20060130

New Life and New Civilizations

If bacteria and our Archae-Protean single-celled ancestors evolved once, doesn't it stand to reason that new forms of life could be evolving ever since then, even now?

Maybe. But if new microbes were still coming into being, they'd be competing for the same or similar resources that the original ones were - all those free-floating atoms molecules that served as fuel for the first biological processes. Now, though, with an active biosphere and bacteria surviving in every imaginable environment (Deinococcus radiourans lives inside nuclear reactors), I'd venture that most of whatever could be turned into fuel is consumed by the organisms already present.

But structure seems to always be wending its way into the universe. It stands to reason that it is doing so now. Instead of microbes, though, I believe it's coming into being on different levels - in larger and larger groups of organisms that already are or are becoming already connected - in the form of nations, economies, and ideas.

Robert Wright wasn't the first author to notice the trend, but it seems he was the first one to codify it. No one I have heard of, however, has postulated that these new organizations constitute another kind of organism. Our definitions of life keep pushing the boundaries of what we think it is or can be, but I believe that a structure as complicated as an economy can be thought of as a super-organism: it consists of humans and their individual needs. We compose it: everything we buy and sell, consume and waste, is part of its veins and vessels.

I know, once you start with allowing definitions like that in the door, the entire biosphere becomes another organism. Well, we're not the first to think of that one, either.

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