The history of life on Earth has often been likened to a four-billion-year-old relay flame. One torch, lit at the beginning of the chain, continues to pass life in the same form all the way. But what if life was better understood by the analogy of the eye, a closely related organ that arose from independent origins? What if life evolved not just once, but evolved several times independently?
In a new paper published in Journal of Molecular Evolution, researchers at the Santa Fe Institute Chris Kempes and David Krakauer argue that in order to learn about the full range of life forms, we must develop a new theoretical framework.
In their three-layer framework, Kempes and Krakouer invite researchers to think first about the full space of matter in which life might be possible; second, the constraints that limit the being of possible life; And third, improvement processes that drive adaptation. In general, the framework considers life as adaptive information and adopts computational analogy to capture the central processes of life.
Many important possibilities emerge when we look at life within the new framework. First, life arises many times — some apparent adaptation is actually “a new form of life, not just an adaptation,” Krakouer explains — and it takes on a much wider range of forms than conventional definitions allow.
Culture, arithmetic, and forests are all forms of life in this framework. As Kemps explains, “Human culture lives on the substance of brains, just as multicellular organisms live on the substance of single-celled organisms.”
When researchers focus on the life features of individual organisms, they often ignore the extent to which the lives of organisms depend on entire ecosystems as their primary materials, and also ignore the ways in which a life system might be more or less. In the Kempes-Krakauer framework, by contrast, another implication appears: life becomes a continuum rather than a binary phenomenon. In this context, the authors point to a variety of recent efforts that quantitatively place life on a spectrum.
By taking a broader look at the principles of life, Kempes and Krakauer hope to generate more fertile theories for the study of life. With clearer principles for finding life forms, and a new set of potential life forms emerging from new principles, not only will we clarify what life is, Krakauer explains, but we will also be better equipped “to build devices for finding life, to create it in laboratories, and to learn about life.” The degree to which you live the life we see.
Reference: “The Multiple Paths of Multiple Life” by Christopher B. Kemps and David C. Krakauer, 12 July 2021, Available here. Journal of Molecular Evolution.