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How to deduce and teach the logical and unambiguous answer, namely L = ∑C, to “What is Life?” using the principles of communication?


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Is it possible to understand the very nature of 'Life' and 'Death' based on contemporary biology? The usual spontaneous reaction is: "No way. Life is far too complicated. It involves both material- and an immaterial dimensions, and this combination exceeds the capacities of the human brain." In this paper, a fully contrarian stand is taken. Indeed it will be shown that without invoking any unknown principle(s) unambiguous definitions can be logically deduced. The key? First ask the right questions. Next, thoroughly imbue contemporary biology with the principles of communication, including both its 'hardware' and its 'software' aspects. An integrative yet simple principle emerges saying that: 1. All living matter is invariably organized as sender-receiver compartments that incessantly handle and transfer information (= communicate); 2. The 'communicating compartment' is better suited to serve as universal unit of structure, function and evolution than 'the (prokaryotic) cell', the smallest such unit; 3. 'Living matter' versus 'non-living' are false opposites while 'still alive' and 'just not alive anymore' are true opposites; 4. 'Death' ensues when a given sender-receiver compartment irreversibly loses its ability to handle information at its highest level of compartmental organization; 5. The verb 'Life' (L) denotes nothing else than the total sum (∑) of all acts of communication (C) executed by a sender-receiver at all its levels of compartmental organization: L = ∑C; 6. Any act of communication is a problem-solving act; 6. Any Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) should have the definition of Life at its core.
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Communicative & Integrative Biology
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How to deduce and teach the logical and
unambiguous answer, namely L = ∑C, to “What is
Life?” using the principles of communication?
Arnold De Loof
To cite this article: Arnold De Loof (2015) How to deduce and teach the logical and
unambiguous answer, namely L = ∑C, to “What is Life?” using the principles of communication?,
Communicative & Integrative Biology, 8:5, e1059977, DOI: 10.1080/19420889.2015.1059977
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© 2015 The Author(s). Published with
license by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC©
Arnold De Loof
Accepted author version posted online: 25
Jul 2015.
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How to deduce and teach the logical and unambiguous answer, namely
LDPC, to “What is Life?” using the principles of communication?
Arnold De Loof*
Functional Genomics and Proteomics Group; Department of Biology; KU Leuven; University of Leuven; Leuven, Flanders, Belgium
nature of ‘Life’ and ‘Death’ based on
contemporary biology? The usual spon-
taneous reaction is: “No way. Life is far
too complicated. It involves both mate-
rial- and an immaterial dimensions, and
this combination exceeds the capacities
of the human brain.” In this paper, a
fully contrarian stand is taken. Indeed it
will be shown that without invoking
any unknown principle(s) unambiguous
definitions can be logically deduced.
The key? First ask the right questions.
Next, thoroughly imbue contemporary
biology with the principles of commu-
nication, including both its ‘hardware’
and its ‘software’ aspects. An integrative
yet simple principle emerges saying
organized as sender-receiver compart-
ments that incessantly handle and trans-
fer information (Dcommunicate); 2.
The ‘communicating compartment’ is
better suited to serve as universal unit
of structure, function and evolution
than ‘the (prokaryotic) cell’, the small-
est such unit; 3. ‘Living matter’ versus
‘non-living’ are false opposites while
‘still alive’ and ‘just not alive anymore’
are true opposites; 4. ‘Death’ ensues
when a given sender-receiver compart-
ment irreversibly loses its ability to han-
dle information at itshighestlevelof
compartmental organization; 5. The
verb ‘Life’ (L) denotes nothing else than
the total sum (P)ofallactsofcommu-
nication (C) executed by a sender-
receiver at all its levels of compartmen-
tal organization: L DPC; 6. Any act of
communication is a problem-solving
act; 6. Any Extended Evolutionary Syn-
thesis (EES) should have the definition
of Life at its core.
Despite the enormous increase in
knowledge about the way living systems
function, biology’s most fundamental
question, namely “What is Life?” remains
largely unanswered. No wonder, if one
realizes what conditions an adequate defi-
nition of ‘life’ should meet, at least accord-
ing to Schejter and Agassi:
Apart from
its not being trite and uninformative (circu-
lar, to use a traditional term), it should be
neither too wide nor too narrow; it should
not exclude living things and it should not
include dead ones. Furthermore, it should
not make biology part-and-parcel of chemis-
try and physics (meaning that there should
be room for an immaterial dimension).” I
add: “and it should organize all known
dimensions and properties of living matter
in a logical order and context, and it should
pave the way for defining what exactly hap-
pens at the very moment of Death.”
Over the years at least a hundred defi-
nitions of life have been published. Erwin
pioneered with an approach
from thermodynamics, in particular its
second law that says that when a system
performs work it runs down, not only
because the free energy decreases but
also because the entropy, its state of
disorganization increases. According to
Schrodinger, “Living organisms stay alive
by virtue of their ability to get rid of the
entropy that is created by the processes by
which the organisms live.” Schejter and
Agassi (1994) attempted to correct some
of the limitations of this approach. Robert
addressed the validity of the pop-
ular “Life is a machine” metaphor. Using
good arguments he concluded that this
metaphor is entirely wrong. He used a
mathematical approach for his definition:
Keywords: coma, definition of life, defini-
tion of death, extended evolutionary syn-
thesis, EES, Mega-evolution, neo-
Darwinism, philosophy of life, problem-
© Arnold De Loof
*Correspondence to: Arnold De Loof; Email: arnold.
Submitted: 05/01/2015
Revised: 06/01/2015
Accepted: 06/01/2015
This is an Open Access article distributed under the
terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-
Commercial License (
licenses/by-nc/3.0/), which permits unrestricted
non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction
in any medium, provided the original work is prop-
erly cited. The moral rights of the named author(s)
have been asserted. e1059977-1Communicative & Integrative Biology
Communicative & Integrative Biology 8:5, e1059977; September/October 2015; Published with license by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
Downloaded by [] at 22:49 01 January 2016
“Life is the manifestation of a certain kind
of (relational) model. A particular system
is living if it realizes this model.” I will
argue that indeed Life is not a machine,
but the activity of a special type of
machine, namely of a sender-receiver.
Only after the constituting parts of a given
entity start interacting and perform an
activity, the ‘total sum of the parts’
deserves the description ‘machine’. For a
few lists with additional definitions that
are often centered on a particular property
of living matter, see refs.
Yet, despite so many trials, the feeling
persists that the definition on which a
large majority can agree still needs to be
formulated. As a surrogate for a clear defi-
nition of life, introductory textbooks of
biology often tend to content themselves
with enumerating a number of properties
in which living systems differ from non-
living or inanimate ones. Such an
approach was also used by Koshland Jr,
who at that time was the Editor-in-Chief
of the prestigious journal Science.
figure in his 2002 paper (page 2215) fea-
tured the Temple of the goddess of Life or
PICERAS with its 7 pillars, namely Pro-
gram, Improvisation, Compartmentaliza-
tion, Energy, Regeneration, Adaptability,
Seclusion (Fig. 1). The combination of
these properties enables living systems to
maintain themselves in a state far from
thermodynamic equilibrium (steady state)
and enables reproduction and autopoiesis
(self production or making itself.)
Such a
reductionistic approach strengthens the
feeling that the human brain is still too
underdeveloped to truly understand Life’s
very nature.
In this paper, I will show that another
approach, a truly integrative one, is possi-
ble on the condition that one starts by ask-
ing the right questions.
It matters how some key questions are
One approach in trying to get the
answer to “What is Life?” starts from ask-
ing the question: “Can we deduce the very
nature of Life by opposing ‘living matter’
to ‘non-living- or inanimate matter as is
common practice in textbooks on Intro-
ductory Biology?” Another approach starts
from the question: “What exactly changes
at the very moment of death, when a given
compartment undergoes the change from
’still alive‘ to ’not alive anymore’?”
Both approaches seem plausible. Intui-
tively, most people may agree that the first
one should be the most appropriate one.
Yet, hitherto for one reason or another, it
failed to yield an unambiguous answer.
The second approach, in my opinion the
right one (see later) never attracted much
interest from researchers. The first reason
for the lack of success of the first
approach, although a logical one at first
glance, is that the first question hides an
understandable, but nonetheless fatal
thinking error that prohibited plausibly
defining ‘Life’ for many decades. The sec-
ond reason is that it took until the intro-
duction of the digital-era vocabulary
(hardware, software, information etc.)
that one could engage in wording some
key properties and activities of living mat-
ter. Indeed, if the right wording is missing,
one cannot make descriptions or
The nature of the thinking error:
1. The term ‘Life’ has many different
meanings as apparent from good dic-
tionaries. Thus when trying to define
‘Life’, one should first make clear what
meaning one is going to define. In this
paper, the meaning is the state in
which an organism is before the
moment of death.
