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VIEWPOINT: Life, change and chance

Posted by By Professor Tam. S. David-West. on 2005/01/12 | Views: 312 |

VIEWPOINT: Life, change and chance


I realize that the title of this Essay, "Life, Change and Chance", is rather profound biologically as well as philosophically.

I realize that the title of this Essay, "Life, Change and Chance", is rather profound biologically as well as philosophically. However, I intend to put down my reflections on a theme which has interested me for quite some time, personally as well as intellectually. It is my hope, and perhaps also my belief, that these reflections might provoke seasoned intellectual rejoinders from which I could myself further learn and benefit. I shall endeavour to be as simple as possible in the presentation. In other words, complicated technicalities or jargons would be avoided.

It would seem mundane to attempt a definition of LIFE. However, underneath such superficial ordinariness are some intriguing incomprehensibles. Furthermore, the demarcation line or inter-phase between the animate and the inanimate could at times be so fuzzy that it needs certain subtleties of conception or analysis to convincingly delineate the one from the other.

A working definition of Life is thus necessarily a functional one: a collation of attributes that are or appear to be intrinsic or fundamental endowments. When I was a young student of biology in secondary school we were given seven attributes of life, which we condensed into the mnemonic "GREMRIN". These are namely, Growth, Reproduction, Excretion, Movement, Respiration, Irritability and Nutrition.

However, later reflections dictated caution in the uncritical acceptance of some of these "Seven Commandments". For instance, some crystals in super- saturated solutions can crystallize upon the addition of identical seed crystals.
And such crystals could also "grow" in size. It thus becomes imperative to delineate this growth of crystals by "ACCRETION" from the growth of living objects, which is by "INTUSSUSCEPTION." Again magnets can move in a magnetic field when subjected to magnetic excitants.

Professor Jacques Monod one of the founding-fathers of molecular biology, and a Nobel-prize recipient, in one of his -works, "Chance and Necessity," listed the critical fundamental characteristics of Life into the following three: "
Teleonomy: endowment with a "purpose;" Autonomous Morphogenesis: structure-formation totally or almost totally independent of outside or external forces; and Reproductive Invariance: genetic perpetuation of particular essences from generation to generation.

The second component of my title, CHANGE, has continued to be one of the most intriguing philosophical contemplations among philosophers and, biologists from the time of the first known philosopher, Thales (about 600 B.C) and the first serious biological studies by Darwin in 1858.

There have been varying metaphysical epistemologies of Change and Permanence. These fall into two broad schools of thought: The first maintained that Change is a basic feature of Nature or Reality, and that everything in the cosmos is in a state of constant change and flux, and being so sustained in a dynamic cosmic balance or equilibrium. In short, Change is the only Reality.

Among this school of thought were Heraclitus, Craytylus and Aristotle (to mention just a few).
The second school of thought maintained that Reality is Permanent or Invariant, and that underlying all the apparent manifestation of Change there is the Real and Unchangeable or Permanent basic stuff of the universe. The opponents of this contemplation argue that logically Change and Permanence cannot be compatible cosmic features. Proponents of this view include, among others Thales, Parmenides, Zeno of Elea and Plato.

To get philosophical contemplation out of this rigid all-or-nothing metaphysical entanglement, a PLURALISTIC conciliation was proposed by such thinkers as Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Democritus. These thinkers accepted the Permanence of Reality; but also contended that its constituents are in a constant state of flux, even though not necessarily sufficient to visibly alter the "real" Reality per se. And so to Democritus, for instance, the ultimate indivisible constituent of Reality, the Universe, is the ATOM.

The conciliatory metaphysical position is thus, that, although these Democritean atoms are indivisible and so unchanging, they are nevertheless in themselves in a state of continual motion and flux: a sort of positional "permanent impermanence". And apparent changes in the Universe are consequences of this motion and collision of these constituent atoms. This atomism of Democritus had a lot in common with that of a later philosopher Epicurus. However, although modem science accepts atoms as basic constituent of matter, unlike the Democritean or the Epicurean atom, the atom in contemporary scientific experience could be broken down or split into such sub-atomic components as Neutron, Proton, Electron, Neutrino, Meson, and the Quark. Whether we have fma1ly arrived at the ultimate unit of matter or Reality in the quark remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, over 200 (two hundred) elementary particles are known. They are divided into two main types, namely HALDRONS, "Bulky", or heavy particles and LEPTONS; or "Light" particles.
The Haldrons are made up of Quarks of which there are further six types or flavours.
The Leptons are made up of Electrons and Neutrons.

