July 1 – 2, 2001, Dov in biologicalEvolution
Re : Szathmary et al, "Can Genes Explain Biological Complexity". Science,Vol 292,p.1315,18 May 2001.
The authors state correctly, of course: "evolution is not an engineer but a tinkerer", and you also conclude, and I agree, that "genomic complexity (may be best) measured by the connectivity of gene-regulation networks". And you hope that "with…more…genomic sequences bioinformatics…devise new ways to quantify…biocomplexity".
I suggest that the subject may be approached via another, presently available route if, IF you adjust your thinking with a few basic assumptions as follows:
1. The answer to "what makes a monocell or a polycell life-form a LIFE" is the answer to "what makes some in-cell molecular associations LIVE BEINGS", and vice versa.
2. The space and time units of in-cell beings, their parallels of our meter and second, are probably ~10^ -14 of ours, so that OUR one second may be equivalent to THEIR one-year tinkering time.
3. The present (and past) stock of Earth life indicates the impressive degree of complexity and survivability, through some radical environmental changes, attainable by trial-and-error tinkering. The most outstanding successes were the evolutions of celling of pre-celled life and the evolution of Humans, both obtaining considerable control by the life form over its major vital environments.
4. Whereas the tools of Humans, the very young Earth life form, are contrived from a variety of materials and for a variety of ends related/mandated by Human culture, the tools of in-cell Beings are best contrived for THEIR ends (solely survival/replication) in the formats we observe and learn in the cell and in the Polycell's intercell environments.
5. Cells, both mono- and polycells, fulfill their goal most efficiently by intercell cooperative associations at all levels, including of in-cell endosymbiotic "nuclei", of separate discrete cells colonies and of polycelled life forms.
Now, IF you adjust your thinking with the above assumptions adopt also an expectation that sometime in the future, say two or three thousand years from now, some segments of Humanity will embark on a massive program of forming in-space discrete space-ships associations colonies, or of elaborate space-stations comprising "symbiotic" spaceships. Now proceed and apply yourselves to developing a program of such a massive move with the goal of survival and replication of the in-space-ships individuals. Consider the best selection of individuals per space-ship-cell by various parameters, the best relationship between the required functional capabilities of the space-ships associations and the vital tasks and functions required for the maintenance and replication of the individual space ships and of the association etc., I expect that you might end up with what you started out to search, namely with quantification of biocomplexity…
Now I wish to persuade the readers not to just dismiss the above thoughts but to dwell on them and to further develop them.
Thus to item 5 above add the realization that chromosomes and genomes are plainly examples of symbiotic associations of the earliest pre-cells archaic single genomes. The point of this is that cooperative symbiotic associations are inherent to the scheme and nature of life since way back at its original junction of chemical molecules turned into life.
To item 4 above add the thought that all the tools and plants of the in-cell residents are based on proteins, and that actually the cells that have the genomes that are capable of expressing the bigger variety of proteins are probably the "most biocomplexed". Further, realize that the cells keep recycling their organic/proteins materials, and that apoptosis plus recycling is the basis of cellular life. This is the microcosmos of our Earth's life, likewise based on recycling of life's base materials.
And re the point of the maybe future space-stations dwell on the thought how many tens of thousands of (linked, but individual) genes are in the cell and how many hundred-thousands of tools of all sizes and thousands of chemical and power plants of all sizes there are in the cell. And think how Nature elected that even in polycell life forms most cells would start out identical and be differntiable according to the overall requirements of the overall polycell life form which is the overall symbiotic association of the member cells.
The points I wish to make are (1) that Life is fractal, like a Russian Babushka set of dolls, each of its chronological phase of evolution being essentially a repeat of the earlier phase on a grander scale, and (2) that the nature of life is expressed clearly even in the most basic patterns of life, whereas all our cultural aspects are simply variations on the basic theme which is simply and plainly that the origin and drive and purpose of life is nothing else but life itself.