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Counterintuitive physics property found to be widespread in living organisms (phys.org)
101 points by dnetesn 67 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

It continually amazes me just how complex life is even on the smallest of scales.

Before this it was ATP synthase - the tiny turbines that power every cell - that made my draw metaphorically drop


Cells are extremely complex self-replicating organisms. They are so small and yet they can pull off this trick of mitosis that no machine made by humans ever achieved. Personally I think that the most interesting and hardest part in the evolution of life was the start of it, where you go from random proteins to self replicating structures (cells).

It's easy to think of in-between steps for any post-cellular-life step in the evolutionary process that led to intelligent life but if you have no self-replication you can't have evolution. Most likely at the start proteins just floated around freely in water and did various random things, most of them not really useful. Every now and then some, by chance, some protein would do something useful. Now earth is big and before life, proteins could float around freely without being repurposed by bacteria or other organisms as building material.

But the best protein that's the result of random processes isn't helpful without the ability to clone it in some way. Proteinbiosynthesis [1] is an extremely complex process that involves multiple substeps each needing complex proteins of their own to facilitate it. It also needs an ample supply of ATP that has to come from somewhere and not be wasted by "useless" proteins.

The most simple cell that we can build today has 531 thousand basepairs [2].

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protein_biosynthesis

[2]: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aad6253

It's unlikely that the first self-replicating organism at the origin of life was a protein. As you point out, there are just too many moving parts that need to come together simultaneously. These days, I believe research is tending towards something closer to RNA, which has the nice properties of both encoding information efficiently and catalyzing reactions involving its own nucleotides. It may also have started with a type of genetic polymer that no longer exists in life as we know it. Interesting but approachable article on the topic:


Thanks for the pointer!

Self replicating protein are possibly something of an in between stage. https://www.sciencealert.com/amyloid-protein-self-replicatio...

Paper linked at the bottom: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-02742-3

I read an interview the other day with a scientist who thinks life must have come from another planet based purely on how insanely complex even basic life is. He just said it happened much too quickly to have evolved here.

Apologies, can’t find the original article.

You should spend a weekend doing a deep dive into how cancer works.

You’ll come away fighting off the idea that it’s a sentient adversary with a much better understanding of biology than our own. The complexity of the environment it operates in is already astonishing, and then number of tactical mechanisms it employs to thrive in a healthy body seems one tick shy of statistically impossible to stachastically occur.

This is essentially selection bias, it's the same thing as going to a high end gym and saying omg look at how fit everyone is.

When you get cancer you encounter cells that through natural selection developed to beat your immune system so they've already essentially discovered every trick in the book and when you attack them the cells that survive are those who wrote a new book to do so.

Things like tumor escape mechanisms aren't sentient they are just random things that cancer cells attempt and you only see the outcome of those that worked.

Good thing, that cancer, in a manner of speaking, don't 'learn' and can't 'learn' from other tumors. This makes it possible to beat them.

Not learning per se but cells do communicate: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_signaling so some evasion techniques from one tumor or one cancer cell can propagate to others through various signaling pathways when applicable.

Basically a cancer cell might start shouting "yo bro you should totally try this..." and other cells that receive the signal and capable of doing that action might just happen to try it, in fact in some case this is just how you get cancer, one cell starts yelling chug chug chug and all the other cells around it get hammered.

I meant that cancer cannot learn from other cancers of somebody else, unless they are infectious cancers.

Well it’s not really clear form your original post since multiple cancers are quite common especially those which are linked to the same signaling pathways.

See "canine transmissible venereal tumor" for an example of the adversary having bootstrapped itself into ... being a semi-independent life form?

a few years back I showed a phylogeneticist friend an article on that. Halfway into the abstract, this guy - normally reserved and bookish type - practically did a spit take, blurting out "jesus this thing used to be a dog!"

That is a fascinating perspective I'd never have realised by myself. Thanks.

You're a gift to horror/sci fi writers.

Do you know of any good resources?

I hate leaving no answer here but I’ve accumulated what little understanding I have through a sort of extended research exercise. YouTube, PubMed and just googling around has led me to a lot of info. Studying the mechanism of action of various therapies tends to surface specific systems within the cellular lifecycle and immune system. Read enough of them and you start to recognize terms and things make sense.

Hope that helps

> According to "Resolution of distinct rotational substeps by submillisecond kinetic analysis of F1-ATPase" (Yasuda et al., Nature, 2001), ATPase rotates at 130 revolutions per second when saturated with ATP.

Fast little buggers.

I'll always say, to my dying day, "Reality is not constrained by human imagination."

It is odd to consider Nature doing things "for a reason", per se. But there are expressible reasons why such things persist and proliferate.

