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Introduction
& Prolog
Part 1.
Metabolic Metaphysics
Part 2.
Star Larvae
Part 3.
Space Brains
Addenda
Epilog

The Star Larvae HypothesisAstrotheology
Nature's Plan for Humankind
Part 1. Metabolic Metaphysics

Organism and Environment

Sub-processes within nature's metabolism can seem themselves to be discrete. But these sub-processes, organisms, cannot operate autonomously, separately from an environment.



Scientists tend to view nature against a hierarchy of scale and complexity.

In the hierarchy, subatomic particles occupy the bottom rung, and complexity then ascends to atoms and molecules and on to cells and organisms, ecosystems and biospheres, solar systems and galaxies, galactic clusters and superclusters and from there to some kind of cosmic beyond, possibly to a multiverse, a population of universes. The hierarchy includes as many intermediate steps as suits the occasion or as many as ingenuity can contrive. The problem with the hierarchical model is that its levels are defined by convention; their discreteness does not inhere in nature, because nature has no intrinsic joints or seams at which she can be cleaved.

Any defined level in the hierarchy provides an environment within which subordinate levels pursue their metabolic interests. And any defined level acts as an organism that pursues its metabolic interests while embedded in a superordinate environment. Because an organism exchanges matter and energy with its environment, the definition of the organism comes with a fuzzy edge. Where does the organism end and the environment begin? This quandary presents itself not only in the food chains and biological cycles that run through an ecosystem, but also even in the chemical bonding of atoms, which blurs the atomic boundaries.

When atoms bond to form molecules, the identity of each participant relative to the environment becomes fuzzy. A molecule acts as an environment in which atoms share or exchange electrons, and the relationship that results is the chemical bond that maintains that environment. As an environment, the molecule reconstitutes its constituent atoms. Atomic ownership of electrons in a molecule can become indeterminate.

Under this headline, Neutron Death Mystery Has Physicists Stymied, Scientific American reported (May 13, 2014) that, "Conflicting results in measurements of how long neutrons live has [sic] physicists rethinking their experiments, because solving the riddle may point the way to exotic new physics. Despite decades of taking measurements, scientists cannot agree on how long neutrons live. Neutrons are stable inside atoms, but on their own they decay in about 15 minutes, more or less, into a few other particles." Hmmm, so neutrons "live" but removed from their natural habitat they suffer "death," and they "decay."

"No science can be more secure than the unconscious metaphysics which tacitly it presupposes. The individual thing is necessarily a modification of its environment, and cannot be understood in disjunction. All reasoning, apart from some metaphysical reference, is vicious."

— Alfred North Whitehead
Adventures of Ideas

To illustrate the principle of indeterminate boundaries at the suprabiological end of the spectrum, consider the whole Earth. Researcher James Lovelock assigned the name Gaia to the Earth considered as a single, unified, self-sustaining entity—an organism. Gaia was an Earth goddess, and Lovelock adopted the name to underscore the observation that life itself actively maintains the terrestrial environment, chemically and thermally, so as to sustain life.

But, as with any organism, the living Earth is not a discrete, self-contained system. It is embedded in the solar system, which is populated by the sun, other planets, moons, asteroids, and clouds of comets. The sun plays an essential role. But the other bodies of the solar system also seem to be essential for complex life to evolve. In Rare Earth, Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee catalog many of the cosmic coincidences that make Earth hospitable to the evolution of complex biological life. For example:

  • Not only is Earth the right distance from a star of the right size to make bio-friendly conditions possible, but its anomalously large moon is situated precisely so as to stabilize the planet’s season-generating tilt.

  • The outer giants, Jupiter and Saturn, act as gravitational vacuum cleaners, protecting the inner planets, including Earth, from excessive bombardment by stray comets and asteroids. Some of these projectiles get through, but Ward and Brownlee calculate that without the gravitational clean-up work performed by Jupiter and Saturn, Gaia long ago would have been pummeled beyond recovery.

  • Much of Earth's water supply might have been delivered by comets. It is hardly controversial anymore to suggest that comets probably also delivered a supply of organic materials to the early Earth, in effect kick-starting the genesis of biological life, or at least setting a nutritious table.

