Some biological mysteries that really baffle me

Biology is a science that does not lack mystery. In fact, I think that the less “mathematical” a branch of science is, the more mystery is bound to have. A well-known saying states that we know more of what goes on at the center of a star than what we know about our own brains. And this is no exaggeration at all.

This is not to say that biology is “unmathematical”, far from it; however, it is true that the mathematical applications to biology are quite rudimentary at this moment in time, especially when compared to mathematical physics, for example.

I once saw the following slogan at a Society for Neuroscience meeting: “A picture is worth a thousand words, and a number is worth a thousand pictures”, which I interpret as praise for the increasing quantification of the biological sciences.

All of that seems reasonable, maybe even true, but at our current state of development, we are far, very far from a significant degree of sophistication in this sense. I am absolutely sure that in more than one case, the mathematics that we really need for studying certain aspects of the living world has not even been invented or discovered yet. Sure, we can construct models with various degrees of complexity, but how do these models truly relate to the real thing?

Which brings to my mind some of the mysteries that keeps my mind active. Those mysteries that I would like to know more about before I leave this rock. Truth be told, maybe a smarter biologist than I —And there are plenty of those around— knows more than I do about them.

Anyway, here’s some of the things that should keep me awake at night, and which in fact, are keeping me awake right now, as I am writing these words at past midnight in my corner of the world:

*The boundary between life and non-life.
Life is made of matter; and matter is in the chemical sense, atoms. Even though life seems to include a rather limited proportion of the 100-odd types of atoms that grace the periodic table, the are not atoms that are exclusively used by life. Carbon in particular is the premier example. Carbon seems to be the atom responsible for the exquisite variety of compounds that are used by life. However, carbon also forms diamonds, which while beautiful, are not alive; not even a little bit. So, where is the specific point, if there is only one, when an ensemble of molecules reaches the degree of complexity that allows it to self-sustain as long as it has a way of harvesting energy from the environment and use that energy for self-maintenance and all other life-related activities?

I know, a long sentence, but it is warranted… Of course, you realize that I am asking, albeit in a rather convoluted way: What is life?

*Metamorphosis
Now, here’s a tough one. I have been reading quite a bit about metamorphosis recently and it blows my mind. Even if we limit ourselves to the classical examples of frogs from tadpoles or butterflies from caterpillars (and trust me on this one, there are way weirder examples) this phenomenon is quite awe-inspiring. As intriguing as it is that a pollywog hatches form an egg, eventually loses its tail and grows legs, it is relatively straightforward compared to butterflies. Caterpillars seem to change each and every one of its physiological systems when transforming into a butterfly. Their central nervous system included. It gets better, the newly formed “brain” seems to retain at least partially some of the information that the organism acquired as a caterpillar. We have no idea how does that happen.

*Consciousness
-What exactly is it? (No clue)
-Do other organisms have it? (Without a doubt; it seems to be a matter of degrees)
-Do we understand it? (Simply stated, not even a little bit, at least no true hard data seems to be around. Lots of models, lots of theories, quite a lot of speculation).

*True biodiversity
To date, we do not have a complete idea of the biodiversity of our own planet. There is much to be discovered still, but we are —or at the very least should be— hurrying ourselves before many species disappear by our own hands.

And what about biodiversity at large? A catalog of life including its past? It is overwhelming accepted by paleontologist that there are many, oh, but too many species that we’ll never get to discover simply because they left no traces of their existence. I don’t know about you, but it makes me sad.

It gets sadder. What about the biodiversity of our universe, and maybe even others? This is sadder to me because this integrates the temporal dimension with the spatial one, and just in case things are not complex enough, there is also the quite extreme idea of multiple universes.

At least for our own planetary biodiversity, we have some hope to observe and record a significant fraction of what it’s here or was.

It is sadder to think about the possible biodiversity “out there” because barring an absolutely, utterly unexpected breakthorugh, we are stuck in our Earth for the time being. And even if this hopeful breakthrough occurs within my lifetime, I do not have enough years to even beginning to scratch the proverbial universal biodiversity’s surface.

Now, in a completely and absolutely non-scientific statement, this is one of the reasons why I sometimes want to believe that there is something more beyond this life and that the powers that be would allow me to see all these life forms. I used to say that If I ever meet “The Big Guy” I will ask oh so many questions! I especially planned to ask to see how did dinosaurs **really** looked like. Not anymore. Not just dinosaurs. If that ever happens, I want to see it all.

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7 Comments

  1. Perhaps following up on what “List of X” says, if I read him/her right, how much do you think the mysteries you note are features of biology proper, or are features of, say, philosophy? I ask the question because my knee-jerk attitude is to segregate “science” from “philosophy.” But honestly, I suppose it’s not an either/or proposition. Perhaps biology is in some ways an inquiry into the philosophy of life. Or not.

    But yes, those are very interesting mysteries and while I’m not a scientist, I appreciate your bringing them up here.

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