Living Dissipative Systems

(Organisms)   [Part One]

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In the opening picture we see a computer-generated shark going after a shoal of fish. (After COVENEY & HIGHFIELD, 1995, Frontiers of Complexity ).

After having successively studied Molecules (See the Essay on The Chemical Bond), Crystals (See the Essay on Crystals) and Non-living Dissipative Structures (See the Essay on these dissipative structures), we are now well prepared to study the Living Dissipative Structures, these are the Organisms.
The point of view, like the other Essays, is a revised Substance-Accident Metaphysics which boils down to a Totality theory. Every individual organism is considered as an intrinsic uniform, but not necessarily homogeneous, thing or being. To account for this uniformity we must find a description in terms of their specific and individual Identities. The specific Identity is called its Essence. The individual Identity should be described in terms of a general universally valid Individuation Principle, and this is already done, namely in the Essay on The Principle of Individuation). In the present Essay we will concentrate on the Essence of an individual organism, i.e. the organic Essence insofar as organic Essence. Every individual organism will be interpreted as the product of some dynamical system (and this means a dissipative system, generating a dissipative structure ). The (ultimate) dynamical law, governing such a dynamic system, will be ontologically interpreted as the (above mentioned) Essence of the organism in question (For more about this orientation, see the Essay On Being and Essence, and the Essay on General Considerations).


To give an exact definition of a living being -- insofar as it is a living being -- i.e. a general definition of Life, is not yet possible. Either such an attempt will end up with too narrow a definition : some, obvious living things fall outside that definition, or, too broad a definition : some beings, obviously not living, fall within that definition. When we put, for example, as a part of such a definition the ability to grow, then we are faced with the fact that also crystals can, and do, grow. And crystals are obviously not living beings. On the other hand we could include in such a definiton the ability to evolve from one species to another, but then we are faced with the existence of viruses, which can so evolve, but their status of living beings is disputed.
The reason for such difficulties lies in the fact that Life has evolved from non-life, probably via some unknown intermediary stages.
The only thing we can do is to give some qualitative description of Life without the pretension to give an exact definition :

A living being is an organized, material, inhomogeneous unity that maintains itself by its own actions. It exchanges energy and matter with the environment. It is a dissipative system or structure [ See for such structures the Essay on Non-living Dissipative Systems ], but because of its active self-maintenance it is a very special and sophisticated dissipative system. Its sophisticated activity is made possible by some large molecules that store the information to do so, information in the form of biochemical instructions (stored in those molecules). These molecules are able to copy themselves, by which it is possible to execute the encoded instructions at many different localities in the (multicellular) organism, and by which it is possible to pass on this information to its progeny. So a living being is ' matter with meaning '.
In virtue of their complex character especially higher organisms possess a whole series of morphological and functional levels, this in contrast with inorganic beings like crystals, which show only a few levels, and where genuine functionality is almost absent. Moreover Life is able to undergo evolution (evolutionary change) in the course of long successions of generations, i.e. to undergo changes in the course from progeny to progeny. These changes are (changes of) adaptations to the constantly changing environment. Organisms are 'historical' entities, in contrast with inorganic beings. Inorganic matter is only historical at its lowest level, for example with respect to the distribution of matter and antimatter in the Universe. Macroscopic inorganic entities, like crystals are not historical whatsoever. They are, to be sure, involved in time dependent processes, but this does not imply a gradual construction of ever more integrated and new Totality types. There is no mechanism of preservation and passing on of newly acquired properties and structures.
Every organism type is a special material design, generally not crafted from scratch but from some previous type, a design in order to cope with special challenges imposed on the organism by the outside world. An example of a very sophisticated design is the echo-location device in Bats. The phyletic development of adaptations often follows a whimsical course, filled with 'historical accidents' and is continually forced to further proceed from those structures already evolved earlier. That's why not every design is perfect in all respects (because they aren't designs after all!).
In the realm of Organisms the assessment of the individual can pose serious problems, like we can see in the Slime Mold and also in many colony-like individuals in lower organisms like Sponges. In higher organisms we finally find consciousness. This consciousness appears to be the seat of unity, and thus of being-a-Totality, but perhaps it isn't.
As has been said, organisms undergo an individual and a phyletic development. With that they continually interact functionally and non-functionally with the environment which itself changes all the time. But also the organisms themselves change the environment. The (relevant part of the) environment of organisms contains both abiotic and biotic factors with respect to mutual influencing. A complex interaction web is involved, consisting of a set of ecological relations and systems, without these ecosystems being clearly separated from each other (in fact there is but one global ecosystem on earth, with some of its parts closely connected, others loosely so). It is a flow of energy and matter going to and fro, of which the fundamental basis lies in the physical and chemical nature of matter (matter s.l., i.e. matter and energy).
Organisms come into a bewildering variety of forms, types and designs, some of which are displayed here.