I would argue the opposite, to an extent. The denial of a natural teleology (i.e., denying that a purpose, goal, or reason underlies the universe and Nature) was a useful conceptual bridge when scientific materialism was founded and growing - it allowed the burden of highly-politicized organized religion to be shrugged off and for many previously-untouchable classes of questions to be explored in new (read: empirical) ways. However, the utter rejection of a telos during that transition period (by the engineering class in particular) was, I believe, too thorough; to this day, the default position of many working scientists and engineers is that Nature has no purpose, goal, or reason whatsoever. That seems a very extreme and austere perspective for an element of Nature (i.e., a being capable of forming your comment or my response) to subscribe to. In my own opinion, it is dangerously close to a form a nihilism and feels very much like a cognitive blind spot. It also fails to comport with the espoused perspectives of many of the people we would think of as great scientific thinkers - including those who gave us the constructs of formal logic that underpin our current technological age.

Is it possible that you are conflating ‘function’ with ‘reason?’ As a biologist, my perspective is that thinking in terms of functions (ie, the G6PD enzyme functions to produce NADPH and substrate for pentose phosphate using glucose-6-phosphate as a substrate), assists in creating further hypotheses by distilling observations, with objectivity as a goal. When I think of ‘reasons,’ I think more along the lines of: ‘the reason scientists express observations as functions is to avoid criticism from their peers about use of imprecise language, and to facilitate the production of publications to increase their professional status.’ Function is about describing observations, reason only makes sense if you are describing agents in their context.

Just a thought. My first sentence was a question because I’m not sure if my distinction boils down to semantics.

EDIT: if I had to elaborate, I would say that we can readily ascribe functions or reasons for things, but saying 'the reason for x is y' strikes me as treating the case as closed, whereas 'y is the function of x' brings up a whole raft of other questions, opening new territory for inquiry.

Agree. Just-so stories close down exploration. Function stories open it up.

Another way to say it is that Nature does not confine itself to reasons. It just does things, and some of them stick. We can find an unlimited number of reasons that contribute to why they stick.

Teleology is either scientifically null because it fails to produce testable predictions, or separable into a purely teleological component that is null in that way and a purely naturalistic component that has predictive content but omits purpose.

As such, science should continue to deny that teleology has any place in science, except perhaps (when it produces claims of the second, complex type) as an inspiration for practitioners in generating hypotheses without actual teleological content.

Scientists can—and many do—still embrace teleological beliefs, though teleology is not necessary to avoid nihilism, as purpose can be found within as well as without.

An approach to eliminate the blind spot seems apparent; identify a "purpose, goal, or reason underlying the universe and Nature." Should you do so and your proposal survive scrutiny then science will have occurred. Everything else is Not Science and scientists are free to remain indifferent and probably wise to do so.

I think you may have blown past my point a bit in the rush to label what is and is Not Science (:P). Generally speaking, scientists and engineers today do not seem to be indifferent to the concept of teleology at all - in fact, many of them seem to have reached very strong (and quite hostile) conclusions about the topic with shockingly little basis. This lack of open-mindedness regarding the concept is precisely the problem I am attempting to point out. The perspective is so pervasive among the engineering classes in particular that I have routinely heard very well-educated people espouse incredulity at the merest notion of a natural telos (when they're not openly hostile to the concept, that is); from what I can tell the concept does not occur to them even as a remote possibility. My own opinion is that this violates the spirit of scientific thought and should be addressed.

You call it teleology. Other people call it story-telling.

Unless there's hard evidence to lift it above story-telling, it's just as unlikely to be true as any other comforting story.

The scientific basis for that is something called "narrative pseudo-logic". Brains seem to be something of a story machine. Unfortunately the bar for story plausibility is shockingly low, which is why humans believe all kinds of strange and wildly contradictory things about where the universe came from and what it's for.

The point of empiricism is to break out of narrative pseudo-logic and find stories that are reliably and consistently true when tested - not just stories that sound like they should be true because we want them to be, or we like them, or we're not imaginative enough to consider that they might simply be wrong.

Why would you assume that empericism is in conflict with teleology?

No evidence has been observed and no empirical study is proposed.

Precisely. There aren't any sets of postulates of empericism and teleology which would produce a contradiction. It's simply the case that no evidence has been observed and no empirical study is proposed for any telos, nothing more, nothing less.

Empiricism isn't so much in conflict with teleology as teleology is outside the scope of empiricism but frequently abused as grounding for accepting or rejecting claoms within the scope of empirical exploration.

It's funny that you are not only proving his point, but yours as well, by inventing some elaborate story of your own.

I, personally, am perfectly open to the possibility that there's some kind of "reason" to nature. However, until such a time that it is demonstrated, I remain indifferent. Until it is established that the "reason" is something that has any effect on anything (which it would, if it existed), it is irrelevant to any possible decision. What other stance could I take besides "meh"?