2. Life sounds like a noun. However, is it
correct to define it as a noun if some of
its typical features refer to activities
which are denoted by verbs? Could it
be that ‘Life’ in its totality is not a
noun, but a verb?
3. Numerous authors who formulated a
definition of ‘Life’ focused on one or a
few properties in which living matter
differs from non-living or inanimate
matter (Fig. 1), assuming that from
such comparison the true nature of
‘Life’ will emerge. The underlying idea
stems from the ancient Greek philoso-
phers (Empedocles, Aristoteles etc.)
who stated that a given property of
something, e.g. the quality ‘warm’ can
only be defined if there is the quality
‘cold’, the quantitative property ‘light’
if there is ‘heavy’, ‘high’ if there is
‘low’, etc., thus if a true opposite exists.
Are ‘living matter’ and ‘non living
matter’ each other’s true opposites?
No, they are not, the terms only sound
so. They are false opposites. Why?
Genuine opposites can only have one
opposite: ‘warm’ opposes ‘cold’ but
not ‘low’ or ‘dark’. In contrast, ‘living
Figure 1. Two major approaches used in trials to uncover the very nature of Life.(A) Koshland Jr.
tried to list the major features of living matter in the form of a temple.
In this classical approach
reproduction features as the major outcome of the interactions among all 7 pillars. According to
Koshland Jr. himself, Lifecannot be dened this way. Modied after Koshland Jr.
(B) A digital-era
approach for visualizing the essence of Life(as an activity). Here the temple has only 4 pillars.
They are all subject to change and therefore possible sources of variability. Their interactions enable
communication/problem-solving activity. The Life as a templeidea was borrowed from Koshland
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matter’ can be opposed to an endless
number of examples of ‘non-living
matter’. A giraffe can be opposed to a
pebble, a bottle, a pencil etc. This
makes that ‘living matter’ and ‘non-liv-
ing matter’ are not genuine but false
opposites. Hence the ancient Greek
philosopher’s method does not work
properly in this comparison.
4. In philosophy, the quality of questions
changed fundamentally in the 20th-early
21th centuries with much emphasis on
Major novelties were
the introduction of ‘linguistic turn’
and ‘pragmatic turn’
interest in communication was particu-
larly important for sociology.
It did not
(yet) yield an unambiguous answer to
“What is Life?”.
The ‘right’ question
The second cited question reading:
“What is the difference between the situa-
tion ‘Still alive’ vs. ‘Just not alive any-
more”? is correct according to the ancient
Greek method because there are no other
alternatives to ’still alive‘, than ’just dead‘.
It prompts the next questions: “What
exactly changes at the very moment of
Death?” and: “How to define ’Death’?”
The answer “Death is the end of Life” or
that “Life is what precedes Death” are cir-
cular definitions. They do not have any
informative value and are therefore use-
less. Indeed they do not provide any
opportunity to engage in unravelling the
properties of Life or Death in an experi-
mental and falsifiable way.
A logically deduced unambiguous
definition of ‘Death’
As I experienced myself, defining
‘Death’ is less simple than one might
think. Medical doctors, in particular when
confronted with situations of deep coma
will certainly agree. The following
thought-experiments will illustrate the
duality of death problem. For the first
illustration, sensitive souls should assume
that the poor experimental animal had
been anaesthetized before the sequence of
events. Is a chicken dead when one leg is
amputated? No. Two legs? No. Two legs
and 2 wings? No. Thus, ‘Death’ is not pri-
marily a matter of loss of mass. Is a
chicken dead at the very moment of
decapitation? Some will say yes, other will
say no because the headless body can still
move around for a while, be it an uncoor-
dinated way. Who is right? Is just cutting
through the central nervous system in the
neck region without removing any tissue
sufficient to instantly kill the animal? Yes.
One additional experiment: Imagine that
a chicken is decapitated in a laboratory
and that immediately upon decapitation,
all tissues are dissected and brought into
tissue culture, where they continue to
exhibit a number of so called ‘typical
properties’ of living matter as outlined in
the PICERAS approach. Some cells will
even multiply. The chicken does not exist
anymore, but its parts are still alive: this I
call ‘the duality of death’. Is it allowed to
say that the chicken is fully dead? Yes,
even if all its constituent cells are still alive
for a while. Thus, ‘Death’ refers to a par-
ticular level of compartmental and com-
municational organization, namely the
highest one, the brain in this example.
A second, less bloody example with a
small population of a dozen deer in a prai-
rie. Imagine that something scares the deer
so much that each of them runs away in
opposite directions, so far and so long that
they do not see or smell each other, and
that they do not find each other anymore.
No doubt, the population does not exist
anymore but its original constituent parts
are still alive, they metabolize, carrying
females will give birth, etc. Again the same
duality: the higher order compartment, the
population in this example, is dead while
its constituent parts are still alive.
A third example: At which moment
does an eukaryotic cell die? At the
moment that it irreversibly loses its voltage
gradient over its plasma membrane. At
that moment, the mitochondria or chloro-
plasts (if present) which are modified pro-
karyotes in origin can continue to live for
a while.
The fourth example: a prokaryotic cell,
the least complex level of compartmental
organization. When such cell loses its
transmembrane electrical gradient the cell
is dead. Because such cell has no internal
membrane-limited organelles nothing
‘alive’ remains after the collapse of the
membrane potential.
What is the common denominator in
these examples and in all other ones with
other types of compartments (tissue,
organ, aggregate, community etc: (see
later in this paper) that pass from ‘still
alive’ to ‘no longer alive’? The common
denominator is an activity not mentioned
as such in the Seven Pillars approach,
namely: “Death ensues when a given
sender-receiver compartment irreversibly
(to exclude regeneration) loses its ability
to communicate at its highest level of com-
partmental organization.” What happens
with the lower levels, e.g., the organs, tis-
sues, cells etc. in the chicken example, or
the individual deer in the population
example (stay alive or are killed), is irrele-
vant for the status ‘living’ or ‘not living
anymore’ of the highest compartmental
level. In the case of the chicken, irrevers-
ibly damaging the central nervous system,
the highest level of coordinated communi-
cation in this multicellular organism,
causes death. The communication
between individual deer, the highest level
of communication in a population (as a
communicating compartment), is lost in
the second example. In an individual cell,
the plasma membrane harbors the highest
level of communication. If that is killed,
the cell is dead.
The conclusion is that the difference
making property between ‘still alive’ and
‘no longer alive’ is none of the PICE-
RAS-temple properties as such, but sim-
ply communication activity executed by
entities organized in the form of sender-
receiver or communicating compart-
ments. It is not any individual pillar that
enables communication, but the interplay-
interaction between all 7 pillars. Thus
‘Life’ is a verb and its very essence refers
to communication.
The Nature of Communication
and The Architecture of a
Communicating Compartment.
Gradients. No Life Without
Self-Generated Electricity
How to define ‘communication’?
Textbooks of General Biology fre-
quently use the term ‘communication’ but
they fall short in explaining what it means,
probably because “everybody knows.” It is
a big mistake to assume that everybody
knows what something as self-evident as e1059977-3Communicative & Integrative Biology
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communication is. Years ago, at the begin-
ning of my thinking on Life’s nature, I did
not manage to come up with a plausible
definition of communication by myself,
an embarrassing experience indeed. I had
to cross the border to the humanities,
which is not always evident in the exact
sciences in which I have been active, and
invoke the help from specialists in the
communication sciences. To my relief,
I learned that even specialists in the field
find defining ‘communication’ difficult,
at least if they have to reach unanimity on
a definition that is acceptable to all,
thus to both the exact sciences and the
humanities. The same holds true for
‘information’, ‘problem-solving’ etc.
The simplest yet workable definition of
communication reads: Communication is
transfer of information, and such a trans-
fer is only possible in what is called ‘a
communicating compartment’. This defi-
nition requires that information is also
plausibly defined. This will be done later
in one of the next sections. Communica-
tion and interaction are not synonyms.
Interaction does not necessarily involve
the decoding of a message, while commu-
nication does. Thus, communication is a
special form of interaction.
Another commonly shared definition,
particularly valid when dealing with the
various aspects of spoken and written
(human) languages and in which
‘information’ is not mentioned was
recently suggested to me: “Communication
is sign-mediated interaction (in contrast to
non-sign-mediated interactions) whereas
the signs that are used underly 3 levels of
rules (syntax, semantics, pragmatics).