Ozaenina diversa, a fly of the family Otitidae. This family (better known, perhaps as Ortalidae) is related to the family Trypetidae. Larvae of Otitidae live, as far as is known, in decaying vegetable matter, or in dung .
After OLDROYD, 1964, The Natural History of Flies

A female Ammophila pubescens [ a digger wasp ] returning to the nest with a pebble that she has selected to fit the bore of the burrow.
After EVANS & WEST EBERHARD, 1973, The Wasps

Lychnaspis miranda ( Radiolaria, Acantharia ) [ A unicellular marine animal with a mineral-skeleton ]
After HAECKEL, 1917, Kristallseelen

Hexacolpus nivalis ( Radiolaria, Acantharia ) [ A unicellular marine animal with a mineral skeleton ]
After HAECKEL, 1917, Kristallseelen

Diploconus hexaphyllus ( Radiolaria, Acantharia ) [ A unicellular marine animal with a mineral skeleton ]
After HAECKEL, 1917, Kristallseelen

Footprints of a Dinosaur

Paramecium aurelia (Ciliata) [A unicellular aquatic animal]
(After RIETSCHEL, P., and ROHDE, K., 1971, in Grzimeks Tierleben Band I)

Leuckartiaria nobilis (Hydrozoa, Cnidaria) [A Hydromedusa]
(After HAEFELFINGER, H., 1971, in Grzimeks Tierleben Band I)

Hippolyte (Decapoda) [Larva of a shrimp]
(After RIETSCHEL, P., 1971, in Grzimeks Tierleben Band I)

Triceratium (Diatomeae) [A unicellular vegetable aquatic organism]
(After HUSTEDT, F., 1956, Kieselalgen)

Corallium rubrum (Octocorallia, Anthozoa, Cnidaria) [Red Coral. The individual polypes are visible, associated with the red skeleton of the colony]
(After KILIAS, R., 1971, in Neue grosse Tier-enzyklopaedie)

Probably more than two million species presently occur on Earth, and many others have lived in the past (which dates back to some 3 billion years).
Man is one of Life's species.
He has developed relatively recently from mammalian precursors.
The fact that in man (but also in some higher mammals) something we have called self-consciousness has developed, has provoked much philosophical speculation. One of such speculations supposes that man possesses some immaterial more or less subsistent ' part ', called " spirit " or " mind ", that is supposed to be ontologically fundamentally different from his body. A human being is accordingly said to consist of a material part and an immaterial part. Such a philosophical position is called Dualism and it has reigned from the beginning of mankind down to the present day.
But, according to me such a dualistic position is untenable in the light of man's evolution from higher mammals and ultimately from inorganic matter. This theory of evolution is, according to me as sure as it can be, although the precise details of the mechanism of evolution are as yet not fully understood. Because of the fact of man's evolution, man cannot be ontologically different from all his precursors. The only difference is the degree of complexity.
Complexity makes possible several higher functions, like thinking, knowing, having a strong sense of Self, the ability to build a culture, etc.

In this Essay I want to discuss the nature of an organic Totality (only insofar as it is an organic Totality), i.e. (I want to give) a description of an actively self-sustaining entity in terms of a Substance, a Thing, having an Essence, which is the intrinsic cause of such a thing. Such a description will be in line with those concerning the other Totalities (Molecules, Crystals and Non-living Dissipative Structures). In line with these, because of the intended generality of the description.
A special consideration though will be devoted to man's self-awareness and the question whether this self-awareness points to his (individual) unity, or is (or is not) even the very cause of this unity.