If you think it is something that should be accepted without demonstration, then please describe a framework of thought where this is acceptable and which still remains useful. I literally can't think of any.

"Generally speaking, scientists and engineers today do not seem to be indifferent to the concept of teleology at all - in fact, many of them seem to have reached very strong (and quite hostile) conclusions about the topic with shockingly little basis."

That's not surprising. There is a long and colorful history of conflict between scientists and a panoply of false narratives. This is ongoing and requires an active defense. If you wish to survive that gauntlet you'll need something pretty compelling; an abstraction camouflaged by obscure terms won't suffice.

Thank you! So well put!

I would tie it in with what Martin Buber called "I and Thou"


> Buber's main proposition is that we may address existence in two ways:

> 1, The attitude of the "I" towards an "It", towards an object that is separate in itself, which we either use or experience.

> 2. The attitude of the "I" towards "Thou", in a relationship in which the other is not separated by discrete bounds.

> One of the major themes of the book is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. In Buber's view, all of our relationships bring us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou.

Also, "What Bodies Think About: Bioelectric Computation Outside the Nervous System" https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18736698

In a nutshell, the things that neurons do to think happen between non-neural cells all the time.

Consider also the "wood wide web" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mycorrhizal_network

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these things think in just the same way that neurons think. Life is purposeful.

To me it seems clear the scientific attitude pushes us toward a kind of animism.

I'm too excited to put this well, sorry!

Well put. The history of science should be taught more and deeply.

That said, given how much the total number of scientists/ engineers/curious people with resources has grown, it feels like, for any work happening in one corner of the world with a particular cognitive blind spot, you can find one in another corner without it.

Great response! I've mentioned this anecdote here in HN before, but it always bears repeating. I recently saw a youtube video discussing the odds of even the simplest protein just spontaneously assembling under any circumstance.

It was a very interesting piece, but what was really interesting was an organic chemistry or biochem class back in the mid 80s where the professor, possibly 90 years old at the time, said something to the effect that there's not a snowball's chance in hell any protein just came into being on its own. That really stuck with me.

The "windstorm blowing through a junkyard and randomly assembling a working 747" analogy is often brought up by creationists to explain why they don't believe in evolution.

What astonishes me is that they must have heard the counter-argument by now, yet they persist in thinking the 747 analogy is a mic drop moment.

In short: it would be a great comeback if evolutionary theory claimed that a modern protein/cell/animal just randomly assemble in one fortunate event. But it doesn't. In fact, the entire point of evolutionary theory explains why one fell swoop isn't necessary.

Ha. It sounds like you're not so sure yourself. I'm just just telling you what the guy said.

You might enjoy _Aristotle's Revenge_, which argues along related lines:


For example §6.1.3 "Function and Teleology"

This way of thinking provides nothing but presumption without proof. Let's just stick to the scientific method.

If you think that nature has a purpose, you are more of a theologician than scientist. Unless, of course, you have a falsifiable hypothesis to test!

You're at a level of consciousness that is super rare, you will likely get a lot out of this video and many others on this channel when you try to explain to naive realists that the universe's purpose is simply to be, and that being is it's own end. You have to be at a post-scientific, post-atheism level of awareness for it to land or it's dismissed as pseudo-devilry without examining the implicit metaphysics of that position. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YE1yPCeF1Cc Cheers, that's a bold opinion to share in an engineer's bar ...

"Yes, Minister, that is a very courageous position to take!"

(British comedy series, "Yes, Minister", usual staff response to an appointed gov't minister's barking-mad pronouncement.)

There's just implicit and unexamined meta-physics in the "naive realist" paradigm. After all, you are the ultimate authority on what is real to you, but it takes raising your level of awareness to see this, otherwise you place authority somewhere outside yourself without realizing that the thing you're giving authority to is just your own sense perceptions and mental constructions. Which is fine because those are all necessary for your survival, but they're ultimately illusory and it's your human mind giving them all some sort of meaning, or in other words, literally creating the object to be what it is rather than an undifferentiated field of potential/nothingness/meaninglessness.

I did find myself wondering why they had suddenly gone all Rudyard Kipling and decided to turn the article into a 'Just So' story.

The idea that nature has "intuition" seems incredibly anthropomorphic. It will be a surprise when nature violates a law of physics. But since nature does not "know" physics, it just does it, I doubt it has much intuition about it.

It sounds like you're interpreting the "counterintuitive" in the title in an odd way. It's just counterintuitive to human observers.

You don't know physics? You think you're not Nature? You think Nature doesn't know physics?

Is negative differential response the new catch phrase for negative feedback?

I don't think it was feedback in this case. It was increased concentration of precursor that inhibited the enzyme, not increased concentration of product.

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