What is Life?
Before we label anything as something which is alive we must define the criterion for life itself. Most of us probably know the general characteristics of life and living things; the ability to reproduce sexually or a-sexually, to grow, to die and to move. When we think of life we do tend to basically separate things which move by their own accord, by storing and releasing energy in reaction to external stimuli, from objects which move under the basic laws of physics. Of course living things obey the laws of physics but their movements arise from a complicated information processing of external and internal stimuli.
One could propose that living things must show some form of consciousness of themselves or their surroundings. If we think about the general animal kingdom, this is partly true, humans have high self awareness and so do dolphins and elephants. Other animals show less consciousness of themselves and their surroundings due to less complex neurological circuitry. As we work our way down the evolutionary tree, self - consciousness becomes a less convincing characteristic of life. It is very difficult to justify whether a plant, or small bacteria are conscious of their own surroundings let alone themselves. Their structures are built to merely produce certain physiological outputs under certain external inputs e.g. photosynthesis. Under this light, consciousness is not a necessary condition for life but merely a sufficient one.
In order for us to really explore the necessary conditions for and most basic characteristics of life we must focus our attention to the oldest living organisms known to man. These organisms are mainly unicellular (single celled) ones such as viruses and bacteria.
Bacteria are part of a huge family of prokaryotic organisms which do not have a membrane bound nucleus. These organisms are much simpler than eukaryotes which do have membrane bound nucluei and this category contains a wide range of organisms from simple celled organisms to mammals. Bacteria contain a nucleus which contains all the DNA, RNA and the nucleic proteins which help build the organism. The rest of the bacterium is made up of proteins which chemically breakdown the environment and use the products for energy to fuel their metabolism. If bacteria grow to a fixed cell size due to an optimal environment they then a-sexually reproduce through a process could binary fission.
|1) Bacterium at maximum size. 2) DNA splits. 3) DNA strands move to the poles of the cell. 4) A new cell wall starts to form between the two strands. 5) Two seperate cells have formed. 6) The DNA strands coil up.|
As you can see from the video bacteria are extremely simple examples of life, they metabolize and they reproduce. Basic metabolism means to carry out vital chemical transformations which sustain the structure of the organism and allow it to reproduce. However when we look at bacteria and other unicellular prokaryotes or simple celled organisms we wonder whether there must have been much simpler organisms or molecules which showed signs of life but were closer to inanimate matter. There must have been a gradual transition from basic chemical reactions of elements to basic units of life. This bridge, which could answer the origins of life, is still unknown to humans. Many speculate and others experimented that shows signs of basic chemical reactions occurring in bubbles which split into more bubbles carrying on the reactions. There is one important question left unanswered which is important for our discussion... what came first DNA or proteins? Or was it some other similar molecule such as RNA? I think whatever it was it must have contained a molecule which induced specific reactions and it must have had some kind of structural integrity. For it to be differentiated with normal chemical reactions and so forth this basic building block of life must have been able to copy itself and reproduce.
The replicator which in organic life is the gene, is the unit of selection, which is the main protagonist in evolution. All selection acts upon genes, selecting those with higher fitness or those more desirable (human selection e.g. dog breeds). The gene is a part of a DNA molecule. Life became more complex through the natural selection acting on the random mutations of DNA strands which occurred during splitting and reproduction in the early molecules of life, favoring those organisms which reproduced more than others (through faster reactions or growth rates etc.). Over time simple organisms conjugated and evolved into more complicated and larger beings as genes would be favored if they instructed within the same organism. All organisms are essentially vehicles which have evolved to help the genes which instruct them to survive generation after generation. This is the idea proposed in the selfish gene and more so in the extended phenotype by Richard Dawkins. Essentially all life is is simply the selection of different genes either by natural selection or other manual selection.
How Could Culture Have Any Relation to Life?
We must focus on what we have said about life, ignoring all the complicated characteristics, and keep the replicator and unit structure in the forefront of our minds. When we think about defining culture we do tend to conjure up some vague collection of words which associate all human endeavor ranging from art, literature, philosophy, television and science. What I want to argue is that culture is essentially a category of life which differs to physical life only by nature of the building blocks which construct the replicator (the gene) and all of the phenotypes (organisms) and phenotypic effects of said genes. Cultural life may also differ in the selection dynamics and mutation, replication dynamics. However there is still a replicator. In virtue of our prior discussion I must then propose a sound argument which describes the basic replicator in cultural life and outline some selection mechanisms and phenotypic effects.
Dawkins originally proposed a memetic theory of ideas in the selfish gene and he developed this idea in the extended phenotype and the god delusion. This theory proposes that cultural units of information can be defined and separated as memes or a collection of memes. Memes are cultural units of information which seem to become copied and replicated in the cultural world (known as meme pools) through cultural processes such as word-of-mouth, SMS, email, TV, internet, facebook, letters, magazines etc. these memes are then 'selected' due to their fitness in cultural environments. Some memes flourish in certain cultural environments and go to the abyss in others... memes also resemble genetic mutation in that each time a meme is replicated from one brain to the other its form may change and each selection environment can either favor these changes or not. Cultural selection essentially acts on memetic mutation which is actually more volatile and rapid compared to genetic mutation. This might be a lot to take in now, so let us reverse and describe the meme a bit more.
As we said.... a meme is a cultural unit of information which is replicated through time and takes part in selection games (different selection mechanisms in a variety of environments). Let's look at some examples of memes. We can look at the classical world of art. Each piece of art can be said to be a meme as each piece acts as unique units of culture and has a specific structure. Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is a meme which has survived a long time. Many people would argue that once the painting has gone the meme surely must go? Not necessarily because the meme has been replicated through time... during its original unveiling it was just one of itself but over time artists sketched it.... photographers captured it and as major printing, television and the internet came along it has spread.