Theoretical point of departure and Practical point of departure

The non-living dissipative systems can generally be interpreted as formal (in contrast with historical) preludes to living dissipative systems. Somewhere in the history of the origin of Life on Earth there undoubtedly must have been certain non-living dissipative systems that were the real precursors of living dissipative systems that generate Totalities that we call Organisms.
In order to expose a Totality theory of Organisms it is useful to establish two points of departure : Because we have already treated of (the ontological interpretation of) Dynamical Systems by means of abstract models, in general (See the Essay on Dynamical Systems), and on Cellular Automata, Boolean networks and L-systems in particular, we shall in the present Essay concentrate mainly on the practical point of view (Part Two, Three and Four of the present Essay), the way-of-being of an individual human. This emphasis is moreover justified because the way-of-being of humans is much disputed philosophically especially the supposed special ontological status of the human species. When this is done we shall see whether or not Man can be incorporated into a Substance-Accident Metaphysics of Organisms in general.

Ultimate and Penultimate Dynamical Law

Just as in the case of the lower Totalities, like Molecules, Crystals and Non-living Dissipative Structures, we will interpret Organisms as products of dynamical systems (in this case living dissipative systems). The dynamical law of that dynamical system, that generated the particular organism, is interpreted (like the case of the lower Totalities) as its Essence. Where is this Essence, this dynamical law, seated? Is it embodied by the DNA? Or should it be identified with the self-consciousness of higher organisms and its precursors in lower ones? Or is it, as in the case of the lower Totalities, seated in the collection of atoms participating in the build-up of the organism?
All Totalities, including organisms, originate and are being maintained, in a broader context that is subjected to non-specific natural laws. These are the general and fundamental laws of physical matter, which are revealed by Quantum Mechanics and the special and general theory of Relativity. From the laws of Quantum Mechanics should follow (in an ontological sense) all the more special physical and chemical laws which respectively determine the aggregation states of substances and the mechanisms of chemical reactions.
Within this context of general laws, all organisms, including man, originate and maintain themselves. Organisms are local complexifications, caused by a multitude of integrated chemical transformations and syntheses. Also non-living complexifications can arise in this context, for instance very complex minerals like many Silicates, but also complexifications like Toffee molecules. Toffee molecules are very complex molecules, not less so than DNA molecules. But the DNA molecules of organisms differ from toffee molecules by their specifity. Every individual toffee molecule is different with respect to content from any other, and this is so because at the formation of those molecules no filtering process (selection process) has taken place, that would allow the survival (the continued existence) of only certain kinds (species) of such molecules. Toffee molecules are generated in a simple and less-specific context, just by heating sugar + fat, thus without specific constraints. That's the reason why toffee molecules cannot execute certain well-delimited functions, i.e. they do not exhibit functional behavior. Only selection can create determined states of affairs that are precisely so and so in order to be able to do so and so. Also in art this principle reigns : A painting originates by not using every color everywhere on the canvas. Toffee molecules in a way consist of a random configuration of chemically bonded atoms, and any tuning to other species of molecules is absent. DNA molecules, on the other hand, which we encounter in organisms, have originated in an environment of increasing specifity under the influence of filtering processes among their precursors and among the DNA molecules themselves. In what way all this took place is not easy to retrieve because of the high degree of specifity of that historical process in the sense of uniqueness. DNA molecules are, as has been said, specific (only certain species have finally evolved, many many others, although chemically possible, never enjoyed existence) and that means that they possess a certain degree of functionality. This is possible because these DNA molecules exhibit the possibility of ' fine-grade ' variations upon an unchanging (i.e. remaining) ' spine ' carrying those variations. So they can record certain functions in themselves in a codified way. In an appropriate chemical context these functions (in the form of instructions) can be ' read ' and executed with the help of other molecules. This specific functionality moreover can be saved beyond the individual existence of such a DNA molecule, because it also codes for its replication : In an appropriate chemical context DNA molecules can multiply themselves in such a way that the information, stored in the molecule, is copied in an exact way. With respect to the functioning of an organism the DNA is the starting point. Everything is ultimately regulated by the DNA of the particular organism. Especially the DNA encodes indirectly for all organic molecular building blocks, and it does so by encoding directly for the very specific catalysts, called enzymes, which speed up the necessary chemical reactions which otherwise would proceed much too slow in the (mild) conditions of the organic body.
So when we are searching for the dynamical law which controls the particular organism, which generates it and which maintains it, then it seems obvious that we must look for (and find) this law in and around the DNA. It is the interaction of such DNA molecules with many other molecules , that lets the organism originate, lets it pass through its individual developmental stages, and maintains it. And all this proceeds in a regular (i.e. in principle repeatable) way.