Communication activity is based
upon 4 pillars
The Temple of PICERAS was con-
structed with concepts mainly from for
classical (pre-digital era) biology
(Fig. 1A).
In analogy I have proposed a
Temple of Life with concepts formulated
in the language of the digital era. Its pillars
(Fig. 1B) are: hardware (Dthe body of
organisms), software (the coding- and
decoding programs, in particular those
used in the cognitive memory system),
energy (in particular self-generated electric-
ity carried by inorganic ions) and motiva-
tion (why do organisms engage in
communication and problem-solving at
all?). This is the ‘innate’ language of con-
temporary students. For them it is self-evi-
dent that the engineering rules and
methods for constructing the hardware are
very different from those for writing soft-
ware programs. They do not have any
problem in accepting that, just like com-
puters, living problem-solving compart-
ments are constructed as sender-receiver
entities and that they need 2 different
memory systems. The hardware-software-
information wording is attractive because
of its simplicity and modernity. It is cer-
tainly somewhat simplistic, and one should
always keep in mind that Life is more than
a computer running DNA software.
The architecture of a communicating
A communication system invariably
consists of a sender that emits information-
carrying messages that are always written in
coded form
as already repeatedly outlined
Upon release, the message is
transported through a communication
channel (air, blood, axon etc.). Finally, a
competent (Dwith appropriate receptors)
receiver has to decode, amplify and respond
to the message by doing some sort of work
(movement, release of another message,
generate order etc.) sooner or later
(Fig. 2A). Gradients, being higher-lower
situations, are essential in communication:
the message has to move from the sender to
the receiver. Maintaining gradients and
responding to messages requires energy,
this being the major reason why organisms
need food. This energy has to be stockpiled
in the system before communication activ-
ity can start. One could compare it to a
mouse trap in which the spring has to be
stretched to become functional. All this
means that communicating compartments
are systems far from their thermodynamic
equilibrium: they are in what is called ‘a
steady-state’. Upon being used, part of the
chemical energy gets lost as heat; the dissi-
pative (heat producing) nature of living sys-
tems represents another difference between
living and non-living systems.
Energy: No Life without self-
generated electricity
Communication requires energy, both
chemical (ATP e.g.) and electrical. For
medical doctors, neurobiologists and elec-
trophysiologists in particular the ‘electrical
dimension of cells’ is self-evident. The
general public is more or less familiar with
the terms electrocardiogram and electro-
encephalogram. For disciplines that do
not employ biochemical methods, the
self-generated-electricity, however the dis-
tinguishing property between ‘still alive’
and ‘no longer alive’ at the cellular level,
the importance of biological electricity
may not be so evident. In school we learn
the principles of the ‘electricity from the
socket’ as we use it in daily life. Electricity
is the movement of charges at very high
speed through a conducting medium, e.g.,
metal wires, water etc. However, although
the same electricity-laws (e.g. Ohm’s law)
apply, most of the electrical phenomena
in biological systems have nothing to do
with the transport of electrons, but rather
with the much slower transport of simple
inorganic ions such as Na
and HCO
Why ions and not electrons? Electrons
cannot be stored in the watery environ-
ment of the cytoplasm and they cannot be
confined in membrane-limited compart-
ments in the cell’s interior. Electrons
would instantly dissipate into the aquatic
environment. In contrast, the much larger
inorganic ions do not readily diffuse
through the lipidic membranes of cells,
unless they can pass through channels that
are gated in various ways. Depending on
the prevailing conditions ions can be
pumped in or out the cells, in particular
by energy requiring ion pumps
-ATPase(s), H
-ATPases etc).
This means that the electrical dimension
of cells is based upon the use of a few sim-
ple inorganic ions. It also means that if
channels and pumps are non-spherically
distributed in the plasma membranes (D
the usual situation), cells are, in principle,
able to drive a self-generated electric cur-
rent through themselves, at least in some
stage(s) of development. This property has
given birth to the (undervalued) ’cell as a
miniature electrophoresis concept).
The key gradient in living systems is
the ionic/voltage gradient over the plasma
membrane of all cell types.
A potential
difference of 50 mV over a membrane
100 nanometres thick, which is an average
in animal cells, corresponds to 50,000
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Volts per cm. Such a huge gradient can be
maintained because biological membranes
(plasma membrane and intracellular
membranes) are very rich in lipids. That
turns them into efficient insulators for
electricity carried by inorganic ions, but
not for electron-carried currents. The lipid
membranes are also essential for maintain-
ing Ca
It means that
the main reason why we need lipids in our
food is not so much for providing energy,
but for ensuring that cells can be sur-
rounded by a membrane with a very low
permeability for ions so that cells can
build up ionic/voltage gradients. Self-gen-
erated electricity is only possible and use-
ful in an aquatic environment.
The problem of communication in a
terrestrial environment
It is superfluous to say that a wide can-
yon in the wording with respect to com-
munication activity and ‘Life’ separates
the exact (biological) sciences and the
humanities. This is clearly visible in their
respective definitions of communication
and of ‘Life’. In my opinion, the main rea-
son for this divergence resides in the novel
types of communication activity that
became needed after the evolutionary
ancient ancestors of animals, plants and
Fungi left the aquatic environment in
which they used to live. It forced them to
adapt to transmitting and receiving mes-
sages in a gaseous environment instead of
in water. Indeed, terrestrial organisms live
on the bottom of an ocean of gas, namely
air. Yet, their body keeps using the bio-
chemical pathways adapted to communi-
cation in an aquatic environment. Its
typical wording
comprising terms such
as membrane potential, action potentials,
depolarization, hyperpolarization, ligand-
receptor interactions, secondary messen-
gers, Ca
signaling, cAMP etc. is not
suited for describing communication in a
gaseous environment. Here a novel vocab-
ulary is needed for analyzing and describ-
ing spoken, written-, olfactory etc.
languages to complement the ‘aquatic
vocabulary’ of the cellular level. The say-
ing that ‘each bird sings its (own, person-
alized) song’, illustrates that the number
of causal factors that enable such an end-
less degree of variability and complexity is
at least as high as the ones that govern the
variability in cellular communication in
an aquatic environment. Just a few exam-
ples: semiotics,
signs, signals, frequency,
messages (form and content), language,
word, sentence, intonation, click, gram-
mar, culture, gestures, rituals, mimicking,
coding and decoding programs, teaching,
mimicking etc.
Engineers have managed to employ the
principles of communication in both the
aquatic- and terrestrial biological environ-
ment in mechanical tools, mainly for
increasing the distance over which a mes-
sage can be propagated and for increasing
the speed of transfer or messages. An addi-
tional third vocabulary emerged: tele-
phone, radio, TV, computer, internet,
cable networks (metal, glass fiber), satel-
lites, with new wording or wording derived
from some disciplines of physics and math-
ematics (waves, electricity, electronics, dig-
italization, bytes, algorithm etc.).
This concise overview shows that dif-
ferent levels of organization of biological
systems as well as the environments in
which they operate may require a specific
wording to describe their communication
activities. In essence: biologists/biochem-
ists focus on Mono-organismal compart-
ments (see next sections). The humanities
take the biochemical signaling pathways
operating at levels 1–8 of the Monorganis-
mal compartments for granted, and con-
centrate mainly on Polyorganismal-
monospecies compartments. Ecologists
are particularly interested in the popula-
tion level and in Polyorganismal-hetero-
species compartments. In a next section a
system will be advanced to bring some
order in the tangle of communicating sys-
Denition of Compartment
A major goal of this paper is to outline
that all these levels of organization as well
as the fact that “each bird sings its song”
are, despite all differences, only variants of
the following universal unit. A biological
compartment – or simply ‘compartment’
– is a unit based on carbon chemistry and
on electricity carried by inorganic ions.
This unit is limited by a moderately
‘leaky’ boundary with appropriate ‘holes’;
it can stockpile the right form(s) and
amounts of energy; and it can generate
gradients that can be used for communica-
tion to enable the compartment to func-
tion from its lowest to its highest levels of
compartmental organization (see later).
Feedback is very common in communi-
cating compartments. It is the basis for
the social and gregarious behavior of living
Figure 2. (A) Schematic representation of the architecture of a simple communication system. The
sender releases a coded message that next is transported through a communication channel (e.g.,
air, blood, axon etc.) to a competent receiver, meaning that the receptor must have appropriate
receptors to catch the message as well sufcient stockpiled energy. If message and receptor match,
a signaling cascade is induced involving decoding, amplifying, mobilizing part of the stockpiled
energy, and doing some sort of worksooner or later. In case of feedback, the receiver becomes a
sender. (B) In case of feedback, communication is a unidirectional spiral-like (helical) process. Bifur-
cation point: more than one solution for a given problem becomes possible.
