Public Lecture: Reinventing the Sacred: Science, Faith and Complexity
I propose to discuss three topics. Several alternative theories and experimental work bear on the origin of molecular reproduction (here we at least think we know what we are talking about). Second, we discuss agency, the capacity of organisms to act on their own behalf, hence doing (here molecular reproduction causes value to enter the biosphere). Third, I discuss the evolution of the biosphere by Darwinian preadaptations, which, I believe, is partially beyond natural law.
On the first topic I will discuss the classical view that life must be based on template replicated DNA, RNA or their cousins, the RNA world, the membrane-cell first world, my own work on the emergence of collectively autocatalytic sets of organic molecules and polymers, experimental evidence for collectively autocatalytic sets of DNA and peptide sequences, and our own and other workers' evidence that random peptides fold, at least to molten globules, hence may well have catalytic activity. The study of emergent phenomena such as the emergence of molecular reproduction in collectively autocatalytic sets is an area of current mathematical research.
On the second topic I will discuss the tentative definition that a minimum molecular autonomous agent is a self reproducing molecular system that also does at least one thermodynamic work cycle. Work cycles are necessarily non-equilibrium, so agency is non-equilibrium, and in life links exergonic and endergonic processes. More, work is the constrained release of energy into a few degrees of freedom. But it typically takes work to construct those very constraints. Something new enters physics here - propagating organization of process where work constructs constraints on the release of energy, the resulting work does many things including constructing more constraints on the release of energy until a cycle of these processes closes on itself and a cell builds a rough copy of itself. We have no theory for propagating organization of process. Moreover, maximal work cycle efficiency is adiabatic, infinitely slow. Agents would reproduce infinitely slowly. I suggest instead that cells may maximize work per unit time hence power per unit fuel.
On the third topic I will discuss Darwinian preadaptations in the biosphere, human economy and culture and try to show that these cannot be prestated, let alone predicted. Then if a natural law is a compact description of the regularities of a process, these aspects of evolution appear to be partially beyond natural law, and perhaps are not mathematizable. In their place is a ceaseless creativity where, I hope, we can find a sharable, fully natural, sacred.
Stuart Kauffman, Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics, The University of Calgary and The Santa Fe Institute