CONTENT WARNING: Contains biological facts that may lead to nihilistic fatalism and/or panic attacks.
The universe has its mysteries. As clever as we like to think we are, as you should know from reading ‘We Lack Discipline’, we are just Curious Idiots™ bumbling through the sea of these mysteries like a carrier bag caught in a current on the way to some trash island we call death.
So what’s it all about? Surely biology has some idea!
Well, yes! It has ideas. Those ideas mainly consist of the idea that they have no idea.
You see when it all boils down to it life seems to be a process of growth into a fuckable form, fucking, potentially helping your offspring grow into a fuckable form (not all species do this) and then dying, fucking off and leaving everything in the hands of your offspring and their offspring and their offspring etc. etc. repeat until some global calamity destroys all life – If you want to know why a lot of scientists are so miserable it’s because we know this calamity is a matter of when, not if.
So we have this fundamental cycle, birth-growth-reproduction-senescence-death. Why?
WE DON’T FUCKING KNOW!
We have theories, we have ideas, but we don’t have a firm enough evidential basis to turn anything to an accepted theory.
Growth is a fairly simple one. Some organisms are tiny, some organisms are huge, they are the size that fits their ecological niche – the space they need in which to live, things to eat, areas to sleep, shelter if necessary, few predators, that sort of thing. But take, for example, placental mammals (those are animals that carry their young internally through gestation and then feed them from their milky titties using milk-producing ‘mammary glands’) they couldn’t possibly give birth to an animal the size of them. So young have to be born smaller and grow into their adult size. That just makes biological sense. Picture your mum trying to give birth to you at age 25! It doesn’t work does it? Growth makes sense, then, and is not weird.
Senescence, the process of getting older, is just a biological inevitability. Imagine time like that bar on the bottom of a youtube video. Physics has differing ideas (and doesn’t actually know what or why time is either) but life experiences time this way. The past is the red bit you’ve already seen, the present is that big red dot that shows where you currently are in the video, but that red dot is ever moving forwards into the grey buffered part we’d call the future. Living organisms are fragile buggers, but hardy too. Let me sidetrack you with a little tale of life’s hardiness.
Once upon a time the earth was basically an hulking mass of water and unstable rocks, volcanic eruptions on the regular and soil was non-existent. Life, though, did exist and it started creeping onto the land. The problem with this life is it was mainly photosynthetic – like plants it obtained its nutrients by combining energy from the sun’s light with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This was great and life blossomed, until it didn’t.
Why didn’t it? Well because all these organisms were photosynthetic the bi-product (the leftovers, like car exhaust but for life) was oxygen and oxygen is hardcore stuff, it is very reactive and was basically toxic to the life that existed at the time. There was a huge oxygen caused extinction event – The Great Oxidation Event! Too much oxygen killed off most of the life that had come to exist on Earth…
…Until it didn’t. Because life’s a hardcore son-of-a-bitch and it evolved…Get this…It evolved to USE THE TOXIC OXYGEN IN ITS FUNDAMENTAL PROCESSES! Life’s like that, in a few hundred years’ time we’re going to find some bacteria, insect or rodent chowing down on our toxic waste, because it’s so energy rich life will find a way to use it to thrive. The oxygen that you breath is basically toxic, we have special function in our bodies’ cells to remove dangerous, reactive oxygen group chemicals from them and yet we breathe the stuff, we are powered by it, our respiratory processes are dominated by it. We are some hardcore, tough-arse offspring-of-bitches.
Sidetrack over, but the sidetrack has a point. Oxygen, exposure, sunlight, UV, other background radiation, it all serves, over time as we experience it, to harm our bodies, our cells and the DNA within them. As our DNA mutates and degrades we find it harder and harder to accurately replicate, to copy, the information from that DNA. This is one form of aging.
So aging sort of makes sense. Why the body can’t keep repairing itself is another matter and some species are better at doing it than others. We’ve got Tortoises that live to be nearly 200 years old, a Greenland shark has been estimated to be over 500 years old and we’ve got trees with ages estimated in the thousands of years. Why do some species live so long and others don’t? Here’s why I believe we’re all Curious Idiots™, folks. We don’t know!
I mean there’s a few factors that play into it, the Greenland shark exists in frigid waters so, basically living in a fridge seems to help.
So, too, does having good ‘telomeres’ (little bits of DNA either side of what you want to encode that ‘protect’ the useful bit of the DNA) which, in humans and many aging animals, appear to erode, degrade and shorten over time.
But as far as aging goes, we have our models but we don’t have answers.