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matter: all living systems are intercon-
nected one way or the other by communi-
cation. Feedback is not circular but spiral-
like (Fig. 2B). Retrogression is not possi-
ble in communication. As will be men-
tioned later, this means that retrograde
evolution involving the principles of com-
munication is not possible either.
Finally, some types of languages, e.g.,
spoken ones, can occur in a variety of var-
iants, dialects, and contribute to reproduc-
tive isolation, without any mutation being
involved. This form of variability is often
overlooked in biology in general, and in
evolutionary theory in particular.
Bringing order in the multitude
of communicating compartments
For fully understanding my definition
of life, it is absolutely necessary to have an
idea of the variability in the numerous (at
least 16) levels of compartmentalization. It
matters which level of compartmental
organization one is studying. This is also
of primordial importance for understand-
ing evolution of biological systems/com-
partments as well as evo-devo. When
analyzing ‘Death’, the conclusion was
reached that Death is linked to the highest
level of compartmental organization, and
that the fate of the lower levels is unimpor-
tant for the definition of Death. This raises
the question what the different levels of
compartmentalization as related to com-
municating compartments are. Textbooks
usually list 5 levels: the cell organelle, the
cell, the multicellular organism, the popu-
lation and the community, usually with-
out elaborating on what links these levels.
It took me quite a while to find out
how nature became organized the way it
is, using the communicating compartment
as the basic unit of structure and function-
ing. The invention of ever novel
‘languages’, allowing solving ever novel
problems, turned out to be the thread
through the system. My system
for clas-
sification criss-crosses the borders of the
present day classification systems that are
based on genetic relatedness. Rather, it is
based on sets of genes that allowed the
coming into existence of communicational
connections, or – in scientific terms- of
novel signal transduction pathways. Such
sets of genes will likely differ from level to
level and from species to species. The
biochemistry of major pathways is well
documented (see modern textbooks of
Biochemistry), and continues to be better
and better understood as more and more
receptor-ligand pairs are identified.
My classification system has been dealt
with before in sufficient detail in other
Here I only outline the
3 main categories.
1. Mono-organismal compartments:
compartments restricted to one and the
same organism:
- the prokaryotic cell and the cell organ-
elles in the eukaryotic cell of prokary-
otic origin, e.g. mitochondria and
- the eukaryotic cell
- the cell aggregate
- the syncytium
- the mono-epithelium
- the polyepithelium
- the segmented organism
- the tool-utilizing compartment
2. Polyorganismal-monospecies com-
partments: compartments consisting of
more than one individual of the same
- the colony
- the heterosexual compartment
- the social compartment
- the baby-inside mother compartment
- the population
- the electrosphere compartment (e.g.,
humans linked by telephone, radio etc.)
3. Polyorganismal-heterospecies com-
partments: compartments consisting of
individuals belonging to different species
- nutritive and protective compartments
(e.g. food chains; host-parasite)
- the planetary compartment: the Gaia-
Some of these levels can be further subdi-
vided but it would take me too far also list
the subdivisions. Details, description of
which type of problems can be solved by the
different levels, as well as illustrations can be
found elsewhere.
All levels correspond to
major innovations/revolutions in Mega-
Information and the immaterial
aspect of Life
Nowadays the terms ‘information’ and
‘information processing’ are omnipresent
in daily life and in almost all scientific dis-
ciplines suggesting that everybody knows
what ‘information’ is.
Again, biology
textbooks and dictionaries seldom engage
in explaining its nature. Upon consulting
specialists in the field of informatics and
communication sciences, I learned that
there are nearly as many definitions as spe-
cialists. In other words, there seems to be
no definition that everybody agrees upon.
One such definition that was communi-
cated to me by a colleague says: “A mes-
sage contains information if, upon
decoding, it decreases the degree of uncer-
tainty in the system.” This can be a work-
able definition in physics but it is not
practical in biology, because it is not evi-
dent how to quantify the degree of uncer-
tainty. A workable definition for biology
could be: A message contains
information’, when upon decoding the
receiver starts to mobilize sooner or later
part of its stockpiled energy to engage in
some sort of ‘work’.
In my view, information is immaterial,
but it usually requires a material carrier
for its transport. I have met colleagues
who do not accept that information is
immaterial, with the argument that some-
thing that has no mass cannot exist. But
how to respond to the following argu-
ments? Absence of something can be
information in some circumstances. The
information present in e.g., a computer
program remains unchanged if it is used
2, 100 or even a billion times. A hormone
molecule can be a carrier of information if
the conditions are right. E.g. a testoster-
one molecule in a bottle on the shelf in a
laboratory does not carry any information.
Yet, it acquires information at the
moment that it binds to a membrane
receptor in a living cell. By binding, the
testosterone molecule does not undergo a
change in mass. It is the ligand-receptor
interaction that sets off a signaling cascade
that is experienced by the target cell as
receiving information. Binding of testos-
terone to the same receptor but present in
a membrane preparation or in purified
form does not trigger a signaling cascade.
It is nothing more than an interaction,
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illustrating the already cited difference
between communication and interaction.
If my view is correct, in addition to the
3 dimensions of space, their dimension in
time, and their electric dimension (cells
produce their own electricity), living sys-
tems also have an immaterial dimension,
inherent to the nature of information.
The Meaning of AT WORK!.The
Spring in the Mousetrap. The
Purpose of Communication?
In the analogy with the stretched spring
in the mouse trap: a hormonal ligand that
touches its matching membrane receptor
is like a mouse that touches the piece of
cheese in the trap. All of a sudden some of
the stockpiled energy in the spring is
released. To illustrate that this principle
also applies to our daily conversations, I
did the following experiment in the class
room. First I asked one student to raise his
right arm for 5 seconds. He did. Next I
asked the whole classroom to do the same.
Next I reminded them of the conservation
of energy law in physics that says that
energy cannot be lost or created out of
nothing. Then I confronted them with the
following conclusion: because of this law
in physics, the energy in my command
“Raise your arm for 5 seconds!” must
equal the energy that all of you have put
in raising your arm. Everybody feels that
something is wrong, but what? One more
step: “You all raise your right arm after
you observed that I kept silent for 5 sec-
onds.” After some hesitation, the arms
start rising. My next challenge was:
“Absence of something created the energy
for raising your arms.” Finally, I asked:
“Did I provide the energy for raising your
arm, or did my command simply put you
at work and make you use part of the
stockpiled energy in your body to exert a
certain task?” This way, the students
become aware of the fact of the ‘goal’ of
communication, usually unintentional
and automated, is that the sender emits
messages that will put a receiver that has
the matching receptors at work sooner or
later. This only happens if several condi-
tions are met, e.g. that the message is per-
ceived and that it does not result in a
dead-end signal transduction cascade.
This aspect of communication is undoubt-
edly counterintuitive, but nonetheless con-
ceptually and physiologically correct.
Two memory systems and 2 types of
progeny, children and pupils. Life as ‘A
Double Continuum’
The continuation of the machinery
required for communication (our body, or
with a modern term, our hardware) uses
DNA as the carrier of the genetic memory.
Nowadays, thanks to the tremendous
progress in molecular biology and genet-
ics, the (first) central dogma of biology, (a
term not liked by everybody) DNA !
RNA !Protein(s) is well understood.
In the course of time it underwent some
minor adaptations which are not relevant
in the context of this paper.
Currently we are almost as ignorant
about the nature of ‘the second central
dogma, the one that governs the cognitive
memory’, as Darwin was about the princi-
ples of genetics when he published On the
Origin of Species.
Sooner or later this
second dogma will be unveiled. The prin-
ciples enabling the cognitive memory
activity in brain cells are evolutionarily
very old.
They may date back to the
very first cell on earth.
Despite their
organismal simplicity, bacteria perform
complex communications allowing them
to deal with a complex environment.
They anticipate predictable changes in
their environment with a clear sense of
both time and space and their immediate
Quorum sensing is a bacterial
language. Bacteria can learn according to
I think that a neuronal-type
cognitive memory system is not only pres-
ent in neuronal cells of free-living organ-
isms, but in any cell on earth, possibly in a
different gradation. My major argument is
that any cell faces the problem as to how
to decode an incoming message. A cell can
only do so if an appropriate decoding pro-
gram had been installed in the decoder’s
memory system beforehand. Another argu-
ment comes from stem cell research. Neu-
ronal cells do not acquire their specific
properties completely de novo, but develop
them from the information they inherited
from stem cells. Stem cells are usually plu-
ripotent; depending upon the conditions
they can differentiate into different cell
I have explained elsewhere why I think
that the seat of the cellular cognitive system
resides either in DNA or in a proteinaceous
system that is associated with DNA.
case of the second option, my prime candi-
date is the plasma membrane (with its elec-
trical properties) – cytoskeletal complex
(in particular its actin-like molecule part,
also with its special electricity conducting
properties). DNA and actin present in the
chromosomal skeleton of eukaryotes are
lifelong present and therefore preferential
candidates for memory systems.
