I split up these posts because there’s too much to say about things that don’t make sense.  The book, 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks (2008) continues it exploration of things that don’t make sense: 

5) Life. Life is like pornography, as described by the Supreme Court: You know it when you see it. On its boundaries, at the level of organisms like viruses, it seems like nothing more than a collection of cleverly-arranged amino acids forming proteins. But even at the virus level, there must be some intelligence capable of sensing the environment and exploiting it for reproductive purposes. Anything less than that, and it’s just chemicals reacting as chemicals will when put in close proximity with each other. 

We haven’t been able to create life in a laboratory. Yet. And maybe never will. The famous Miller-Urey experiment managed to produce a few of life’s building blocks–amino acids–but nothing else. No replication. No directed movement to secure resources for metabolism. 

Here’s my definition of life:An identifiable (in space-time) organization of matter and energy with the capability to purposively exploit its environment for resources needed to perpetuate its existence as an identifiable entity that is capable, either alone or in concert with other like organisms, of producing additional organizations of matter and energy of similar construction and function as itself. 

Viruses are in. Crystals and fire are not. Next nonsensical thing. 

6) Viking.  Apparently some readings from the Viking I explorer sent to Mars turned out to look like life. Specifically, there was an indication in one of the several tests run by Viking I that indeed, there was life on Mars. All the other tests indicated negative, so the conclusion (by most scientists) was that no life had been detected, which is roughly where things stand today. 

Life on another planet or anywhere else in the universe would not surprise me. Neither would finding out that there is no other life anywhere (as if it were possible to look everywhere). The cosmic significance (or lack thereof) of life here on earth does not depend on either us being alone, or just one of many. There is no doubt that we are part of the vast miasma of matter and energy that is our universe. There is no doubt that the temporal organization of matter and energy we know as ourselves lasts less than a cosmic blink of the eye. Extraterrestrial life, unless it proves hostile and negatively impacts our short journey along the space-time continuum, is of interest, but not something about which we should be overly concerned. So what if we’re not unique. We still are. God still is. For some, it would mean adjusting their view of God, but there’s no worry there either. The capacity for human rationalization in the area of spirituality is greater even than the cosmos, or whatever life might be found in it, or even of physicists searching for explanations to things they don’t understand. 

7) The Wow! Signal.   Apparently one of many thousands of signals received by Ohio’s Big Ear telescope in 1977 looked like it had to have been purposely sent by some sort of intelligence. Or, so it seems. The reason why it looks purposeful to at least some of the scientists manning the observatory is that it fit their presuppositions about what a signal from intelligent life would look like through the lens (or really, receiver) of their telescope. Maybe. It only happened once, and only for a very short time. There are a myriad of other possible explanations. So far as it goes, it stands as an anomaly, and we’ve all but quit listening to the heavens for contact from others. Perhaps we’ll never know its true source. Perhaps it was evidence of intelligence somewhere else in the cosmos. It bears more investigation, but perhaps not with money we could otherwise use to solve earthly problems. 

8) A Giant Virus.  In this chapter, Brooks claims that viruses are generally considered to be mere chemical machines, not living creatures. Which seems odd to me. Viruses certainly fit my definition of a living creature. They are identifiable in space-time organizations of matter and energy. They exploit their environment for metabolic and reproductive purposes. What’s not alive about them? To be sure, they don’t provide the machinery for their own metabolism and replication. But they acquire it from their environment, through hijacking the metabolism and replication machinery of host organisms. The particular type of environment an organization of matter and energy exploit, nor how it is exploited, should not matter in regards to which side of animate/inanimate line we place them. In my view, viruses are the smallest, least complex, living organisms about which we are aware. Viruses seem to me to be a nucleus without a body, whereas a prokaryote is a single-celled body without a nucleus. Perhaps the eukaryotes, where a nucleus and a body are finally joined together (as describes most human cells), are simply the result of viruses and prokaryotes playing a game of mutual exploitation. 

Thus the real question here involves the origins of life. Which came first–the viruses, bacteria, archaea, or perhaps, something else? Brooks lays out the idea that viruses are not even supposed alive (which is not generally the consensus) and then creates a mystery out of it by claiming that a couple of recently-discovered viruses are so large and complex until it certainly appears they are alive. The question then is where these living viruses would fit in the origin of life stories, i.e., how close to the root of the evolutionary tree would viruses be if they are considered alive? 

But really, we know very little about either the origin of life, or even life itself. So any inquiries, virus-centered or otherwise, are bound to be fruitful. Keep digging and we may get some answers. Don’t though be surprised to find that our most distant ancestor is a relatively tiny organization of matter and energy that wasn’t much of anything and was capable of even less. 

9) Death.  Why do living things age and die? First, it should be said, that not all living things age and die. Viruses don’t die and neither do the prokaryotes (the single-celled creatures that have no nucleus). So why should eukaryotes age and die? 

This is a very good question that seems to cut against the grain of evolution theory. We have really no answers, just speculations, many of them tautological (e.g., we die because death is a part of life). The question cuts deep philosophically. What animating value would there be in a life that need not ponder its own demise? What would poets dream and sing and write about? 