A core concept of the credo or philosophy of modem scientific contemplation and investigation is that there is ORDER and OBJECTIVITY in Nature or Life (Teleology). A disturbance or distortion of this intrinsic or innate orderliness produces "freakish" forms of the normal which are technically called MUTANTS.

One of the crucial manifestations of the Natural Orderliness is that all forms of LIFE contain two major classes of large (macro-) molecules. These are PROTEINS and NUCLEIC ACIDS. Furthermore, there is a finite number of the respective "building units" of these two major constituents of Life. For instance, the proteins are built around twenty such basic units called amino acids; while the nucleic acids are in themselves of two different kinds or types which are technically called DNA and RNA, and are constructed out of four basic units called nucleotides. All the information or ingredients for the expression of "Liveness", technically called the genetic code, reside in the DNA or RNA.

While other forms of Life contain both DNA and RNA, in viruses it is either DNA or RNA. Furthermore, the real agents or vehicles for the manifestation of Life traits or specific characteristics, which are called genes reside on a finite number of cellular entities called chromosomes. There are twenty-three pairs of these for each human cell. And during the making of offspring's both the father (spermatozoa) and the mother (ova) contribute each "half sets" of the twenty-three pairs to the baby (46 chromosomes). It is also suggested that there might be a finite number of these vital genes.
Indeed, only recently molecular scientists have after long years of conscientious work produced a comprehensive (full) Genetic Code.

Another manifestation of the fundamental orderliness of Nature is that
Life's vital information flow is always uni-directional, a sort of one-way-traffic, from DNA to Protein; even if we have intermediate RNA either as messenger RNA (mRNA) or transfer RNA (tRNA).
Now, what does all these mean to the metaphysical positions we examined earlier on in the Essay? .
Briefly, the picture that emerges is that in spite of the multifarious macroscopic or visible ways in which the Reality of Life are expressed, there are nevertheless basic and fundamental microscopic unity or "invariance" or "permanence" in Life. What Monod called "chemical invariance."

Now, leaving the realms of metaphysics to day-to-day human conditions, we have the great Socrates cautioning that "Remember, no human condition is permanent, then you will not be overjoyed in good fortune, nor too sorrowful in misfortune".
And in contemporary Nigerian politics, Zik, also warned Asika, when he was the Administrator of the East Central State during the Gowon's regime, in one of the most memorable events of the time, that, "No condition is permanent."
Although the truism of this trite aphorism was highlighted many centuries ago by
Socrates, there is no doubt that in modem-day Nigeria; the great Zik has no doubt greatly popularized it.
The hymnist, Henry Francis Lyte, in one of Christians' most moving hymns, "Abide with Me," had the following: "Change and decay in all around
I see: O! Thou who changest not, abide with me."
The "Thou who changest not" of Henry Francis Lyte encapsulates our belief as Believers (Christianity, Judaism or Islam) that there EXISTS an Unmovable Prime Mover, the Uncaused Cause, the Unchangeable Changer,
THE CREA TOR; THE ALMIGHTY INFINITE GOD, Who is solely responsible for the Orderliness and also the Changes (within the Orderliness) around us in the universe. The TELEOLOGICAL Argument.

And although one intellectually admires the counter-poising position which deny the EXISTENCE of God emanating from such eminent scientists (and more) as Richard Dawkin ("The Blind Watchmaker") or Stephen Hawking ("A Brief History of Time") one cannot agree more with Richard Swinburne in his fascinating work, "Is There GOD?", where he asserted that "The very same criteria (data) which scientists use to reach their own theories lead us to move beyond those theories to a creator God who sustains everything in existence."

His conclusion (The last paragraph of his work) is also equally impelling: "...the existence, orderliness, and fine-tunedness of the world; the existence of conscious humans within it with providential opportunities for moulding themselves, each other, and the world; some historical evidence of miracles in connection with human needs and prayers, particularly in connection with the foundation of Christianity, topped up finally by the apparent experience by millions of His presence, all make it significantly more probable than not that there is a God".
In my very humble way I also once submitted that my study of VIRUSES, as a Virologist, especially the architectural sub-structure (units, or capsomeres) of viruses which the Election Microscope reveals instead of arguing against the EXISTENCE of God buttresses my belief in His Existence.

The above "thesis" was part of my reply to my late good friend, the great
intellectual and scientist Professor Awojobi.
It was also comprehensively developed in my Public Lecture monograph, titled "GOD, NA TURE AND THE UNIVERSE."
In his "Conversation With God" (Book One) Neale Donald Walsch makes one feel an almost "palpable" Three-Dimensional God.
The existence of EVIL OR SUFFERING has been used by some atheists to argue their case for the non-existence of God.

