Thoughts on Biological Chemistry and Emergence

My dog was licking my face this morning – as he often does in the morning. Many people refuse to let dogs lick their faces. Understandable. I am one of the apparently few people who allow it. There are a few exceptions when I don’t like it, such as right after my dog has eaten stinky dog food. Otherwise, he is a very healthy, tidy and gentle (and smallish) dog. His breath is barely noticeable.

Dog’s lick people’s faces for a number of possible reasons; these are nicely explained in several articles, such as:

https://pets.thenest.com/dogs-lick-humans-faces-5892.html

https://shopus.furbo.com/blogs/knowledge/why-does-dog-lick-my-face

But the proposed reason that most intrigues me is that it is a form of chemical communication. Dogs have such a sophisticated sense of smell that they can actually gather information (dog-like information) about people they are licking. Licking can also have a calming effect on licker and lickee (if you are not a fan of dogs licking your face you may disagree, so just pretend that you’re a dog for a moment).

According to this article:

“Scientists believe that the major source of people’s positive reactions to pets comes from oxytocin, a hormone whose many functions include stimulating social bonding, relaxation and trust, and easing stress. Research has shown that when humans interact with dogsoxytocin levels increase in both species.”

Even more fascinating is a study that indicates that interacting with dogs can have health benefits for humans:

Beneficial Dog Bacteria Up-Regulate Oxytocin and Lower Risk of Obesity

So, having a dog can reduce obesity? That is certainly new to me!

Chemical Ecology

While my dog was licking my face and kicking up his oxytocin, and consequently making me release the same chemical into my bloodstream, I was thinking about how social animals regulate chemistry within their pack. (Similar with the visible/audible dimension: when my dog sends growling signals, I will sometimes get up and check out the window for intruders. He is modulating my behavior). So, I began to see more clearly how chemical exchange might be important for the cohesion of a group of social animals. I suspect there are many more chemicals involved in regulating the behaviors of pack animals – including humans.

And I realized that the orchestration of chemicals – not only in a single animal body – but among a group of animals – is largely invisible to us. But of course: chemicals are too small to see. They are molecules made of atoms. We experience their signaling effects as behaviors and notions. And we humans may have evolved such complex societal structures that we can hardly even recognize the chemical foundations of so much of our social behavior. This is the nature of emergence.

When a new level of emergence takes shape (for instance, when chemistry becomes complex enough to enable replication and variation and therefore genetic-based biology), new, larger structures take on their own agency and begin to regulate their sub-components in turn. Ancient chemistry didn’t just allow an apparatus to emerge that conveys information for replication (genetics); it also allowed a complex network of signaling between organelles, cells, organs, organisms, ecosystems, and societies. Each level gives rise (and gives way) to larger structures.

Emergence and Top-Down Effects

Emergence is a fascinating subject – not only because of the beauty of imagining simple components coming together to make a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts – but because that whole can attain autonomy; it can actually reach down and regulate those components that allowed it to come into existence in the first place. It’s possible that this top-down influence is an innate and necessary property of emergence.

If you are a fan of emergence, like me, you enjoy spinning narratives about how various levels of reality came into existence:

physics
chemistry
biology
intelligence
technology
super intelligence

The name of this blog is “Nature->Brain->Technology” – which is a nod to three of the levels in that list.

Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene – triggered new insights on genetics – and some lively debates. Dawkins coined the term “meme”. And I suspect he may have had a sense that the title of the book itself could turn into a meme. It brought forth ideas about how genes are powerful agents that cause an upward cascade of effects, making us do what we do: from the perspective of the selfish gene, we humans are “lumbering robots” whose purpose is to simply ensure its replication. Everything else is an illusion of human purpose. But it may be more subtle than this. Are genes the only things that are “selfish”? Could there be a lower level of selfishness going on?