But is DNA -- or, for that matter, DNA + all the molecules that participate in the DNA-controlling (mechanism) of the organism -- really interpretable as the dynamical law, governing the organism?
What is a dynamical law anyway?
A genuine, real, particular dynamical law is NOT a thing, not a concrete structure, not a concrete part. It is a principle. It is a principle of being, albeit a special principle of being (out of a whole set of such principles), not a general one. In the philosophy of Nicolai HARTMANN a particular dynamical law is a special (i.e. not a general) " category " of being, among all kinds of other special and general categories.
As such the law is a principle, while that something of which it is a principle, is the "concretum", and in the present context that is the particular organic dynamical system. A genuine dynamical law is homogeneously present in the dynamical system, and is homogeneously dispersed over (i.e. among) the elements of the dynamical system which it governs. Moreover this (organic) dynamical law is not wholly confined within the given organism, but is present in the whole dynamical system, which extends beyond the organism proper.

But DNA, and also the complete DNA-controlling mechanism (controlling the organism), is a concrete structure, it is a device, concretely present in the organism. It is a part of the organism, and does not extend beyond the organism proper. This part already belongs to the domain of the concretum, not to the domain of the principle. It is a produced (i.e. generated) structure, and it is produced by a law. It has been crafted in a very specific historical filtering context. So the DNA-controlling structure (controlling the organism) belongs to the phenotypic domain, while the real dynamical law belongs to the genotypic domain.

Remark: The expression " phenotypic domain " is here used in a metaphysical sense and must not be confused with the meaning it has within Genetics -- there the DNA forms the genotypic domain (See for its metaphysical use the Essay on The Determinations of a Substance, second section). The genotypic domain in a metaphysical sense is the domain of the ultimate dynamical law.

Moreover the DNA is not a statical entity but a dynamic one. The genes of one and the same genome, and consequently seated in one and the same body cell, can influence each others activity. And although we speak about a dynamical law, the law itself is not dynamic, it just governs dynamics. In itself the law is a static entity.

All this contributes to the conviction that the DNA of an organism cannot be interpreted as a ' dynamical law ' just like that. If we nevertheless want to do so, then it must be interpreted as a penultimate law.
But where then do we find the real dynamical law, the ultimate dynamical law?

In the case of the Totalities considered until now, Molecules, Crystals and Non-living Dissipative Structures, it is clear that in the relevant processes the atoms are never transformed into other atomic species. Their outer electron shells change it is true, but their atomic number (i.e. their nuclear charge = their number of protons) never changes, and this means that their specific identities never change (in the processes concerned). The atoms, involved in those processes (i.e. all the relevant chemism) form something like an ' inviolable level ' (See the Essay on Structural Levels (Critical Series of Essays), Section Dependent Levels and Inviolable Level). Exactly the same state of affairs we encounter in the case of all the processes that generate and maintain an organism. Also in this case the atoms stay what they were, they keep their specific identities unchanged, so also here they form the inviolable level. It is the atoms that are organized into living beings, and so it seems obvious that the dynamical law, governing the generation and maintenance of the organism, must somehow reside at this atomic level, at this inviolable level. And this law we can call the ultimate dynamical law with respect to the particular organism.
This state of affairs can be imagined as follows (See for the development of this particular point of view also the Essay on The Determinations of a Substance) :

