Cryptonomicron and Life

from Cryptonomicon (Book Excerpt)
by Neal Stephenson

Let’s set the existence-of-god issue aside for a later volume, and just stipulate that in some way, self-replicating organisms came into existence on this planet and immediately began trying to get rid of each other, either by spamming their environments with rough copies of themselves, or by more direct means which hardly need to be belabored. Most of them failed, and their genetic legacy was erased from the universe forever, but a few found some way to survive and to propagate. After about three billion years of this sometimes zany, frequently tedious fugue of carnality and carnage, Godfrey Waterhouse IV was born, in Murdo, South Dakota, to Blanche, the wife of a Congregational preacher named Bunyan Waterhouse. Like every other creature on the face of the earth, Godfrey was, by birthright, a stupendous badass, albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that he could trace his ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo–which, given the number and variety of its descendants, might justifiably be described as the most stupendous badass of all time. Everyone and everything that wasn’t a stupendous badass was dead.  As nightmarishly lethal, memetically programmed death-machines went, these were the nicest you could ever hope to meet

Cryptonomicron is a fantastic novel.  I don’t like much of Stevenson’s work, but I love his writing style, which, I occasionally copy.  That over-the-top monologue is fun to do, when you have the inspiration.

But if you look carefully at what he said, in this part of the opening chapter, it may be a quirky writing style, but I don’t think that there is a biologist on the planet who would disagree with it.  Even several creationists agree with these sentiments.

Biology isn’t easy.  It’s not like chemistry with its discrete packets of matter or physics with its discrete packets of energy.  Biology is squishy… things tend to run together, to blend, to (honestly) make a mess out of things.

Just look at dogs… a single species in the order carnivora, yet dogs have more diversity in morphology than all other carnivores combines (includes bears, cats, weasels, seals, sea lions, etc.).

In Chemistry, we can easily say “6 protons is carbon, 7 is nitrogen”.  There’s no such thing as 6.5 protons.  Literally.  Protons cannot be cut in half.  Indeed they are made of three much smaller quarks, so even if you could cut a proton, you couldn’t cut in half.  At best you would get 2/3 and 1/3.  But then you wouldn’t have a proton anymore.

But where do you draw the line in dogs.  It should be obvious that a miniature dachshund and a great Dane can’t interbreed.  But there’s all these intermediate dogs.  They are transitional dogs.  A dachshund could breed with a corgi.  The corgi with a beagle.  The beagle with a basset hound.  The basset hound with a German Shepard.  The shepard with a rottweiler.  The rottweiler with a great Dane.

So, where do you draw the line?

It’s pretty easy to separate great swaths of dogs (all the miniatures from all the working dogs), but if you include the transitionals, then it’s impossible to say, this is where one species ends and the other begins.

This is true across species as well.  Ring species are exactly the same as dogs, but with different species on each end.  Without the middle species, the two on the ends can’t interbreed.  Can you draw a line where the species divide?

Now back to the Stevenson quote.

If you can’t even draw a line between two different species… then how do you draw a line between things that may or may not have been alive.

Reading The Emergence of Life (which is much more difficult to summarize than Your Inner Fish) has given me to thinking a lot about these issues.

What qualities must a living thing have to be alive?  Go ahead, I’m willing to bet that if you give me a quality or set of qualities, that I can find a situation that will really confuse the issue.

Say reproduction.  OK, RNA can replicate.  They can also evolve.  I’ve referenced Evolution on a chip many times and it still holds true.  Two of the six normal criteria for life are done by things we wouldn’t consider alive.  On the other hand, almost no living thing could exist without RNA.

It’s a very interesting journey I’m taking here and I’m almost prepared to offer up a single sentence definition of life for review.  It’s not perfect, that I admit, but it really makes one think.

Referencing Stevenson’s quote, we’ve had a stupendous badass distant cousin of ours visiting for the last few days.  Whatever it is, virus, bacteria or whatever… it is kicking all of our asses.  Of course, we have the collective knowledge of almost 6 billion other stupendous badasses to help us out.  And we’ll soon find out just who is the most stupendous badass, Homo sapiens or whatever little bug got involved.

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One Response to Cryptonomicron and Life

  1. Pingback: Why Are Dead Things Dead? | Scientopia Guests' Blog

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