It is not because the mechanisms of the
functioning of the cognitive memory sys-
tem are only very partially understood, that
one should neglect its importance for e.g.,
evolution. For example, the consequence of
the existence of 2 memory systems, each
with their own set of rules, is that, with
respect to reproduction, one should think
in terms of 2 types of progeny. Reproduc-
tion ‘the hardware way’ yields children,
reproduction ‘the software way’ through
teaching-learning yields pupils. When pres-
ent, the second type of reproduction is
much faster, more versatile and more effi-
cient than the first one. The theory of Evo-
lution should take into account this double
continuum in a better way than neo-Dar-
winism momentarily does.
The overlooked relationship between
communication and problem-solving
Living matter can solve problems, non-
living matter never can. Why? Because
only living systems have genes? Because of
the central dogma? Or because only living
systems are organized in the form of
sender-receiver compartments?
If one analyzes the functioning of a
communication system, one willy-nilly
reaches the unexpected and counterintui-
tive conclusion that each act of communi-
cation is, at the cellular level in fact a
problem-solving act. This follows from the
fact that any message (e.g., a hormone mol-
ecule binding to a receptor), whatever its
nature, is written in coded form. The
receiver of a message invariably faces the
problem as to how to subtract the informa-
tion present in a message. All incoming
messages in organisms (sounds, visual
stimuli etc) have, in the end to pass the
organizational levels 1 and 2 (Dthe (sub)
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information from a message does not mean
that at higher levels of compartmental orga-
nization, e.g., at the level of a conversation
by humans, any sentence should invariably
solve a problem. Such a conversation can
evidently be simply narrative, not requiring
any action at the organismal level.
This conclusion is indeed counterintui-
tive because in daily life, we do not experi-
ence our conversations as a problem-
solving activity, but as automated. We
understand our mother tongue, but no
other languages, because as a child our
parents, family etc. helped to install in our
brain, by teaching and gestures, the decod-
ing program for the sounds they produce.
The second aspect is mimicry of behavior
that interconnects use of language terms
with actions. The automaton aspect of liv-
ing systems follows from the fact that
99,999...% of all communication acts are
executed in an automated way because of
the pre-installation in our brain of decod-
ing programs. Conscious problem-solving
is the exception, not the rule.
The more communication acts a given
compartment can execute at a given
moment, the more complex the problem(s)
that can be solved. When two solutions for
a given problem become possible, decision-
making, both unconscious and conscious,
comes into play. Decision-making happens
at ‘bifurcation points’ (Fig. 2B), the over-
looked companions of mutations with
respect to evolution. In my opinion, this is
the basic principle underlying ‘free will’.
Why do we solve problems? Although
problem solving requires an input of energy
and is seldom pleasant, we nevertheless
engage in it. Why? In order to be rewarded
with something, most of the time uncon-
sciously. In my opinion, Life’s basic drive
(or impulse) is: “Solve problems if you want
to enjoy comfort and feel contented!.”
Denition of Life:Lifeis an
Activity, thus not a Noun but a
The following definition is compatible
with all properties of ‘the living state’, the
immaterial one inclusive, that have been
published over the years. In my opinion,
what we call “ Life” is an activity, thus a
verb, executed by carbon chemistry-based
entities that generate their own electricity car-
ried by inorganic ions. This activity is nothing
else than the total sum of all communication/
problem solving acts that are executed in a
given compartment at moment t, at all its lev-
els of compartmental organization (cell
organelle, cell, tissue, organ, etc.). There are
at least 16 possible levels of compartmental
organization as mentioned before, each of
them with a specific language(s).
Symbolic notations of ‘Life’
In its simplest formulation, the general
symbolic notation of ‘Life’ (as an activity)
LDlife; SDtotal sum; CDCommunica-
tion/problem-solving acts
More detailed:
SDtype of compartment; tDmoment at
which the communication acts are exe-
cuted; 1Dlowest level of compartmental
organization (1 Dprokaryotic cell or cell
organelle in a eukaryotic cell); jDhighest
level of compartmental organization (cell,
tissue, organ, organism, ..., aggregate,
..., population, community, the Gaia-
level); TC = Type of Chemistry; TE =
Type of Energy.
This definition says that the ‘Life’ of all
existing compartments is different, both
quantitatively (Dnumber of communica-
tion acts) and qualitatively (Dtype of
communication acts). Furthermore, it fol-
lows from the nature of communication
that life cannot remain constant, that it
changes continuously, and that it cannot
retrograde (Fig. 2B).
Is a Computer Alive? Mechanical
In the past computers have occasionally
been denoted as human exosomatic
Nowadays we rather say that
they are mechanical extensions of the
human brain. Therefore by themselves
they do not form one of the possible levels
of compartmental organization, but they
are inherent to the level ‘Tool utilizing
compartment’ (level 8 in my classification
system). Computers are not alive, even if
they can perform some problem-solving
activities and generate their own electricity
(e.g. by means of a solar panel) because
they miss the fourth pillar, namely
‘motivation’ (Fig. 1B). Maybe someday
the boundary between organic-chemistry-
based computers using inorganic ions as
carrier for their self-generated electricity
(Dliving organisms) and mechanical
computers based on metal-silica chemistry
that use electrons as carrier for their elec-
tricity will become very thin.
To distinguish between ‘truly biologi-
cal’ and ‘artificial computer or electronic
life’, the symbolic notation of life cited
before can be made more specific:
‘Biological life’:
Carbon c hemistry ¡based;ion¡borne electric currentðÞ
‘Man-made communication machines
such as computers:
Silicon Cmetal chemistry¡based;electron ¡borne electric currentðÞ
The general symbolic notation finally
Where LD‘Life activity’, SDa given sys-
tem or compartment which uses a given
Type of Chemistry, and a given type of
Energy, TE, to produce its communica-
tion actions C. The condition is that S
>0 and that actions of communication
are only ‘added up’ once.
‘Life’ is an activity at a given moment t.
This makes that to make the symbolic nota-
tion complete, ‘time’ too should be defined,
not a simple task. The definition of ‘time’
that I tried to formulate reads: “Time as
experienced in daily life (to distinguish it
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from Newton’s absolute time) could, per-
haps, be defined as the inertia by which in a
given energy-converting system, one form
(s) of energy is converted into one or more
other form(s) plus change in entropy.”
Is a Virus or a Prion Alive?
Certainly not. Because it has no mem-
brane with ion pumps and channels, a virus
cannot generate electricity carried by inor-
ganic ions. Furthermore, it has no
‘motivation’. Viruses are complexes of pro-
teins and nucleic acids that function as mes-
sengers. Prions, well known as causal agents
of the mad cow disease almost 20 y ago, are
proteins, thus chains of amino acids, that
can undergo an abnormal folding and
transmit this abnormality to other prion
protein molecules in a sort of domino effect
without using the complete normal DNA-
RNA-Protein synthesis pathway.
Consequences of ‘Life’ as a double
continuum for the theory of evolution:
My definition, if correct, has important
implications for the theory of Evolution
because it allows to broaden its scope
from “On the Origin of Species by Means
of Natural Selection,”
to “How does
‘Life’ evolve?,” or “How can transfer of
information by sender-receiver compart-
ments change in the course of time?.” To
date, for lack of a plausible definition of
‘Life’, it is silently assumed in classical
neo-Darwinism that the combined princi-
ples of micro- and macroevolution, not
even always complemented with ‘cultural
evolution’ for Homo sapiens, suffice for a
(nearly) complete theory of evolution.
However, the number of authors contest-
ing this view (with solid arguments) is
increasing rapidly.
In a recent paper I have shown that the
principles of communication open new ave-
nues not only for the seamless integration of
organic- and cultural evolution but also for
constructing a much needed Extended Evo-
lutionary Synthesis (EES).
