Genetic motives and motivations

Writing about things that I care about provides enjoyment, satisfaction, and a degree of comfort similar to that which the consumption of chocolate provides to others. Today was a difficult day, for reasons that I cannot determine and so, for the pleasure of it, I return to one of my favorite topics, one which I have discussed here before, the perpetuation of the species and the transmission of genetic material. My desire to write about genes may also have been influenced by a fascinating paper I read recently in which scientists described a new technique which allows for the visualization of bundles of DNA fibers using the methods of traditional transmission electron microscopy. The last time I mentioned DNA here it was in reference to the seeds of the milkweed plant. This time my story begins with a walk that Joanna and her good friend, Ann, enjoyed the other day. When she returned I asked Did you see any nature? She was excited to tell me about masses of frog spawn she had seen; a sure sign of spring. A few days later we took our bike along the same stretch of trail and came across a group of folks from the Department of Natural Resources and from a local fire department. The combined forces had just completed a controlled burn parallel to and just off the walking path. For days Joanna worried about the fate of the eggs. She fretted, not only because of the fire but also because the egg masses had been deposited in a small depression which ran along side the trail and her concern was that the water might have dried in the intervening days which had not seen much rain. This past weekend we had the bike out once more and stopped to observe the spawn. All was well. The encapsulated embryos were housed as part of jellied, buoyant, masses and glints of sunlight danced across their surfaces. The embryos were of such interest that I decided to post this trio of images. Each embryo floated, in its tiny, protective, capsule. Quiet, save the periodic paroxysms which moved it about its watery abode. Each embryo grew under the influence of DNA molecules deep within each of its cells. How strange, as if the entire scenario were taken from a script of some Sci-Fi movie. Eventually the embryos would complete organogenesis, hatch as tadpoles, and then undergo metamorphosis to the adult stage which is perhaps more familiar to us. It is a fascination to contemplate the motive forces which drive these processes and the motivation for them. My best explanation of the former relies on the laws of thermodynamics. In the same way that, having attained the top of that very first hill, a roller coaster car transforms the energy of potential into the energy of movement, chemicals too interact and thereby achieve low energy states. The DNAs, the RNAs, the polymerases, the helicases, and the topoisomerases all interact in ways which eventuate as a collection of proteins we call frog tissue. In other words, organogenesis and development are, in my view, fortuitous side-consequences of the entropic interplay between and among abiotic (nonliving) molecules. And, it’s totally, entirely, and absolutely without conscious motivation or foresight. For who could assign motive to interacting chemicals anyway? Chemical moieties react with chemical moieties because the laws of thermodynamics dictate they will. What a weird and wonderful thing it is to view a frog as a not-so-simple side consequence of DNAs competing, thermodynamically-speaking, in a world of other DNAs, and doing so because they can. As for motivation? There isn’t any. How could there be? Isn’t it grand?



16 thoughts on “Genetic motives and motivations

  1. Living on a farm makes it possible for you to observe all of nature’s miracles. Terrific post!

  2. Yes – truly sci-fi pictures – and it looks much more beautiful than I remember it 🙂 That green – like jade!

    I am currently reading one of Douglas Hofstadter’s books (he of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame) – and as I understood it he sees DNA as one many “systems that can talk about themselves”, so similar to a computer being feeded it’s own source code (which is basically what Gödel’s proof is about). He argues that such self-referential stuff is what creates conciousness. He just argues that such an evolution might as well happen on non-organic substrates if the system is complex enough – and the amazing thing is that the small constituents of the system and the rules governing them are not in a way teleological… but the emerging large system seems to be.

    I have not made my mind up yet on the thermodynamics things. Some say living organisms are the only way to decrease entropy again in a universe of steadily increasing entropy. The if we zoom in on single molecules we should not talk about a statistically defined property as entropy anyway (as the 2nd law only is true on macroscopic scales).
    But I have no coherent opinion or mental model of that yet as these discussions quickly end up in fundamental questions about “Boltzmann brains” and “multiverses”.