This inventory of dependencies suggests that Gaia is a misnomer. The planet Earth is one component of a larger system, which as a whole can be thought of as constituting a discrete organism. But even that organism, our solar system, is able to thrive because it resides in a hospitable environment. Neither much nearer the center of the Milky Way galaxy nor much nearer the fringes would it find adequately hospitable conditions. The solar system resides in what cosmologists call a galactic habitable zone, a region of space characterized by a sufficient density of the kinds of materials needed so that solar systems can form. (See "Refuges of Life in a Hostile Universe," by Guillermo Gonzalez, Donald Brownlee, and Peter D Ward, Scientific American, October 2001.) In a paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (Volume 423, Issue 2, pages 1234–1253, June 2012), titled, Evidence of Nearby Supernovae Affecting Life on Earth, researcher Henrik Svensmark presents evidence that as the solar system has traversed the Milky Way, moving into and out of the galaxy's spiral arms, it has experienced rising and falling levels of galactic cosmic rays (due to its increasing and decreasing proximity to supernovae remnants) and that these cycles of cosmic ray exposure correspond to major climatological changes on Earth that in turn correspond to observed variations in biodiversity. That is, evolution is tied to cyclical galactic processes.

Abstract speculation has been the salvation of the world—speculation which made systems and then transcended them, speculations which ventured to the furthest limits of abstraction. To set limits to speculation is treason to the future."

— Alfred North Whitehead
The Function of Reason

Based on our solar system’s particulars, Ward and Brownlee dismiss the prospect of complex life existing elsewhere in the universe. They argue that the precise arrangement of conditions needed is too unlikely to occur again. But nature’s propensity to self-organize raises the question as to what constitutes an unlikely coincidence and what constitutes a predictable result of nature's self-organizing tendencies.

Ward and Brownlee interpret Earth's seemingly unique status in secular terms. But others interpret the same observations in religious terms. These theorists propose that Earth is a Privileged Planet, one so uniquely hospitable to biological life that it must be an artifact of intelligent design. Now that space probes are revealing planets around other stars—exoplanets—the Rare Earth and Privileged Planet hypotheses are becoming falsifiable. In 2009 researchers announced that they had detected "rocky" exoplanets and "super" Earths. The catalog of exoplanets has grown to where in January 2012 astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced that stars without planets appear to be the exception rather than the rule. In 2012, another team announced the discovery of a multiplanet system that looks strikingly like our own. Later in 2012, researchers associated with the ESO detected molecules of a sugar, glycoaldehyde, in the planet-forming zone around a sun-like star in a binary system. "What is really exciting about our findings is that the ALMA observations reveal that the sugar molecules are falling in towards one of the stars of the system," said team member Cecile Favre, of Aarhus University, Denmark. "The sugar molecules are not only in the right place to find their way onto a planet, but they are also going in the right direction." PDF file HERE. And HERE are exoplanets located in their stars' habitable zones. Earthly planets might be neither rare nor privileged. If Earthly planets turn out to be commonplace, and researchers deduce the likely presence of life, and especially if researchers detect the signature molecules of industrial pollution in exoplanetary atmospheres, then scientists and theologians will have to adjust their paradigms.

Identifying any cross section of nature's metabolism as discrete is an exercise in imprecision. The individual organism might seem to be an unambiguously delineated unit of nature, but, as the Gaia example, or any study of biological food chains, reveals, organisms exist only in a state of dependence on environments, local and cosmic. Perversely, environments confuse the issue not only because boundaries among nature's levels of scale are ambiguous, but also because environments introduce organisms to one another, and this can foster mutually beneficial, sometimes essential, relationships among them. That result, symbiosis, further challenges facile notions of the discrete organism.

NEXT > Symbiosis

The Star Larvae Hypothesis:

Stars constitute a genus of organism. The stellar life cycle includes a larval phase. Biological life constitutes the larval phase of the stellar life cycle.

Elaboration: The hypothesis presents a teleological model of nature, in which

 

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