Table of Contents
Life and persistence
Function and Metabolism
The Thought Experiment
Life as a dynamic system
What is catalysis?
What are solitons?
Solitons in biology
Scale invariance in biology
Structure, energy, unity and resonance
Application of catalysis 1
Application of catalysis 2
Life as catalysis
Ontology of consciousness
Fractal catalysis and autopoiesis 1
Fractal catalysis and autopoiesis 2
Life as catalysis - a unifying perspective
Imagine the situation of a large, land-locked lake high in the mountains. On the one hand, we know that the situation is far from equilibrium, that eventually the water will find its way to the sea. On the other hand, we understand that the structure of the land prevents this from happening spontaneously. In fact, we see the interplay between thermodynamics and structure all around us. Energy is 'land locked' in the contingencies of its structured environments and rarely dissipates via the most direct means.
It has been argued that catalysts overcome this problem by removing the discontinuity between energy and structure, such that energy moves via the 'order' or symmetries (invariance) in the environment. At the level of enzyme catalysis, this corresponds to the transition state of the reaction, which is a point of invariance between the reagents and the products.
Following on from this, we can argue that the process of catalysis makes 'explicit' the 'order' or symmetries in the environment. Furthermore, the persistence of the catalytic process is directly consequent upon this fact. Therefore, we may define the persistence of the life process as resulting from making 'explicit' the 'implicit' (or discontinuous) symmetries in the 'environmental survival space' as a process of catalysis.
Normally, we think of catalysis as a process confined to the molecular level. I suggest that the evolution of life is actually the evolution of catalysis from the microscopic level to the macroscopic. To illustrate this point, I have represented reality abstractly as patchwork of structures. At the bottom we have the microscopic scale of molecules, at the highest level we have the cosmic scale -- stars, galaxies etc. The fact that the universe we find ourselves in is highly structured, with symmetries and invariance, is represented by the squares of color. The fact that these relationships are only 'implicit,' and not made explicit ontologically, is represented by the black lines that separate them.
The story of life is the story of how energy and structure in the environment become united, first as a process of simple catalysis and gradually moving up in scale. Today we can see how life makes explicit the order in the environment in many ways. The great herds follow the trail of plenty, making explicit the implicit order of the seasons and the abundance of food that they bring. The Monarch Butterfly makes explicit the annual flowering of the Milkweed, first in Mexico and then gradually northward towards Canada. Even the phases of the moon are made explicit as is instanced by the gathering of certain species of Jellyfish that occur on a lunar cycle.
This particular perspective on the evolutionary process of catalysis complements existing research that examines life as an entropy producing process. Research on thermodynamics of large ecosystems, such as rain forests, have shown that their development is in the direction of providing paths for greater energy dissipation (Schneider & Kay, 1994). An analogous argument has been made that entropy production is facilitated by the perception-action cycle of animals, with the suggestion that a nervous system enables 'higher order' paths for energy dissipation (Swenson & Turvey, 1991). Swenson and Turvey also argue that the process of evolution increases entropy production. I suggest that these findings are consistent with the idea that the evolution of life is the evolution of catalysis. Indeed, the biosphere, taken as a whole, may be considered a macroscopic process of catalysis.
From the evolution of catalysis, from specific to non-specific, has emerged Man, the most non-specific catalyst on Earth. Man has drawn more and more of the Universe into the process. Events here on Earth may depend upon events that take place millions of light years away, as we marvel at the images from the Hubble Telescope. Government policy may depend upon the properties of Uranium or Plutonium. We may make decisions based upon events that took place hundreds of years ago. Even the future is anticipated by policy makers and economists.