The difference
in ‘Pillars of the temple of Life’ in Fig. 1A
versus in Fig. 1B illustrates that by replac-
ing the ‘cell’ by the ‘communicating
compartment’ as the universal unit of struc-
ture, function and evolution, a truly novel
paradigm in biology and in evolutionary
theory is emerging. The novelty in the com-
munication- and problem-solving approach
of evolution theory is that ‘Life’ is not a sin-
gle, genetic continuum but a double hard-
ware-software continuum with 2 possible
modes for the (transgenerational) continua-
tion of information: the one with reproduc-
tion the hardware way (yielding children),
and the other with reproduction the soft-
ware way (teaching-learning where rele-
vant), yielding pupils.
This approach also questions the com-
monly held view that Selection is the
(nearly) universally accepted driving force
of evolution. Indeed, selection is itself a
result from prior problem-solving activ-
It mimics doing an exam: not the
teacher does the selection but by answer-
ing the questions (right or wrong) the stu-
dents themselves. The teacher only builds
up the ‘gradients’ (exam questions) and
he/she only verifies which students suc-
ceed in problem-solving. Thus not the
posing of the questions but solving them
is the driving force in generating success.
This conclusion leads to an at first
glance unacceptable conclusion, namely
that if problem-solving is the driving force
of evolution, that this also means that Life
itself is the universal driving force of its
own evolution:
The communication act is the basic unit
of Life (as an activity)
Any act of Communication is a Problem-
solving act, instrumental to adaptation
Communication/Problem-solving activity,
thus Life itself drives its own evolution
This looks like a circular conclusion, thus
absolutely worthless. However, it is not cir-
cular but spiral-like as depicted in Fig. 2B.
Thus Life cannot other than constantly
develop in the short run and evolve in the
long run in a unidirectional way, because
communication is always unidirectional.
One should admire the ingenuity of
this principle.
Concluding Remarks
The definition I forwarded in this
paper meets all essential criteria of a
plausible definition of Life, as outlined by
Schejter and Agassi.
It does not invoke
any not yet known property of living mat-
ter. It offers a novel approach, simply by
rearranging in a logical order known data
from both the exact sciences and the
humanities. As a result, the forest (Life’s
nature) becomes visible for the trees (the
various properties/pillars of living matter).
Because my expertise is mainly in the exact
sciences, in particular in the biochemistry
of signaling pathways in neurobiology and
endocrinology, my approach focuses more
on the biochemical/biophysical and evolu-
tionary ancient aspects of ‘Life’ that are
present in Mono-organismal compart-
ments than on linguistic- or philosophical
ones relevant to Poly-organismal compart-
ments. For me ‘Life’ is mainly written in
the language of chemistry that enabled the
coming into existence of the cell that
became the common ancestor of all con-
temporary cells. This language is well con-
served in evolution up to the present day.
When some organisms became terrestrial,
superstructures in signaling became neces-
sary. One should keep in mind that the
superstructure of human language is prob-
ably less than 10 million years old. Com-
munication by the internet dates from a
couple of decades ago.
It is hard to believe that 2 truly differ-
ence-making properties of living matter as
compared to non-living matter, both
being practised by ourselves continuously
in daily life, namely communication and
problem-solving, remained unnoticed for
so long. My analysis of the cause of this
blindness, from which I also suffered for
quite some years, is that only very few
people do an effort to analyze the princi-
ples of something that is experienced as
self-evident, like communication, because
one thinks that “everybody knows.” Yet,
self-evident phenomena are seldom sim-
ple. It is self-evident that an apple will
always fall downwards and not upwards.
It took the great mind of Isaac Newton to
formulate the laws of gravity. To date, we
still don’t fully understand the physical
principles underlying gravity as a force. A
similar situation prevails for the cognitive
memory: everybody uses it, but nobody
understands how it really works.
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with respect to some ethical questions,
e.g., with respect to the status of coma
patients and fetuses. A good definition of
‘Life’ is also relevant for the humanities. I
can imagine that students in philosophy,
psychology, sociology, the communica-
tion sciences and economy to name a few
disciplines, might gain more insight in
their specific fields of interest by becoming
aware of the causal relationship between
communication and problem solving
activities, based on 4 pillars.
Biology as a discipline, despite its
enormous successes in recent decades
and proof of the contrary, continues to
be perceived as a less hardcore science
than physics, chemistry or mathematics.
In the minds of many, biology is rather
a compilation of interesting facts than a
truly fundamental science because it has
(as yet) no unifying principle like E D
in physics or the atomic theory in
chemistry. With my approach this can
change drastically as it unveils a candi-
date unifying principle that reads:
“Living matter, being invariably orga-
nized in the form of sender-receiver
compartments, incessantly talks/transfers
information, thereby solving problems
and changing continuously, both in the
short run (development) and the long
run (evolution).” In very concise form:
“While talking, Living matter solves
problems” and L DPC.
Replacing ‘the cell’ by ‘the sender-receiver
(communicating) compartment’ as the uni-
versal functional unit in biological systems,
the prokaryotic cell being the smallest such
unit, offers many advantages for teaching.
Textbooks of general biology should
(urgently) incorporate chapters on the most
important activities of all living beings, namely
communication and problem solving. They
should also list clear definitions of ‘Death’,
‘Life’, ‘communication’, ‘information’,
‘gradients’, ‘dissipative systems’, etc. and stim-
ulate the use of the terms ‘hardware’ and
‘software’ in biology.
With respect to the ongoing discus-
sion whether or not neo-Darwinism
needs an upgrade,
the theory of evolu-
tion – the very heart of biology – in its
present form could shed many of its
shortcoming if the principles of commu-
nication were better incorporated into it.
In particular, such an integrative advance
could render superfluous the Cartesian
mind-body distinction and the dichot-
omy between cultural and genetic/organic
evolution that grew out of it. In my
approach there is ample room for feel-
ings, emotions, decision making, prob-
lem-solving, ethical principles as well as
for optimism in life’s basic drive.
Paraphrasing Theodosius Dobzhansky,
my final message to students is: Keep
always in mind that nothing in biology
and evolutionary theory makes sense
except in the light of communication and
problem solving.”
Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest
No potential conflicts of interest were
As this paper marks the end of
teaching career, I wish to thank the
thousands of students who acted as con-
structive helpers in shaping my ideas on
how to develop a system for explaining
and teaching ‘Life’s very nature’. Also
thanks to Julie Puttemans and Marijke
Christiaens for preparing the figures
and to colleague Carlos Steel for some
philosophical discussion’.
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... At first glance, matter and information appear to be polar entities that are not inter-convertible. However, we later show there is a close relationship between information and matter that upgrades continuously in a coherent and hierarchical order [6,7]. ...
... Lipid membranes can form in micelles or coacervates, thereby representing an evolutionary important step in the development of a typical cell membrane, as found from archaebacteria to eukaryotes [7,51]. Overall, the presence of cell membranes paves the way for many bioelectric phenomena. ...
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This review gathers recent findings in biophysics that shed light on the biological principle of self-organization, spanning from molecules to more complicated systems with higher information processing capacity. The focus is on “feedback loops” from information and matter to an exchange component with a more fundamental meaning than “cybernetic regulation” and “maintenance of homeostasis”. This article proposes that electric and electromagnetic forces are the most important mediators over large distances. Field-like mediation is distinguished from cell-to-cell communication by special electric- or ion-guiding mechanisms that create additional pathways to the “classical” mediators such as nerve conduction or blood flow. Resonance phenomena from phonons and photons in the visible range will be discussed in relation to organelles, cytoskeletal elements and molecules. In this context, the aqueous surrounding of molecules and cells is an important aspect. Many of these phenomena are caused by quantum physics, such as the tunneling of electrons in enzymes or in other coherent working systems. This suggests that quantum information processing is also spread over large-scale areas of an organism.
... Its success is based on its capacity to confront a range of stressful uncertainties and derive from that experience a set of heritable biological resolutions. In fact, it can be said that life cannot exist except through those specific conditions in which problem solving is required (De Loof 2015a;Torday 2015a, b;Miller 2016a). Directly put, without environmental uncertainties, there would be no problems to solve. ...
Our contemporary era permits a harnessing of fresh contemporary resources to evolutionary biology from the emerging fields of metagenomics (the direct study of genetic material from environmental samples), epigenomics (the complete range of epigenetic factors that influence gene expression), and hologenomics (the complete genetic complement of an organism, including its microbial fraction). None of these fields mattered or were even thought to exist within the twentieth century. With the productive application of critical research from these disciplines, evolutionary biology can now be explored from a vantage that was unavailable to Darwin and the myriad others that followed in the ensuing decades.
... Its success is based on its capacity to confront a range of stressful uncertainties and derive from that experience a set of heritable biological resolutions. In fact, it can be said that life cannot exist except through those speci c conditions in which problem solving is required (De Loof 2015a;Torday 2015a, b;Miller 2016a). Directly put, without environmental uncertainties, there would be no problems to solve. ...
