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◷ 4 min Lesezeit - 31. Aug. 2011

The Tree of Life: Autopoiesis in Spacetime

I just had a rather spontaneous insight. For a second there, the pattern of life became clear. Just so I would not forget and because it seemed useful, I took these notes and put them online here. Over the last few years and especially during my studies this last year, I have often had ideas about how life works and came to a good understanding of what it is. It seems that this morning these ideas came together in a flash of insight. It's not that I learned something new, it's more like I changed my perspective on my knowledge changed for a second or so. The next paragraph contains the essence of my observation, the one after that holds some details of how I came to this understanding. For that reason it is written using a rather specific vocabulary.

We are branches and leaves in a big tree (think of a family tree), but the nature of time cuts off our roots every two or so generations making it seem as though we were something on our own. That which moves through time can be seen as growing in time just as things grow in space (the concept of spacetime). The difference is that we only access the time dimension in one way: forward. Time is moving with at least most things, we do not perceive it the same way we perceive space. Because time moves along the branches of the "tree of life" at a practically equal speed for all organisms, it seems as though there are branches and leaves without roots. We see only momentary snapshots of the tree we grow in space-time. These snapshots make it seem as though there were distinct objects (branches and leaves) rather than the hierarchical pattern that they are in spacetime. If we were to step outside the universe and freely move back and forth and stand still in time at will, we could perceive ourselves as part of that pattern, we would see that we are as old as the universe. While not possible to physically obtain this perspective, it is conceivable. From that point of view, no life is distinct from another as, in fact, there is no life but the tree of life itself. No individuals, no birth, no death. For further illustration, please refer to the evolutionary tree of life and imagine there to be not only species, but also individuals just like in a family tree, picture yourself standing outside the universe and being able to see all times at once.

One could imagine expanding upon the autopoietic organization, redefining it to include an organism's history of structural coupling as part of itself. The debate about the boundary, then, would not be whether it needs to be spatially extended or is a matter of perception, but whether the boundary should at all be that of the individual organism to begin with. As all organisms form a single tree-like structure in spacetime, the boundary of that structure encompasses the histories of all living beings all the way back to the first self-producing chemical reaction that replicated itself (e.g. some special autocatalycic set), and, in a next logical step, everything that led up to this point. I have been confused by the Glider in Conway's Game of Life when I analyzed it for autopoietic organization (see my report here) because a glider has an innate movement to its organization, without which it could not exist as a glider. It would produce itself, but not at the same position. Only if I were to move parallel to it (as we all move parallel through time with respect to each other, for all practical concerns), I could see it realizing the autopoietic organisation as it is currently defined. But since I was out of sync with time inside the GoL universe, I was confused at first because clearly a glider could not exist without its history. If it could not exist without that history, I might just as well redefine its organisation to include its history. Were I to add a third spatial dimension holding the snapshots of time, I would actually see it grow. Now, if I were to define the glider as the whole space-time pattern that it forms, the glider is clearly as old as its universe.

It seems so trivial, yet so hard to grasp. In point of fact, I can feel myself already losing grip of the perspective again. I hope to maybe somehow conserve it in this post and that it may be useful to others (for example the writer of that depressed post I read on Facebook this morning that got me thinking again about the whole issue as to why our idea of life just doesn't add up, leading to my realization and this blog post).