However, this may be specious, as indeed have been argued with equal force by Richard Swinburne (and other Thinkers) in Chapter 6 of his book op cit.
And also in a different genre of scholarship by Richard- Steinpack of the Grail Movement (Message) in his book "Why does God allow such-things?"

Swinburne, like other scholars of the Philosophy of Religion (including Acquinas) argued that the existence of evil or less than friendly circumstances can be explained by THEODICY.
Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 (The Holy Bible) also concretizes the phasic inter-play of "Good Times" and "Hard Times":
"To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the sun. A time to be born, and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted...
A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance. ..A time to get and a time to lose. ..."
We are also told that on the ring of King David was engraved: This too will pass" (In: "The meaning of things" by A. C. Grayling page 19).

Furthermore, the Sri Lankan Sage, Yogaswami.) admonished: "Happiness and sorrow are twains let them come and go like the clouds.
He also similarly exhorted: "Let happiness and, sorrow come and go like day and night. Don't fear".
And for those of us that have Religious Faith we should give thanks to GOD at ALL times (Dark or Sun, Rain or Dry) because it could be worse.

"It could be worse are general words of courage to all victims of frowning providence. An elixir "(Excerpt from my Essay, "It could Be Worse" The Guardian On Sunday 25 April, 1993 page A ll).
We should always count our blessings and smile. And so smile even when it hurts deeply.
The Latin aphorisms: Dum spiro spero (while I breathe, I hope); Per aspera ad astra (Through difficulties to the star. The motto of my alma mater, Kalabari National College) and Nil desperandum (Never despair) are handy exhortations in the face of inscrutable providence.

In a world replete with the vagaries of fortune and beset by worries and excruciating uncertainties Belief and Faith in THE SUPREME provide a sure and soothing relief: "Why art thou cast down, o my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in GOD (Psalm 42:11).
The theme of the BBC Sunday Programme, "In Praise of GOD", of 29 August, 2004 (9.30a.m) was "The Sovereignty of GOD in an Uncertain World", says it all.

One of the choiset treasures in my library is "The Age of Uncertainty" by John Kenneth Galbraith
It was a send-off present {from the Rivers State Executive Council} from the Priest/Scholar Catholic Bishop of Port Harcourt, The Rt. Rev. Edmund Fitzgibbon, on 28 March, 1979.

The work is a kaleidoscope of global economic and political realities {and consequences) from Adam Smith to Karl Marx to Vladimir Lenin to John Keynes to the Cold War, to The Uncertainties and Concerns of the Third World; and of Democracy and its ideals and realities; its "uncertainties" and concerns.
Finally, the third component of my title, CHANCE, is a very decisive factor in life. Chance and Uncertainty are very basic to Life. To the extent that it is said that "God (Nature) plays at dice". And to Democritus, the Greek philosopher, "Everything existing in the Universe is the fruit of chance and necessity." While according to Monod, the French molecular biologist and philosopher, "Chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere".

For instance, a chancy disturbance of the genetical material (DNA) could produce different forms of Life called mutantsa, and these could also have some relevance to evolution, which is essentially the unfolding of different Life forms in the struggle for survival. Mutation (From a Latin word meaning "change") is a random, usually rare, chancy event predicated on a biochemical or biophysical distortion of the cell's vehicle for the transmission of vital genetic information or endowment to successive generations of a particular Life form.

I will devote the rest of the Essay to the deciding role of Chance and Uncertainty in Life events. I shall restrict myself to Man, who is the ego- centrically self-proclaimed Homo sapiens; and is also said to be the measure of all things (Protagoras). I shall not attempt to argue for or against this arrogant anthropocentricism.

From the very first events of his formation Man is a clear product of Chance. Several millions of sperms, about 50-100 million for every one millilitre of semen, are injected by the father. And these "compete" for the single ovum (egg) of the mother. Only one of these millions of sperms is required to fertilise the egg. And this single effective hit is its self very chancy. This is aptly cast by James Watson (of the DNA Helix fame, with Francis Crick) in his recent book, "DNA The Secret of life" (2003): that we are "products of random throws of the genetic dice."

That normal offspring which results from the first chancy event of fertilization is also a matter of Chance and Furtuitousness. For instance, instead of each of the father and the mother contributing twenty-three chromosomes to the baby, there could be imperfect sharing of chromosomes where the baby gets forty-seven instead of the normal forty-six chromosomes. The result is the production of mentally retarded mongols.