Full-text available
The Singularity/Big Bang is believed to have instantiated the Universe 13.8 billion years ago, giving rise to everything in the cosmos, including the Earth and its biosphere (Hawking 1998). From this unitary beginning, a path opens from the first primitive unicell to consciousness as one continuous process of dualities (matter and energy existing as two complimentary parts) formed after the Big Bang (Gionti 2015), culminating in the vital mechanism of homeostasis (Torday and Rehan 2012). By regarding the narrative of the cosmos and consciousness as having common origins and epistemology, predictions emerge that can illuminate aspects of biology that have previously been considered dogmatic or enigmatic.
... Its success is based on its capacity to confront a range of stressful uncertainties and derive from that experience a set of heritable biological resolutions. In fact, it can be said that life cannot exist except through those speci c conditions in which problem solving is required (De Loof 2015a;Torday 2015a, b;Miller 2016a). Directly put, without environmental uncertainties, there would be no problems to solve. ...
Aside from the transfer of genetic material and a large array of bioactive molecules by endocytosis and other cellular mechanisms, there are many additional sources of information exchange among cells. The primary cilia are one such example. These slender projections on microbes and cells are an essential element for both their communication processes and mobility (Wheatley et al. 1996). They also serve an important sensory function that is part of the cell’s analysis of mechanical and chemical signals, which is a consequential part of their information space. As such, they are part of what is termed the “senome” of the cell. The “senome” represents the summation of all the sensory inputs of the cell derived through the use of all of its sensory apparatus and tools (Baluška and Miller 2018). This is the means by which the cognitive cell can assess its environment as it attempts to maintain homeostatic balance. Even bacteria show a high degree of sensory complexity linked to sensorimotor circuits that activate at the plasma membrane and ramify throughout the cell (Lyon 2015). These inputs feed adaptive behaviors. In effect, the senome is the cognitive gateway that receives information that can be channeled from the external environment into the interior of the organism to support homeostasis (Baluška and Miller 2018). How that information is used becomes a function of the cellular information management system (Miller 2016a, 2017; Miller and Torday 2018; Miller et al. 2019). Therefore, the senome is the biological nexus of the means by which an organism attaches to its informational matrix. Its sensory memory is then encoded within a variety of bioactive molecules as well as its genetic complement so that all aspects of the cell participate.
... Its success is based on its capacity to confront a range of stressful uncertainties and derive from that experience a set of heritable biological resolutions. In fact, it can be said that life cannot exist except through those speci c conditions in which problem solving is required (De Loof 2015a;Torday 2015a, b;Miller 2016a). Directly put, without environmental uncertainties, there would be no problems to solve. ...
In 2010, the evolutionary biologist, mathematician, and geneticist, Richard Lewontin noted that the standard narrative of evolution by natural selection does not explain the actual forms of life that have evolved. He further contended that there is an immense amount of biology that is missing from neo-Darwinism. Other scientists also agree (Pigliucci 2007; Baluška 2009; Witzany 2010; Shapiro 2011; Torday 2015a, b; Miller 2016b, 2017; Miller and Torday 2018). Therefore, it can be defended that the central tenets of the modern synthesis should be questioned. Of these areas of inquiry, the most pertinent is the exact role and limits of natural selection in any evolutionary process. If selection has primacy in evolutionary development, does it proceed according to strict gene frequencies? Is it propelled by random genetic mutations? Is Crick’s central dogma that asserts a unilateral direction of the flow of biological information from DNA to RNA still applicable in the twenty-first century? Certainly, there is no requirement that the correct answers have to be any exact antipode of prior beliefs. Nor must any contradictions be absolute. Therefore, even a substantial reformulation of evolutionary development need not be an unyielding negation of the past. Instead, it is tasked to incorporate the weighty thoughts of prior generations of scientists and direct them toward a fuller understanding of this complicated issue.
... Its success is based on its capacity to confront a range of stressful uncertainties and derive from that experience a set of heritable biological resolutions. In fact, it can be said that life cannot exist except through those speci c conditions in which problem solving is required (De Loof 2015a;Torday 2015a, b;Miller 2016a). Directly put, without environmental uncertainties, there would be no problems to solve. ...
Any attempt to provide a coherent alternative evolutionary narrative to standard Darwinian tenets should offer a brief overview of the progression of scholarly thought about evolutionary mechanisms. All narratives focus on Charles Darwin's seminal “On the Origin of Species” (Darwin 1859). When Darwin offered that influential work in 1859, he was unaware of the existence of genes. He was a naturalist with a gift for scrupulous observation. Based upon his studies, he proposed the major dictums that have since guided evolutionary thoughts. He offered two linked primary arguments. Evolution proceeded by a process of natural selection through the gradual modification of inherited variations. Notably, the concept of natural selection was not original to Darwin. In 1831, a Scottish horticulturalist, Patrick Matthew had proposed a theory of natural selection, and Darwin was acquainted with his work (Rampino 2010). Another English naturalist and explorer, Alfred Russel Wallace was in communication with Darwin prior to his publication of On the Origin of Species. His correspondence with Darwin had outlined a deliberate mechanism for evolution that incorporated the concept of natural selection. However, it was Darwin's considerable reputation in the scientific community that gave an effective voice to this explosively controversial theory and energized its broader intellectual scrutiny. In this manner, Darwin was substantially adding to an already existing and lively debate. The nineteenth century French naturalist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck also believed in evolution, and argued that it proceeded through natural laws. He and his many advocates proposed that individuals could inherit characteristics from their ancestors based on the patterns of use of the various faculties (Bowler 2003). For example, the long necks of giraffes were thought to be due to the stretching of their necks to reach high branches of trees. Darwin did not specifically disagree. He had espoused a variant of Lamarckism that he termed “pangenesis” in his 1868 text, Variation in Plants and Animals Under Domestication. A German biologist, Ernst Haeckel, added his own form of support in the 1870s with his well-known “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” hypothesis (Bowler 2003). He proposed that the stages of development of an embryo conformed to successive stages of its ancestral evolutionary development. Further reinforcement for this position emerged in the latter part of the nineteenth century through Wilhelm Haeckel's proposal of “orthogenesis.” Strenuously promoted by the German zoologist Theodore Eimer, orthogenesis was the process by which an organism directed toward a determined course by internal forces. In that circumstance, variation is not random, and selection need not be preponderant since a species is carried forward automatically by inner dynamics (Fox and Wolf 2006). Although the concept that one biological mechanism builds upon another in a non-random manner fell into substantial disfavor in the twentieth century, its basic validity has been resurrected on the basis of modern research in cell–cell signaling (Torday and Miller Jr 2017). It can be seen, then, that evolution has been the subject of intense and longstanding debate. Vigorous controversies remain about the primacy of natural selection, the role of acquired characteristics, sources of variation, and whether or not the evolution is random.
It should be the ultimate goal of any theory of evolution to delineate the contours of an integrative system to answer the question: How does life (in all its complexity) evolve (which can be called mega‐evolution)? But how to plausibly define ‘life’? My answer (1994–2023) is: ‘life’ sounds like a noun, but denotes an activity, and thus is a verb. Life ( L ) denotes nothing else than the total sum (∑) of all acts of communication (transfer of information) ( C ) executed by any type of senders–receivers at all their levels (up to at least 15) of compartmental organization: L = ∑ C . The ‘communicating compartment’ is better suited to serve as the universal unit of structure, function and evolution than the cell, the smallest such unit. By paying as much importance to communication activity as to the Central Dogma of molecular biology, a wealth of new insights unfold. The major ones are as follows. (1) Living compartments have not only a genetic memory (DNA), but also a still enigmatic cognitive and an electrical memory system (and thus a triple memory system). (2) Complex compartments can have up to three types of progeny: genetic descendants/children, pupils/learners and electricians. (3) Of particular importance to adaptation, any act of communication is a problem‐solving act because all messages need to be decoded. Hence through problem‐solving that precedes selection, life itself is the driving force of its own evolution (a very clever but counterintuitive and unexpected logical deduction). Perhaps, this is the ‘vital force’ philosopher and Nobel laureate (in 1927) Henri Bergson searched for but did not find. image
All science began as description, skewed through our subjective senses (Bohm 1980). Physics, chemistry, and biology were all established within these same circumstances. However, the two former disciplines have ultimately become “hard” mechanistic sciences by being thoroughly grounded within prediction, testable, and refutable. Despite its so-called mechanisms, only biology has remained descriptive (Nicholson 2012; Moss 2012). Roadblocks have limited our understanding of the origin and development of biological forms, and have hindered the advancement of the biological sciences (Torday 2013). Yet, when biology is deconstructed in reverse in both time and space back to its unicellular origins, then its evolution can be followed forward from generation to generation (Torday and Rehan 2012).
