"I mentioned that we’d be touring the landfill over at Puente Hills this morning, on our way here to meet you—it’s the biggest active landfill in the United States. What’s interesting is that it’s not only absolutely massive, it’s also semi-robotic, in the sense that the entire facility—the entire landscape—is a kind of mechanical device made from methane vents and sensors and geotextiles, and it grows everyday by what they call a “cell.” A “cell” is one square-acre, compacted twenty feet deep with trash. Everyday! But I mention this because, during our visit there, I almost had the feeling of standing on top of a mountain-sized creature designed by Spectral Motion—a strange, half-living, half-mechanical monstrosity in the heart of the city, growing new “cells” every day of its existence. It’s like something out of Hellboy II. So I’m curious about the possibilities of a kind of landscape-scale creature—how big these things can get before you need to rely on CGI. Is it possible to go up to that scale, or what are the technical or budgetary limitations?"
"The concept of the organism is fundamental to biology. After a decades-long neglect of its importance in the shadow of molecular biology, developments in ontogenetic, evolutionary, and cognitive research have brought the concept of organism back to the center of scientific and philosophical attention. The concept of the organism in the western intellectual tradition can be traced back to pre-Socratic philosophy and has evolved in concert with ideas about the nature of social organization. This talk traces the correlations between transitions in social organization and changes in organismic theory as they developed historically. In the process Koutroufinis outlines the evolution of organismic theory from ancient times up to the 21st century, focusing on the tension between two antagonistic concepts – teleology and mechanism. Special attention is paid to how this tension influenced revolutionary changes in biology in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries and how the development of the concept of entropy in 19th Century and maximum entropy production in the 20th Century has shaped current biological thought."
"Uexküll’s defines the umwelt as the perceptual world in which an organism exists and acts as a subject. By studying how the senses of various organisms like ticks, sea urchins, amoebae, jellyfish and sea worms work, he was able to build theories of how they experience the world. Because all organisms perceive and react to sensory data as signs, Uexküll argued that they were to be considered as living subjects. This argument was the basis for his biological theory in which the characteristics of biological existence (“life”) could not simply be described as a sum of its non-organic parts, but had to be described as subject and a part of a sign system."
As @IanAlanPaulput it, this dude was *so* ahead of his time. Also, has theoretical biology kind of fallen off the map? Or has it just gotten so complex that it’s no longer very accessible? (Again: I really don’t know.)
"Representations and expressions of love between humans and non-human animals suffuse contemporary U.S. culture. There is the love-at-a-distance of the feral cat rescuer, the often- deadly love of the cattle rancher, and the everyday love of the poop-scooping dog owner. There is the loving precision of the wildlife biologist tracking elk populations, the loving compassion of the veterinary laboratory technician, and the loving violence of the dog fighter. And then there is the love expressed by animal advocate Jessica Dolce in light of the reality of overcrowded shelters and underfunded sanctuaries: “putting them to sleep, in your arms, can be the greatest act of love you can give to your pet.” These are undoubtedly funny kinds of love."
In his new book about his process, out next week, Beautiful Whale, he describes a moment where he came eye-to-eye with a sperm whale named Scar. “I lowered the camera so that our eyes could meet once again, I noticed his eye moving along the length of my body before returning to meet my gaze,” Austin wrote. “As I reflect upon that moment and reconsider the question, ‘What does it feel like [to be so close to whales]?’ the only word that comes to mind is ‘disturbing.’”
Why is it disturbing? Because, as Austin puts it, the whale challenges him “to reevaluate our perceptions of intelligent, conscious life on this planet.” This mammal’s eye — lens, cornea, pupil, retina, photoreceptors and ganglion nerve cells — is a direct passageway into its brain. And when we look at it, Austin can’t help but see an intelligence there, a connection to a brain that, perhaps, works enough like ours for us to understand each other.
Read more.[Images: Bryant Austin/studio/True Blue Films]
"Watson wrote in a textbook [Molecular Biology, 2nd edition], several years ago, “We already know at least one-fifth, and maybe more than one-third of all the metabolic reactions that will ever be described” in a particular much-studied bacterium, suggesting that “within the next ten or twenty years we shall approach a state in which it will be possible to describe essentially all the metabolic reactions involved” — the total process of life in that creature. Francis Crick said in conversation in Cambridge, England, that the serious problems left for biologists are to understand how growth and differentiation are controlled in higher organisms, how life originated, and how the central nervous system works."
The Eighth Day of Creation, Horace Freeland Judson, (p. 5)
Watson was writing in 1970. I’m fairly certain that Watson’s prediction did not come to pass in 1980 or 1990. I’m genuinely curious if any scientists today would say that they could “describe essentially all the metabolic reactions involved” in any organism’s life processes.
So, consider this a placeholder for when I have time to find out precisely how wrong Watson’s prediction was, and why.
(Or if I’ve got things completely wrong, let me know: like I said, I’m a noob when it comes to molecular biology.)
Over at my home Atlantic blog, I posted a list of books I’d found that related to the idea of what life is. Many straddle the line between biology and something else, with that something else sometimes being technology or feminist criticism or history. Many of these books are classics of the field, if not widely known.
Reader suggestions poured in, too: new books like Frankenstein’s Cat by Emily Anthes, and classics like The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
Anyway, these books (and a few others I’ll get around to posting) are my starting point. I’ll be posting bits and pieces as I go along, though I don’t anticipate full-blown anything for a while.
"The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an essay in 1974 titled, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?”, in which he put forward perhaps the least overweening, most useful definition of “animal consciousness” ever written, one that channels Spinoza’s phrase about “that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being.” Animal consciousness occurs, Nagel wrote, when “there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” The strangeness of his syntax carries the genuine texture of the problem. We’ll probably never be able to step far enough outside of our species-reality to say much about what is going on with them, beyond saying how like or unlike us they are. Many things are conscious on the earth, and we are one, and our consciousness feels like this; one of the things it causes us to do is doubt the existence of the consciousness of the other millions of species. But it also allows us to imagine a time when we might stop doing that."
One of the funny things about thinking about “life” in the way that I’m setting out to do is that I can’t help but read my own human life into all of it. When some single-celled organism goes reaching after food or light, I can’t help but think that it’s drive to live is something like my drive to live. That there is something in that, in there somewhere, that makes me more like it than I am like a stone or a mountain or a planet or a drop of water.
But I don’t really know anything yet. I’m just getting started.
"I find great inspiration in it, and I’ll tell you why: It tells me that we’re at the threshold of being able to create a universe—a simulation—and that we in turn could be living inside a simulation, which could be in turn yet another simulation. And our simulated beings could also create simulations. What I find intriguing is, if there is a creator, and there will be a creator in the future and it will be us, this also means if there’s a creator for our world, here, it’s also us. This means we are both God and servants of God, and that we made it all. What I find inspiring is that, even if we are in a simulation or many orders of magnitude down in levels of simulation, somewhere along the line something escaped the primordial ooze to become us and to result in simulations that made us. And that’s cool."