    • I have not heard of Hofstadter but like the idea of consciousness as a side consequence of the ability to be self-referential. But, I wonder where the ability to be self-aware comes from? There are only two possible explanations. Either the capacity was truly adaptive, in a highly competitive world. Or, the capacity was a side-consequence of some innovation in mental software. A spandrel is an architectural side-consequences of mounting a dome on four arches. You know, the triangular spaces in the corners. There is never selection FOR the spandrels … they simply happen when you mount the dome. In the same way then, perhaps consciousness is a consequence of some level of neural complexity for which there might indeed have been selection. So … there you go … our ability to write poetry and to consider the stars is simply a quirky ‘mistake’ of history. Boy … that puts it all in perspective … doesn’t it? D

      • Accidentally, this philosophical discussion provides a good chance for me to wish you Happy Easter – these are the things to be mulled upon during holidays! I will be off for a week – and read about consciousness and “strange loops” probably, too. But I am also taking a short break from the online world and the computer world in general. I hope you have great spring-like holidays!

  3. I understand Joanna’s worry … when we had moved onto our farm we didn’t have many frogs as the area had been treated heavily with chemicals for agriculture. The surface water was choked with algae as well. When we started getting frogs on the property again, I felt like we had been given a wonderful, amazing opportunity to see a remarkable rejuvenation of the environment.

    There is something in your post that triggers very deep thoughts, even beyond frogs. “For who could assign motive to interacting chemicals anyway?” combined with the questions at the end remind me that asking ‘why’ is sometimes pointless. It just is what it is, and the same can be applied to people (with our complicated justifications and philosophies) … we are interacting chemicals. Thanks for this. Michelle

    • Yes … amphibians are important indicator species of water quality. Their lifecycle connects them to water as both developing larvae and as adults. They also respire through the skin and so you can see how it is that they would be much influenced by even the most minute concentrations of toxins in the water supply. This is one of the reasons that amphibians are in such dramatic decline, not only here in North America, but around the world as well. A recent estimate put the number of threatened species at 1,856 (nearly 1/3 of the number of described species). It’s a pretty sobering story. The fact that your local populations have rebounded is very good news indeed. Also, I appreciate, and agree with, your naturalistic attitude toward the nature of living things. The perspective is, I think, correct … but not one that many would like to contemplate. D

  4. It is, indeed grand. Your post comes at a time when I am thinking of the nasty, petty house of cards that is current academia; a place where rage ensues over even the most trivial of slights; a place where so many toil, assuming that theirs is the one true model, surely the next breakthrough is just within reach. The essential robustness – no antifragility (to re-use the term I have sometimes seen Elke use) of life itself stands in such contrast. We needn’t worry too much – the frogs, or in my case the cod, will rebound not just in spite of, but perhaps because of, the unexpected meddling of others. And best of all, if we allow ourselves the privilege, we get to watch and marvel 🙂

    • I’m glad you’ve got your work situation in perspective Maurice. I too often have difficulty understanding just how it is that some folks can take themselves so very seriously. When there’s so much suffering … I wish they could see the senselessness of their petty attitudes. But you and I know better. You and I know that there’s much better ‘stuff’ beyond those Ivy Towers just waiting for us. When you have time … define the notion of ‘antifragility.’ I know that Elke has used the term but never read its definition. D

      • It’s the opposite of fragile. Fragile things (and that include systems) are easily harmed by stress. Some systems, though, become stronger when stressed. These are antifragile. It’s important to note the difference between antifragile and resilient which merely means not very fragile. In a way weightlifting illustrates antifragile as you stress and damage muscles and they grow stronger. The term is more often applied to economic systems and such though as opposed to living systems.

      • And, yes, not taking myself too seriously is my superpower 🙂 I enjoy working hard and do my best but am happy and aware of lots of imperfections which I generally work on … but not always 🙂 I’ll always be terrible at softball but don’t care – it’s still fun.

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