It has succeeded i.e. survived in many meme pools, in the meme pool of art it stands as one of the most well-known (well spread) pieces of art and has survived selection criteria such as aesthetic appeal, history, significance and the fact it was painted by Da Vinci. Its success in many other areas of culture are due to unique memetic mutations... for example focusing on the mystery of the smile or these obvious memetic mutations:
The memetic mutation on the right is more of a memetic combination in which two memes, in this case Megan Fox and Mona Lisa, come together and then become a unique meme. This does not happen in physical life but can occur in cultural life. There maybe many different forms of life in the universe and many different ways life can behave. The success of any memetic mutation or combination wholly depends on selection.
One replication occurs when one meme is copied from one brain to the other. The meme does not necessarily have to be accepted by any brain at all. For example I could send you a song which is a unit of cultural information and you could dislike the song. Either way I have copied the song in some form to your brain, the meme has spread. However if you liked the song most likely you would share it with someone else to enjoy. Now you can see something that resembles selection. Those memes which are more likely to be accepted are more likely to spread and become successful. The opposite can also occur, for example the idea of Rolf Harris could spread from brain to brain solely because it is disliked and rejected. However, I won't go into this in detail here, on the whole ideas which are more easily accepted and simple information wise will become more successful.
The internet has made memetic selection much much more easier to witness, especially with simple image sharers such as imgur, instagram and reddit. On these sites which act as simple memetic environments we witness the clear competition of memes against the other. The selection rules are not as simple and depend upon human psychology and the general climate of culture at the time.. this is all very complicated but we must remember that there must exist selection rules for some memes to succeed against others.
On imgur successful memes are upvoted (resembles acceptance) and shared. As it attains more votes it usually attains more shares which act as true replications. The upvotes enable it a higher probability for it to be shared. So successful memes are those which become upvoted and shared the most. In the meme pool, successful memes will eventually mutate and this is where selection will kick in, those mutations which attain slightly more upvotes and shares than the original will prosper... those mutations which do worse than the original will die out. Over time the mutation will become superior. Memetic combinations will occur often and if two successful memes come together the new meme could potentially become even more successful through the accumulation of upvotes and shares.
This is a simple and easy way to show the selection process of memes. This process has been occuring since human culture really began, even in language development, easier phonetics will prevail etc. however not on the same scale or time duration. Memetic replication and mutation would have happened much slower during the middle ages than now. This phenomenon does not occur in physical life. Genuinely evolution is very slow and does not vary its time scale as much as culture could.
As genes have come together over time to form complex organisms etc. to them survive through time so have memes. One contentious and famous meme with a large number of phenotypic effects is religion... the belief in God. Over time this meme has mutated into many different forms i.e. different religions with many different dogmas (combination of other memes with the main meme). The great similarities between all these memes, some things which was most definitely integral for the success of the original 'God' meme are its worshiping and fundamentalistic rituals. For example, most people who accept a particular religious 'God' meme have a great tendency to reject any other meme if it contradicts or undermines the 'God' meme even if it is done irrationally. It seems the meme is essentially manipulating human brains to aid in it s survival. How does this aid its survival? Well put simply.. it stops all other memes which could potentially overhaul its status as most successful meme in one great big swoop. Take Muslim communities for example... their society has been wholly focused on muslim faith and dogma for centuries because they believe that their view is 100% correct and perfect. They are fundamentalists. However we can now look deeper and see that the meme behind the muslim faith encourages this behavior in order for it to survive through time. It has worked.
An interesting question can be made here... if religion, anthropomorphism and the idea of God etc. came before science how is science so prevalent today? Well one reason is this, many of the first scientists were also religious e.g. Newton the meme of science as we know of it today did not exist then, it (as a collection of other simple memes) has evolved since then. The simple memes that resemble science.. such as a empiricism and mathematical logic were coming together then in a meme known as natural philosophy. Science then did not explicitly go against religion and even if it did many of its believers hid this characteristic so as to ensure the gradual acceptance of science itself. Through different accumulations of empirical and theoretical ideas (memes) science grew and was successful in the cultural meme pool due to its success in predicting how the world works and industrial inventions. Science is also a successful meme as it is adaptable i.e. it changes if some of its constituent memes goes against experiment. The beauty of science is that if any theory does not hold to experiment it is discarded in favor of (memetically mutated) other theories which explain the new phenomena. We are witnessing, and have been witnessing for hundreds of years as a species, a huge memetic clash between religion and science. Will the phenotypic effects of religion win over the useful, adaptable and rational science? In general we are seeing a decline in religious belief... maybe it's because many realize that they have not yet accepted religion but carry out its rules out of fear rather than reasonable acceptance. This is why I think science will win this memetic clash, those who accept and share it have accepted it through reflection, experiment and with conscious inquisition of the world around them.
So back to phenotypes, other than religion many memes, upon acceptance, do encourage certain actions to enhance their survival or success in the meme pool. One notable phenotype shared by many memes is the bracelet wearing phenotype... so if you accept a meme say '#FreeGaza' and have it on your person than it is easier for this meme to spread without you really expending too much energy into it. It is more likely to be spread with people seeing a specific bracelet and knowing it stands for a certain meme than people actually speaking to others etc. Also the phenotype itself can be easily spread if it is fashionable or useful.
I really do think that there is a case to made for culture being a form of life in so that life is defined as that which has units of replicators. Culture is of course much more complicated than physical life and in a sense does depend on physical life itself. However as with all physical processes, entropy wins, chaos takes over, complexity has strength.... as physical life becomes more complicated maybe there comes a point where a new form of life extends from physical life and forms rules and dynamics much different to its origin.