Then there’s sex. Well, again, we don’t know. In fact this might be the biggest damn mystery of the lot.
However it does serve a useful function. Production of gametes, the sex cells, eggs and sperm (that’s not something you want on a breakfast menu – or maybe you do. You do you) is a very intense process and generally during this process the genetic information will be scrambled a little (recombination) so even though the genes are the same, the order is different.
It is assumed this has a positive effect because the net-result of producing gametes is, essentially, a loss in ability to reproduce (due to time taken, energy investment etc.) If it serves no decent purpose then welcome to evolution’s biggest fuck-up! But the supposition is sex is useful for some reason, we just can’t pinpoint exactly what.
Then there is the major part of sexual reproduction, a partner will usually only provide one copy of the, necessary, two strands of DNA. The other partner provides the other. This causes deliberate mixing of genes.
Why is this a good thing? Well much like individual organisms, genes degrade, mutate and generate flaws, faults and disease over time. By mixing things up the genome has a means of constantly adapting and changing. It can find genetic solutions to the environmental problems that life faces. This is the fundamental basis of evolution by natural selection. By mixing and matching genes, you can encourage generation after generation of the organism most likely to survive the conditions of the time and when conditions change you can alter that course again! The problem with this is it takes a very long time.
This is where death comes in. If genetic adaptation takes such a long time, but there are living organisms that can survive the current environmental conditions, why not just have them live a lot longer?
Guess what the answer is? If you’ve been paying attention you’ll get it. All true Curious Idiots™ will get it! That’s right;
WE DON’T FUCKING KNOW!
Shit dies, to an extent it makes sense, stuff that lives longer gets more mutations in its DNA that the genome doesn’t like, it doesn’t want it being spread to the next generation yadayadayada but…If it’s already a functional, well adapted organism why does it have to die?
Maybe in other animals it makes sense. In the space of 10,000 years a wolf with a shaggy coat can go from being genetically useful because of the extreme cold of the climate to sweltering and overheating because the climate has warmed. But with humans, who have the ability to adapt with their thoughts, their ideas, their minds, why death?
We don’t know.
So what’s the fucking point of this article, then? Smart arse?
To highlight the one singular truth of biology.
Humans have likely been studying life and the environment around them since the dawn of consciousness. We have created myths, legends, associations, connections all based on lightning, thunder, earthquakes, meteorites and animals. The more we learn, though, the more questions arise and for all the fundamentals – What is life anyway? Why is life? Why the cycle of birth-life-death? We don’t have the answers.
Not in the same way as we have a pathogenic model of disease (i.e. we know bacteria, viruses, fungal spores and parasites can invade our bodies and cause illness), or the theory of evolution by natural selection (explained earlier, though even then we’re fine-tuning our model all the time).
We even have models for how certain species behave in terms of kin relationships, explaining why some species are more willing to sacrifice themselves for those genetically closer to them (It’s called Hamilton’s Rule (r × B > ℂ) – Where B is the benefit in terms of offspring numbers, C is the cost to the organism and r is the genetic relatedness, how closely related the organism is to the one receiving the benefit – It is, of course, debated!)
In my opinion life will be the last of the major science triad of physics, chemistry and biology to be ‘cracked’. We will understand the fabric of our universe before we will understand why we weave ourselves into it.
There’s no profound reason behind this, it’s just that the rules that dominate what makes the planets move, the stars burn and the elements react, seem fixed throughout most of the universe. The rules of what life is, why life is and how it evolves seem to be ever changing.
Just when we think we understand all life as coming from a photosynthetic (i.e. getting nutrients from light) basis (the basic food chain of plant grows from light – animal eats plant – predator eats animal) we find, at the bottom of the ocean, a chemotrophic system (i.e. chemosynthetic (that is chemical eating) bacteria work with tube worms to feed off sulphuric and other chemical compounds – other animals eat those – other animals eat those etc.).
We are finding more of what we call ‘extremophiles’ – organisms that thrive in extreme environments and it is changing our view of what life is and how it can exist. The recent discovery of potential phosphine compounds on Venus is opening up our thinking further but it all serves the purpose of stretching us further and further from our understanding of what, and why, life is.
So I have always broken it down into those fundamentals.
This has been a quick, oversimplified explanation of life.
“We Lack Discipline’s” Rule of Life – ‘It’s Always More Complicated Than That‘ applies here.
There are some organisms that don’t reproduce sexually, some that can but don’t have to, some species can clone themselves, some species have multiple different life cycles and it’s all basically a lot weirder than you can possibly simplify. I tried my best.