My new insight from building oxytocin with my dog is that there is another layer of emergence involved, which is more fundamental to genes, and which gave rise to genes. My insight was echoed by an article called “Forget the selfish gene — the evolution of life is driven by the selfish ribosome“, which states:

“The selfish ribosome model closes a big theoretical gap between, on the one hand, the simple biological molecules that can form on mud flats, oceanic thermal vents or via lightning, and on the other hand LUCA, or the Last Universal Common Ancestor, a single-celled organism.”

Anything that smells of Eve is suspect. It’s more likely that there was a sort of distributed “Eve Soup” with a lot of pseudo-replication happening over a very long period of time. It is possible that the origin of life cannot be pinpointed to a single time and space…specifically because it is emergent.

Besides face-licking, there are probably many more phenomena that we have low-dimensional explanations for. They may someday be revealed as the effects of various selfish agents operating on various levels. Emergence is a scientific tool – a conceptual framework – that helps reveal otherwise invisible forces in nature.

For instance: why do we yawn?

The physiological purpose of a yawn remains a mystery. “The real answer so far is we don’t really know why we yawn,”

It may be more productive to stop looking for “the purpose”, and to look at it through the wide lens of emergence.

Thoughts on the Evolution of Evolvability

Evolve-Darwin-Fish-Car-Emblem-(2363)

It is early February. The other day, I observed some fresh buds on a tree. When I lived back east, I remember seeing buds on bare trees in the snowy dead of winter. I used to wonder if these trees are “preparing” for the first days of spring by starting the growth of their buds. Trees, like most plants, can adapt to variations of weather. All organisms, in fact, exhibit behaviors that appear resourceful, reactive, adaptive, even “intelligent”.

We sometimes talk about animals and plants in terms of their goals and intentions. We even use intentional language in relation to computers or mechanical machines. Even though we know a machine isn’t alive, we use this kind of language as a form of shorthand.

But there may be something more than just verbal shorthand going on here.

The Intentional Stance

Daniel Dennett proposed the concept of the Intentional Stance. When I first learned about this idea, I felt a new sense of how our own human intelligence is just a special case of the adaptive and goal-directed nature of all life on the planet.

When I saw those buds on the tree the other day, I realized that there is so much goal-directed behavior happening all over the place – in plants, animals, and even in ecological systems. Are humans any more adaptive or “intentional” than any other organism?

The Evolution of Self and the Intentional Stance

Could it be that our human brains have simply…

…wrapped a fully-evolved self around our intentions?

…that we are really no more goal-directed or intentional than any other organism…except that we reflect on it with a higher level of consciousness, and apply a fully-formed language to that intentionality?

The Evolution of Evolvability

I first learned of the evolution of evolvability from a paper by Richard Dawkins. It’s a powerful idea, and it helps to make evolution seem less magical and perhaps easier to imagine. Not only have organisms continued to evolve, but their ability to evolve has improved. An example is the evolution of sexual reproduction, which created a huge advantage in a species’ ability to exploit genetic variation over evolutionary time.

A recent article titled “Intelligent design without a creator? Why evolution may be smarter than we thought” makes reference to the Evolution of Evolvability. It helps to cast the notion of intelligence and learning as prolific and pervasive in the natural world.

It would appear that the ability to evolve better ways to evolve predates humans. (It might even predate biology).

Of course we humans have found even better ways to evolve – including ways that overtake or sidestep our own human biology. This constitutes a new era in the evolution of life on earth – an era in which technology, culture, and ideas (memes) become the primary evolving agents of our species (and possibly the whole planet – assuming we humans make the planet so sick that we have to fabricate artificial immune systems in order to keep the planet (and thus ourselves) healthy.

While many people will cast this Singularity-like idea in a negative light, I see it as a new protective organ that is forming around our planet. Biology is not going away. It is just one regime in a progression of many emergent regimes. Biology has given birth to the next regime (via Dennett’s crane), which then reaches down to regulate, modulate, and protect the regime which created it.

Evolvability is the higher-level emergent system over evolution. It is a higher-order derivative. When seen in this way, biology comes out looking like just one step in a long process.

(Thanks to Stephen Brown for editorial assistance)