Basic Principals of Biology — Luck/Chance/Uncertainty is a Big One


1. Inheritance with memory: life is one continuous history, from the beginning 4 billion years ago to now, and cells ‘remember’ what they’ve inherited and carry it forth (except for changes, such as mutations in DNA);

2. Modular organization; life is constructed in LEGO mode, with repeated units, like segments, hairs, leaves, and the like.  We have referred in earlierposts[3] to the importance of polymers, long molecules made of different subunits (modular units), whose arrangement contains the ‘information’ of life.

3. Sequestration: the modules in life are isolated from each other, at least in part.  If life is a history of divergence from common origin, from the beginning, that was possible only because of local, isolated compartments that can be separated enough from other compartments to become different.  Parts of DNA are isolated from each other, cells are, organs are….and you are an organism all your own for the same reason.

4. Coding and interaction;  Life is organized as above, generally because of the signaling interactions among units within and between cells (and beyond).  The key to all of this is combinations of molecules present together in time and place within an organism.  Combinations represent one of many kinds of ‘codes’, of which the genetic code is only one example.  The dance of such interactions is what causes differential organisms.

5: Contingency: what’s here tomorrow works only from what’s here today.  This is the hierarchical nature of combinatorial interactions that we mentioned yesterday.

6. Chance: action without direction.  It is fundamental to life that there is a major component of chance in most aspects of what happens.  Mutation in DNA or the chance transmission of variants from parent to offspring (‘Mendel’s rules’), and the chance aspects of birth and death, or of winning and losing competition (such as natural selection) are examples at various levels.

7. Adaptability in the face of changing circumstances.  DNA reacts to its environment (genes are used, or not, depending on whether the DNA is grabbed near them by proteins or other molecules), cells react to conditions via signals of various sorts that they are primed to detect, and so on, up to you, who react to your environment and decide what to eat, when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, who to woo and who to fear, and so many other things.  Your brain is a hyperactive environment-sensor and decision-maker, and we’re all familiar with that (and why some of our closest friends can’t ever seem to make up their minds!).  But every cell in your body is doing it all the time, and so are structures within them.

8. Cooperation.  The above phenomena are, as we use the term, examples of cooperation, that is, co-operation, working jointly together.  Sometimes, as among social organisms, this is the kind of socially supportive interactions we usually use the word ‘cooperation’ for, but the myriad interactions that involve multiple partners (signal, signal detector, cells in organs, and so on) are examples of cooperation in the mechanical and more literal, rather than emotional sense of the term.

Excerpted from

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