If we accept the underlying premise of natural selection as true, i.e., that nothing in nature happens by accident (excepting advantageous mutations in the genetic code), then we would have to conclude that senescence and death hold an evolutionary advantage somehow. But if we contemporaneously believe (as does Richard Dawkins, et al) that natural selection operates only on the individual, and not the population of organisms, it would be impossible to conclude that death provides some selective advantage. There is no advantage to the individual organism of dying, particularly not to one that sexually reproduces. 

The lack of a good explanation for death in light of evolution theory may say more about the weakness of evolution theory than about the meaning of life. Death is a mystery that evolution strains to explain. Why it is a feature of eukaryotic life is a question worth exploring. 

10) Sex.  If we assume the underlying premises of natural selection as described just previously are sound, then sexual reproduction presents as much an obstacle to the theory of evolution as does death. Why would it be advantageous for an organism to expend far greater effort to achieve a diluted, less effective result, if its aim were the immortality of its genetic code? Sexual reproduction ensures that no individual in a population will have immortal genes. They are diluted at the very first instance of reproduction. And further still with each succeeding generation. If the raison d’etre of an organism is to successfully pass on its genetic code such that it lives forever (an issue only for the eukaryotes that experience senescence and programmed death) then it is not to its advantage to reproduce sexually, and even if it does, it should rather want to breed with its off-spring when it produces them. But we rarely see such in-breeding amongst the eukaryotes, some social insects somewhat withstanding. 

So, why sex? It is another anomaly pointing to an innate weakness of the evolution theory. The heart of the question is whether natural selection really operates at the genetic level of individuals, or at the level of populations. A corollary problem with sexual reproduction is its dilution of advantageous accidents in genetic transcription at the individual level. Even if a super-human were accidentally born, unless another could be found with which it could breed, its genetic advantages would be slowly bred into oblivion by dilution and subsequent mean reversion. This is a real problem for evolution theory, and one most theorists, heavily engaged in battling intelligent design theories and such, are loathe to admit. 

11) Free Will.  Indeed, this is a mystery that has confounded philosophers and theologians since man first started wondering upon his place in the universe. It is far too complex for much to be said about it in a short chapter in a book. Brooks sticks to the science, explaining various tests that have been constructed to divine whether our actions are deliberate or programmed well in advance of our knowledge. All of these tests have as a basic flaw that they depend on self-reported cognition. 

The question, though, is this: Are we, as human beings, capable of directing our actions according to our conscious will, or are we driven to what we do by subconscious impulses over which we have no control? It’s answer forms the essence of our view of man. If, as God admonishes Cain, “[that] sin is crouching at the door, it desires to have you, but thou mayest overcome it” (Genesis 4: 7), then mankind can overcome whatever subconscious impulses crouch at the door of his soul. (I changed the NIV translation from “must master” to “thou mayest”, which is the original Hebrew.) John Steinbeck understood the significance of the question, and the problems its translation posed, from East of Eden:

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?” 

Much later in the Bible, Paul, the Jewish citizen of the Roman Empire turned Christian acolyte, took it all away in just a few sentences in a letter he composed to the church in Rome:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. 

(Romans 8: 28-30) 

So what is it? Even Christianity in its early days as a Jewish sect, could not fathom the soul of man. Like Steinbeck’s protagonist, Lee, later proclaims, without free will we are no different than the bees. Brooks says that it may just be a matter of belief, because the science is inconclusive. I agree. 

12) The Placebo Effect.  If our souls aren’t free for us to direct and control, it would seem the placebo effect might not exist. How is it that just thinking that something will help alleviate a symptom does just that, even when the “cure” didn’t make it into the body? This is the mystery of the placebo effect, and it is a profound one. 

Brooks points out that placebos may help with symptoms that involve pain or anxiety, but they’ll never cure cancer or even the flu. They’ll only possibly make you feel better. He points out that Valium users are especially susceptible to the effect. Which isn’t surprising, since most of the symptoms for which a Valium is taken arise psychosomatically. Father could save a bit on the prescription of Mother’s little helper by just substituting sugar tablets, and Mother would feel just as good. 

13) Homeopathy.  This is the science of curing symptoms by the principle of similars, whereby an infinitesimally small dilution of something thought to cause the same symptoms being experienced is taken in order to alleviate the symptom. The incredible thing is how often it works–at a rate statistically higher than could be accounted for with the placebo effect.The magical properties of water, that substance making up about 2/3rds of the surface of the earth and the composition of our bodies, are possibly the reason. It seems water, even liquid water, arranges itself in certain ways in the presence of certain compounds. Perhaps this rearranged water is what makes homeopathy so often effective. It would almost have to be, because by the time the similar substance has been diluted about a hundred times, there is statistically none left in solution. It’s a mystery worthy of more respecting scientific inquiries than have yet been done. 

Thus concludes our journey into mysteries science has yet to fully explain. Some are compelling, some not so much. But the process of discovering truths begins with seeking out anomalies that don’t fit theories. A recurring them of the book is that just because we believe ourselves to live in the age of reason, it should never be forgotten that scientists are human and bring their human biases into the laboratories with them, often ignoring or refusing to consider evidence that contradicts theories and views in which they have a vested interest.  Another mystery that might be worth exploring is why we would ever have considered otherwise. It was an excellent book.

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