The set of (individuals of certain) atomic species which take part, or have taken part, in the generation and maintenance of a certain (individual) organism contains the dynamical law for that organism. The numbers of individual atoms in this set are not fixed beyond a certain minimum. This set accordingly embodies the dynamical law in the following way : The law is based on certain properties of the diverse atoms, and so is inherent in this set in a dispersed way. It is not a concrete structure, but a principle. This law, so conceived, we will call the ultimate dynamical law, with respect to a particular organism. So this ultimate law does not inhere in the organism just like that, but (can be said to inhere in it ) only by referring back to the above defined set of atoms conceived as initially freely existing.
But with all this it would be wrong to imagine the generation of an organism starting with a mixture of individual freely existing atoms (of several atomic species), a mixture that would spontaneously organize itself all the way up into a living being. An individual organism does not develop this way, but from structures, i.e. molecules already very complex, the DNA molecules and its auxiliary molecules, which we encounter in the fertilized egg-cell. These complex molecules themselves are the result of a long supra-individual historical process. Once established they copied themselves and from time to time are transformed into variants. The instructions for building organisms were accordingly stored in these stable molecules, and thanks to this it was not necessary to preserve delicate structures and all kinds of (other) molecules which are normally produced in the organic processes. It looks a little bit like the transmission of a complicated picture through a telephone line by not transmitting the picture itself but only the algorithm (' recipe ') for generating it. Another advantage is that evolution does not need to begin from scratch every time, but can proceed forward from the already formed stable molecules, embodying the instructions, at hand. So when we speak about the ultimate set of atoms, containing the dynamical law for a certain organism, then we are not speaking about an actual dynamical system, not an actual process having occured somewhere, but a conceptual process, in order to assess the seat of the ultimate dynamical law for, i.e. the Essence of, that organism (And in this context of assessing the ontological seat of the Essence, this always means : for an organism-in-general). This seat is the mentioned inviolable level of the relevant atoms.
But it is clear that such a set of atoms is not at all specific. This implies that such a set must harbor a vast multitude of possible special dynamical laws, not only the one for that particular organism. It even also harbors many laws that could generate inorganic beings. One or the other special law only becomes effective when a whole series of successive specific conditions, creating a filtering context is going to be satisfied (Other special laws demand a different series). This series of conditions is stretching back beyond the individual organism that is actually generated from a fertilized egg, because the complex molecules already present in the egg, and representing already the blueprint of that particular organism, refer back to the initially free atoms and their relevant properties. Of course these atomic properties themselves refer back to yet more fundamental states, but the dynamical law (for a supra-atomic Totality), in the form of a principle, only emerges (together with a multitude of other special laws) when these properties themselves have emerged, and they emerge not until the relevant atoms (which are each for themselves a holistic entity) are formed. And when these atoms and their properties are formed the laws are there at once, but not in the form of concrete structures, but as immanent principles.
To retrieve the mentioned series of conditions is a task for evolutionary biology, not for metaphysics. The above mentioned penultimate dynamical law can be conceived to be seated in and around the organism's DNA in the form of the encoded instructions.

Theoretical Point of Departure

To obtain a general insight in the ultimate dynamical laws we must, for the time being, rely on the study of abstract models for complexity-generating dynamical systems. This is the Theoretical Point of Departure for a Totality view of Organisms. One of the sections of this theoretical point of departure represents the study of Artificial Life (a-life), especially computer-generated life, often using genetic algorithms. To discuss the status of the generated ' organisms ' is equivalent to trying to get insight in the general nature of life. But the study of a-life has hardly begun. It is still in its infant state.
In all these studies on abstract dynamical systems we must learn to exactly discriminate between initial state and the end state, between the dynamical trajectory and the attractor of the system, between all these states on the one hand, and the dynamical law on the other, which governs the succession of those states, and this means that we must metaphysically discriminate between the ' phenotypic domain ' and the ' genotypic domain '. Further we must distinguish between stable and unstable attractors and consider the degree of sensitivity to perturbations. Moreover we must observe the difference between structurally stable and structurally unstable systems, i.e. their degree of sensitivity to slight changes of the dynamical law. Also the difference between continuous and discrete systems is of importance. An important task is to assess the boundaries of complex systems with their environment, and their interaction with it, and also the boundaries of the Totality, generated by the system. All these matters are being treated of in the new science of Artificial Life, and all those differences and discriminations should not only be interpreted epistemologically, but also, and especially, ontologically. Unfortunately those two types of interpretations are often confused. With such an ontological interpretation of dynamical systems I have made a beginning in the Essay on Dynamical Systems. It could serve as a tentative beginning for a development of the Theoretic Point of Departure serving in turn for a theory of organic Totalities.
See for the philosophy of Artificial Life the Artificial Life Bibliography, On-line Publications (external link), especially the section on Philosophy.
See also LEVY, S., Artificial Life, a report from the frontier where computers meet Biology,   and EMMECHE, C., The Garden in the Machine, The Emerging Science of Artificial Life.

For a continuation (Part Two) of this Essay click HERE.

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