The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

 

Endosymbiosis

The mechanism proposed by Darwin to explain the evolution of life on Earth is based on a delicate balance between a positive process, that of variation, and a negative process, that of selection. The inconsistencies encountered so far in the fossil record all seem to point towards a need for a stronger positive process, one that allows for a species to be born in far shorter times than the evolutionary times implied by Darwin's theory. It is true, as Michael Behe noted, that an organism is way too complex to be built by refinements, and it is true, as Stephen Jay Gould claimed, that species appear all of a sudden. Selection does account for the disappearance of variations that are not fit, but variation alone (and the set of genetic "algorithms" that would represent it) is hardly capable of accounting for the extraordinary assembly of a new organism. A more powerful force must be at work.

When we find that force, we may finally write the last chapter of "The Origin of Species", which Darwin never even tried to write: we still don't know how species originate.

That force may be hidden in the process of endosymbiosis, the process by which a new organism originates from the fusion of two existing organisms, or, more precisely, by which two independently evolved organisms become a tightly coupled system and eventually just one organism. "Endosymbiosis" is the process by which a being lives inside another being.

"Structural coupling" of organisms has been shown to be an accelerating factor in evolution both by the Chilean neurobiologist Humberto Maturana (whose "autopoiesis” is precisely such a process to generate progressively more and more complex organisms) and by the US mathematician Ben Goertzel (who argued that organisms capable of effectively coupling with other organisms are more likely to survive, and that the coupling process may account for Gould's punctuated equilibrium).

If organisms are composites rather than individuals, then Darwinian evolution can occur much faster and can exhibit sudden jumps to higher forms, and therefore explain two monumental events of life on Earth: how prokaryotes (cells without a nucleus) evolved into eukaryotes (cells that have a nucleus) and the sudden appearance of new species in the fossil record.

The symbiotic creation of species is not such a far-fetched idea. After all, humans can be thought of as collections of organs and viruses co-existing in symbiotic relationships. Generally speaking, the transformation of primitive organisms into more complex ones may be due to the incorporation of other organisms. We know, to start with, that species may also originate by hybridization between existing species, a process that is very common in plants.

Assembling organs in a functionally coherent way is a very difficult task for anybody, including Nature itself, especially if the forces working on it are random; but mixing genomes may be relatively easy. The chemical process that can dramatically alter the genetic code of an organism to incorporate the genetic code of another organism may exploit the very peculiar structure of the DNA double helix and the very peculiar behavior of sex. Both the genetic apparatus and the sexual apparatus seem to be conceived so as to facilitate the fusion of organisms.

While single-organism evolution may explain only gradual and localized changes in skills, the formation of composite structures would certainly result in higher levels of complexity which in turn would result in higher levels of organization.

Unfortunately, we have no idea of how the DNA of a new organism can be synthesized from the DNAs of two organisms, i.e. how a new species can be created by the symbiotic union of two species. The chemical process that allows for the fusion of two codes has not been discovered yet, but may turn out to be a relatively simple "algebra" of the four bases of the DNA.

 


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