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No. 35: Sep-Oct 1984

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Mind Before Life

For some years S.W. Fox, at the Institute for Molecular and Cellular Evolution, University of Miami, has been experimenting with possible precursors of life. So-called "microspheres" are hot items in Coral Gables these days. Fox and his colleagues make microspheres by preparing a heated stew of various amino acids. These amino acids form long polymer chains spontaneously. Then, when water is added and the mixture reheated (or processed in some other way), the polymers organize themselves, again spontaneously, into spheres a few microns in diameter. Each sphere consists of a two-layer membrane with residual material trapped inside. Although thicker, the microsphere membrane is very similar to the lipid bi-layer enclosing normal living cells. The relatively stable microspheres could, in theory, have formed sheltered environments for the evolution of the more complicated parts of living cells.

The microspheres absorb sunlight and, with the addition of this energy, display some of the electrical characteristics of biological neurons, like those in the brain. The implication is that some components of "mind" may have existed in the very earliest life forms.

(Peterson, Ivars; "Microsphere Excitement," Science News, 125:408, 1984.)

Comment. Two comments here: First, the word "spontaneous" is customarily employed when describing how atoms unite to form molecules and molecules combine into polymers, which then gather into microspheres. The word "spontaneous" seems to imply chance is operating rather than design. Actually, atoms and even subatomic particles must have innate properties which force them to combine into larger structures the way they do. Philosophically, one can ask whether the lowliest subatomic particles are "coded" to combine into molecules, microspheres, and living creatures. In other words, the design of life could be inherent in quarks.

Second, if nonliving microspheres possess some of the properties of neurons, it is possible that natural, nonliving minds can form spontaneously -- a sort of "natural" artificial intelligence! Mind, then, could preced life, which is manifestly more complex than computers. The science-fiction possibilities are endless here.

From Science Frontiers #35, SEP-OCT 1984. 1984-2000 William R. Corliss