That the baby is either a boy or a girl is also predicated on Chance. Of the twenty-three of chromosomes, the twenty-third pair are what are called the "sex chromosomes." That of the father is conventionally represented as "XV", while that of the mother, as "XX". If the mother's egg happens to be fertilized by a sperm with the "Y", the baby will be a boy: otherwise it will be a girl. Thus, it is the father and not the mother who determines the sex of the baby or the offspring. Thus, it is most unfair to blame a wife for making only girl babies, as is the case in some of our cultural settings.

Now, after the baby is born, it is further subjected to a further interplay and interaction with Chance and Uncertainty. Its Life could be terminated very early - as a result of assaults by different germs or the inclemency of the physical world.

If it survives all these, it is also a matter of Chance whether he makes a successful Living or not. It is also Chance, whether he is a doctor, engineer, a lawyer, a scientist and so on, or whether he becomes a labourer, messenger, a driver and so on. It could be argued also that Opportunity also plays a major role. However, I would like to argue further that whether there is Opportunity or not is also largely a chancy affair.

It is in the light of the above contemplations that I take the philosophical or the moral position that it is a great folly, a reprehensible indecency, and even a sin against Nature, for a so-called "Big-man" to deride a so-called "Small-man" or
seven instead of the normal forty-six chromosomes. The result is the production of mentally retarded mongols.
That the baby is either a boy or a girl is also predicated on Chance. Of the twenty-three of chromosomes, the twenty-third pair are what are called the "sex chromosomes." That of the father is conventionally represented as "XV", while that of the mother, as "XX". If the mother's egg happens to be fertilized by a sperm with the "Y", the baby will be a boy: otherwise it will be a girl. Thus, it is the father and not the mother who determines the sex of the baby or the offspring. Thus, it is most unfair to blame a wife for making only girl babies, as is the case in some of our cultural settings.

Now, after the baby is born, it is further subjected to a further interplay and interaction with Chance and Uncertainty. Its Life could be terminated very early - as a result of assaults by different germs or the inclemency of the physical world.

If it survives all these, it is also a matter of Chance whether he makes a successful Living or not. It is also Chance, whether he is a doctor, engineer, a lawyer, a scientist and so on, or whether he becomes a labourer, messenger, a driver and so on. It could be argued also that Opportunity also plays a major role. However, I would like to argue further that whether there is Opportunity or not is also largely a chancy affair.

It is in the light of the above contemplations that I take the philosophical or the moral position that it is a great folly, a reprehensible indecency, and even a sin against Nature, for a so-called "Big-man" to deride a so-called "Small-man" or for the "Able" to laugh at the "Infirm". Let me say right away that I am no believer in Predestination, which is necessarily deterministic, and reduces us to mere puppets dancing on strings.

Still another example of the place of Chance in our daily Life, especially here in Nigeria: When we leave our homes to our daily calling, we have fifty-fifty (perhaps even less) Chance of returning whole or even ever returning at all, in view of the high rate of road accidents in our cities; or even at risk of vigilant eagle-eyed assassins.
Next, let us examine a few typical examples of where Chance had played a major role in scientific breakthroughs. The qualification must be made, however, that in order to maximize these products of Chance in successes in the experimental sciences, an astute contemplative mind is a necessary prerequisite.
In 1820 the Danish physicist, Oersted accidentally observed that a compass needle moved when brought to the vicinity of an electrified wire. This was the birth of electron-magnetism. And from it other fruits such as electric motors, electric generators, and the telegraph, came into being.

In 1886 the French physicist, Antoine Bequerel, accidentally noticed that photographic films became fogged even when wrapped with a black paper when the films are near a uranium compound. The uranium compound was apparently emitting penetrating rays. This chancy discovery led to the splitting of the atom with its useful and destructive consequences to Life, as well as its metaphysical implications to philosophical atomism.

In 1928, Alexander Fleming out of sheer Chance discovered penicillin.
Thus, opening up a whole epoch of chemotherapy in medicine.
In conclusion, I have attempted in a very modest way in this Essay on Life, Change and Chance, to argue the case that, it seems to me that Nature does not usually opt for an all-or-nothing situation. And that in the midst of diversity we could also have discernable unity. Furthermore, I also accept that Chance, Uncertainty and Opportunity, as playing decisive roles in our individual Lives. Thus, whether in the face of good times or less than good (unfriendly) times it is healthier to have a philosophical attitude with faith that "THIS TOO WILL PASS" (King David's ring); or that "IT COULD BE WORSE" (my The Guardian Essay).

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Fay(Katy, Texas, US)says...

Actually translates to bravehearted.