2014) 404–423. DOI:10.3390/info5030404.

20. T. W. Deacon, A. Srivastava, J. A. Bacigalupi, The transition from constraint to regulation at the origin of life, Front Biosci 19 (2014) 945–957. DOI:10.2741/4259.

21. M. Montévil, M. Mossio, Biological organisation as closure of constraints, J. Theor. Biol. 372 (2015) 179–191. DOI:10.1016/j.jtbi.2015.02.029.

22. R. K. Logan, Extending Deacon’s notion of teleodynamics to culture, language, organization, science, economics and technology (CLOSET), Information 6 (4) (2015) 669–678. DOI:10.3390/info6040669.

23. J. Sherman, Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves, Columbia University Press, 2017.

24. S. Kauffman, A World Beyond Physics: On the Origin and Evolution of Life, Oxford University Press, In press.

25. C. Funk, L. Rainie, Attitudes and beliefs on science and technology topics, Pew Res. Cent. Internet, Sci. & Tech Reports Available from: http://pewrsr.ch/1DkHVi4.

26. R. A. Freitas, Chapter 3: Molecular transport and sortation, Nanomedicine Available from: http://www.foresight.org/Nanomedicine/Ch03_1.html#Tab0301.

27. O. Cairó, External measures of cognition, Front. Hum. Neurosci. 5 (108) (2011) 1–9. DOI:10.3389/fnhum.2011.00108.

Published On: February 19, 2019

Felipe A. Veloso

Felipe A. Veloso

Felipe A. Veloso has an engineering background — and biotechnology in particular — but his passion and research interests quickly developed towards fundamental biology. He is particularly interested in how scientifically tenable and logically consistent teleological or “end-directed” dynamics can emerge at different levels of scale and complexity in living systems, and in living systems only. In 2018, he left academia and continues doing research in theoretical biology while working as a freelance inventor for a Chilean start-up biotech company.

4 Comments

  • David Rimmer says:

    I very much enjoyed reading this and cannot but help feel that there is an element of directedness in areas of evolution. I agree that vocabulary is an issue, especially as one can so easily be accused of scientific or religious heresy for using certain terms. Denis Noble’s Dance to the Tune of Life is the best exposition that I have read of how organisms function on multiple levels within what Noble calls a functionally purposive view. He also uses a more basic term, ‘life’.

  • Russ Abbott says:

    A human-created species like the one in the original thought experiment will likely be a product of lateral gene transfer. Human technology will facilitate the transfer, but it will still be lateral gene transfer.

  • M. Makuye says:

    For a cognitive insight into some problems and fallacies concerning teleological thought, please explore the confabulation occurring in patients with corpus callosotomy.
    Complex dynamical systems we understand as having basis in lower-order simple systems having few and finally one, independent variable.
    this appears to be a characteristic independent of scale in this universe.
    Teleological , directed, action may be instead the ‘surviving” result of instability, seeming to arise due to the heuristic nature of the universe – dependence upon the most influential local force,an individual organism differentiation, influence.
    Evolutionary convergence may well be more likely a result of the limitations of the basic”building blocks”(quotation marks arising from awareness of the field nature of the universe), rather than having teleological properties.
    History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, said Twain, intuiting the dynamics of complex systems.
    When a choice is made, it may lead to extinction, and as we know, all forms are extinguished sooner or later.
    Now, this may not sound scientific, but among other phenomena, I study epigenetic marking in relation to behavior and cognition. Gene silencing tends to build up across time in an organism through more than one modality.
    Artificial selection , perhaps even using scaled and complex algorhithm, is more likely to overlook , or become increasingly subject to, properties of linked systems not predicted by those who believe they select useful attributes, even attributes intended to increase persistence.
    I’d refer readers to the switching of organisms under severe, mortal stresses, toward r-selection from K-selection.
    Now, K-selection can be a valid response to certain kinds of environmental stress occurring when r-selection is excessive or otherwise unprofitable, but little research has been done on that issue.
    A teleological preference for a trait does not mean that the trait, then, is inherently viable, either under projected interactions, or clearly, the variable motility of other organisms with genes and traits to which an intended organism is regarded as not presently present!

    In nature, most offspring are less viable than the surviving norm at any given moment. Some stochasticity (and the process is not at all the same as unconstrained randomicity) so far appears to be the best selective method, with spares – retention of silenced traits, even for tens or more millions of years, even in fast-reproducing organisms Teleological selection, then, must be or become largely stochastic, in response to unpredictable variation.
    The CRISPR editing now occurring has a high failure incidence. Imagine the possible increase when attempting to select for a suite, or several suites, of genes.
    the drives inherent in natural selection are far simpler than any purposely directed reach for “intelligence” or other vague or limited trait, and have not really changed across immense billions of years. Survival to reproduction under changeable circumstances, itself arose through the combination of the energetic characteristics of this universe, but are not necessarily basic in scale. They required sufficient complexity to occur at all, and that complexity continues to breed increased variations, along with efficient adherence to cycles and stabilities that we ourselves ignore, misperceive, and/or fail to perceive at all.

    • M. Makuye says:

      I apologize for not editing this comment before clicking the posting button, and hope that (at least some of) my considerable omissions can be filled in by any reader.

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