A prior series of peer-reviewed journal articles (Torday and Rehan 2007; Torday 2013, 2015a, b, 2018a, b) and monographs (Torday and Rehan 2012; Torday et al. 2017) have elucidated how cell–cell signaling for form and function during embryologic development can be exploited to determine the evolution of such processes. This is particularly true when the mechanisms of development are identified as the source of phylogenetic changes in physiologic traits such as the lung, kidney, skin, and bone (Torday and Rehan 2012, 2017).
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Darwin’s theory of evolution with focus on the origin of new species was formulated in an era in which the principles of genetics, biochemistry, physiology, communication etc. were not an issue. Numerous revolutionary new insights have since been gained. 1. The ‘sender-receiver communicating compartment”, a classical but still valuable concept, is better suited than ‘the cell’ to serve the role of universal unit of structure and function, ‘the cell’ being the smallest such unit; 2. Not only genetic, but non-genetic mechanisms as well contribute to variability that can be passed onto the next generation; 3. Natural selection, the almost unanimously accepted universal driving force of evolution, is itself the result of preceding problem-solving activity enabled by the principles of communication; 4. A logically deduced, unambiguous definition of ‘Life’ has been published so that now the key question can shift from Darwin’s formulation towards “How does ‘Life’, with its many aspects, change in the course of time”? Communication activity represents the very heart of being alive, thus of ‘Life itself’. In digital-era wording, living entities are hardware-software double continua. This paper advances an easily teachable change in paradigm, namely that evolution concerns ever changing complexes of signalling pathways, chemical and other, that occasionally yield both new species and additional (at least 16) levels of communication. This approach complements the genetic basis of the New Synthesis with several as yet undervalued mechanisms from physiology and development. In particular, ‘the universal self-generated electrical dimension of cells’ and Lamarckism deserve an upgrade.
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When the "sender-receiver", also known as "communicating compartment", instead of "the cell", is adopted as the universal unit of structure and function of living matter, organic- and cultural evolution automatically emerge as the two sides of the same coin. This proposed conceptual switch makes "problem-solving activity" instead of gene-protein activity a key in understanding adaptation and evolution. The concept "problem-solving activity" has no teleological meaning in neo-Darwinism. This paradigm shift also allows for a plausible definition of "life" (L), as the sum of communication acts (C), L = ∑C. Any sender-receiver harbors two memory systems: genetic and cognitive. Using a human metaphor, where relevant, two types of progeny can (co)exist: "physical children" and "pupils". Any act of communication is a problem-solving act, because all messages, regardless of their nature, are coded. Hence, any receiver invariably faces the problem of how to extract and respond to the incoming information. Some biological problems are solved "the hardware way" (Darwinian organic evolution), others "the software way" (Lamarckian cultural evolution). Mega-Evolution means life's evolution as a hardware-software double continuum governed by the principles of both genetics and communication.
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Perhaps development is more than just morphogenesis. We now recognize that the conceptus expresses epigenetic marks that heritably affect it phenotypically, indicating that the offspring are to some degree genetically autonomous, and that ontogeny and phylogeny may coordinately determine the fate of such marks. This scenario mechanistically links ecology, ontogeny and phylogeny together as an integrated mechanism for evolution for the first time. As a functional example, the Parathyroid Hormone-related Protein (PTHrP) signaling duplicated during the Phanerozoic water-land transition. The PTHrP signaling pathway was critical for the evolution of the skeleton, skin barrier, and lung function, based on experimental evidence, inferring that physiologic stress can profoundly affect adaptation through internal selection, giving seminal insights to how and why vertebrates were able to evolve from water to land. By viewing evolution from its inception in unicellular organisms, driven by competition between pro- and eukaryotes, the emergence of complex biologic traits from the unicellular cell membrane offers a novel way of thinking about the process of evolution from its beginnings, rather than from its consequences as is traditionally done. And by focusing on the epistatic balancing mechanisms for calcium and lipid homeostasis, the evolution of unicellular organisms, driven by competition between pro- and eukaryotes, gave rise to the emergence of complex biologic traits derived from the unicellular plasma lemma, offering a unique way of thinking about the process of evolution. By exploiting the cellular-molecular mechanisms of lung evolution as ontogeny and phylogeny, the sequence of events for the evolution of the skin, kidney and skeleton become more transparent. This novel approach to the evolution question offers equally novel insights to the primacy of the unicellular state, hologenomics and even a priori bioethical decisions.
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In his recent interview for the Guardian Craig Venter is elaborating about a household appliance for the future, Digital Biological Converter (DBC). Current prototype, which can produce DNA, is a box attached to the computer which receives DNA sequences over the internet to synthesize DNA; later in future also viruses, proteins, and living cells. This would help the household members to produce, e.g. , insulin, virus vaccines or phages that fight antibiotic resistant bacteria. In more distant future, Craig Venter’s hope is that the DBC will generate living cells via so-called “Universal Recipient Cell”. This platform will allow digitally transformed genomes, downloaded from the internet, to form new cells fitted for the particular needs such as therapeutics, food, fuel or cleaning water. In contrast to this, the authors propose that DNA sequences of genomes do not represent 1:1 depictions of unequivocal coding structures such as genes. In light of the variety of epigenetic markings, DNA can store a multitude of further meanings hidden under the superficial grammar of nucleic acid sequences.
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This article offers a novel, enlightened concept for determining the mechanism of evolution. It is based on homeostasis, which distinguishes life from non-life and as such is the universal mechanism for the evolution of all living organisms. This view of evolution is logical, mechanistic, non-scalar, predictive, testable, and falsifiable, and it illuminates the epistemological relationships between physics and biology, ontogeny and phylogeny, development and aging, ultimate and proximate causation, health and disease. In addition to validating Haeckel's biogenetic law and Lamarckian epigenetics, reflecting the enabling value of the cellular approach, this perspective also expresses the evolutionary process at the cell-molecular level, since the mechanism of cell communication itself is universal in biology, in keeping with a Kuhnian paradigm shift. This approach may even elucidate the nature and evolution of consciousness as a manifestation of the cellular continuum from unicellular to multicellular life. We need such a functional genomic mechanism for the process of evolution if we are to make progress in biology and medicine. Like Copernican heliocentrism, a cellular approach to evolution may fundamentally change humankind's perceptions about our place in the universe.
Biological evolution represents one of the most successful, but also controversial, scientific concepts. Ever since Charles Darwin formulated his version of evolution via natural selection, biological sciences experienced explosive development and progress. First of all, although Darwin could not explain how traits of organisms, selected via natural selection, are inherited and passed down along generations; his theory stimulated research in this respect and resulted in the establishment of genetics and, still later, with the discovery of DNA and genome some hundred years after his evolutionary theory. Nevertheless, there are also several weaknesses in classical Darwinian as well as the Neodarwinian gene-centric view of the biological evolution. The most serious drawback is its narrow focus: the modern evolutionary synthesis, as formulated in the 20th century, is based on the concept of gene and on mathematical/statistical analysis of populations. While the Neodarwinism is still generally valid theory of biological evolution, its narrow focus and incompatibility with several new findings and discoveries calls for its update and/or transformation. Either it will be replaced with an updated version or, if not flexible enough, it will be replaced by a new theory. In his book ‘Evolution - A New View from the 21st Century’, James A. Shapiro has discussed these problems as well as newly emerging aspects which are changing our understanding of biological evolution. This new book joins a row of several other recent books highlighting the same issues.
Experimental results in epigenetics and related fields of biological research show that the Modern Synthesis (neo-Darwinist) theory of evolution requires either extension or replacement. This article examines the conceptual framework of neo-Darwinism, including the concepts of 'gene', 'selfish', 'code', 'program', 'blueprint', 'book of life', 'replicator' and 'vehicle'. This form of representation is a barrier to extending or replacing existing theory as it confuses conceptual and empirical matters. These need to be clearly distinguished. In the case of the central concept of 'gene', the definition has moved all the way from describing a necessary cause (defined in terms of the inheritable phenotype itself) to an empirically testable hypothesis (in terms of causation by DNA sequences). Neo-Darwinism also privileges 'genes' in causation, whereas in multi-way networks of interactions there can be no privileged cause. An alternative conceptual framework is proposed that avoids these problems, and which is more favourable to an integrated systems view of evolution. © 2015. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd.