Emergence and the Origin of Life?
The following discussion is from a Spectrum article by Dr. Mailen Kootsey. Dr. Kootsey is a physicist who has “multidisciplinary expertise”, to include appointments in departments of Physics, Physiology, Computer Science, Biomedical Engineering, and Biology.
His article is entitled, “Emergence and Origins of Life”. In this article he tries to explain how complex biosystems can be produced, not only by random mutations and natural selection, but by a property active within the universe known as “emergence” – a creative force that is not dependent upon random mutations or natural selection at all.
In early discussions of evolution, the only hypothesized source of changes was random variations in genes, combined with natural selection. Intelligent Design proponents have attacked this hypothesis by calculating the astronomically small probability of the necessary subunits of a complex system coming together all at once . These calculations have some problems because they ignore the possibility that the subunits come together in stages rather than all at once.
While it is true that complex systems may be built from smaller pre-existing subsystems. It is not true that this can be done via the mechanism of random mutations and natural selection beyond very low levels of functional complexity. The problem is that at higher and higher levels of functional complexity the minimum number of required modifications for the subsystems to properly come together to form a new more complex system increase in a linear manner. With each linear increase in the required number of mutational changes to cross the non-beneficial gaps in sequence/structure space, the odds of success decrease exponentially. This is the key problem with the creative potential of random mutations and function-based selection. There’s an exponential stalling effect with each step up the ladder of functional complexity – regardless of the existence of pre-formed subsystems within the gene pool.
But, the recognition of emergence opens a whole new type of explanation for the origin of existing complex systems: complexity can also be the result of the selection process of emergent laws, a natural part of the universe. Natural laws of emergence can choose configurations from the vast number of possible combinations, a choice that is not dependent on randomness and does not require multiple generations and vast lengths of time or natural selection.
The problem is that the “emergence argument” cannot explain the creation of biomachines because the very same parts, depending upon orientation relative to each other, can produce many different types of biomachines and organelles and even organ systems. Unlike the water molecules in a snowflake, these machines are not pre-determined by the inevitable orientation of subparts in certain predictable ways under certain environmental conditions – but are dependent upon a very specific order and organization of the underlying building blocks that is defined by a pre-established set of coded instructions – detailed instructions that are not contained within the building blocks themselves. Systems like this cannot be explained by “emergence” of the type Dr. Kootsey is talking about. They can only be explained by intelligent design beyond very very low levels of functional complexity.
A species of African termites, when grouped together in a site with suitable soil available, construct a mud structure several feet high with internal ventilation and favorable orientation to the sun . These termites have no leadership structure and no internal blueprint from which to work, yet similar colonies always construct mounds of similar size, shape, and functionality. After extensive study, scientists realized that they were studying a complex system that, given the right environment, always resulted in the production of similar mounds. The components of this system are the individual termites with very simple sensory organs and neural responses. Their simple characteristics, when multiplied in a group and added to an environment, create a complex system that produces a structure of remarkable architecture – hardly predictable from the properties of a single termite!
Forget about the enormous amount of information that is contained within the genetic programming of all living things for a moment – to include termites. After all, termites are genetically programmed to produced a certain kind of nest in certain environments. That is why they don’t create beehives and why bees don’t produce termite nests – regardless of environmental conditions.
Beyond this, the “emergence” in this case is based on the same subparts (termites) doing a certain “emergent” task regardless of their orientation relative to each other. The subparts (the termites in this case) are not required to be in a specific arrangement relative to each other to achieve the “emergent” effect.
Compare this to a rotary bacterial flagellum where the motility function of this micro-machine is dependent upon the specific order and orientation of the different kinds of amino acids within the machine. Without this specific order the motility function would not be realized. And, this order is not “emergent” in that it is not automatically produced by simply placing the proper number of amino acids in the “proper environment”. There is no proper environment that will cause these parts to know what to do without the coded instructions contained within the DNA of the organism. They simply will not self-assemble themselves to form this or any other “emergent” function, at this level of complexity, without pre-existing genetic instructions that tell them how to specifically arrange themselves in order to achieve this collective functional ability. And, the genetic instructions will also not “self-assemble” without the input of deliberate intelligent design.
This is key to understanding the limits of naturalistic mechanisms – limits that are very limited indeed and cannot explain much of anything beyond very very low levels of functional complexity (i.e., nothing that requires more than 1000 specifically arranged characters).
For further discussion of this topic see: