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Biocivilisations: A New Look at the Science of Life: Excerpt

May 15, 2023

bookcoverThe following extract is from Predrag Slijepčević’s new book Biocivilisations: A New Look at the Science of Life (Chelsea Green Publishing, May 2023) and is printed with permission from the publisher.

The Mystery of Life

What is life? This is the most important question in biology. And not only in biology. Physicists, chemists, mathematicians, anthropologists, philosophers and artists ask the same question and search for answers. Indeed, a physicist was the first to ask the question in a meaningful way and offer a route to an equally meaningful answer. Erwin Schrödinger’s book What Is Life?, published in 1944, achieved cult status in the world of academia and beyond. He is credited with an originality of thought that resonates with scientists and fits particularly well with neo-Darwinian biology – a school of thought popularised by Richard Dawkins that merges Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s ideas of natural selection with genetic determinism.

Yet there is a growing body of scientists, philosophers and artists who do not share Schrödinger’s vision of the science of life. The main disagreement lies in a misplaced reductionism. That is, if you believe in Schrödinger’s ideas, life can ultimately be reduced to genes and information codes. This form of reductionism has become a ruling metaphor of our age. A football coach such as José Mourinho can say, with deep conviction, that winning is in his DNA. The superstar David Beckham can say that football is in England’s DNA. And they wouldn’t be wrong. The scientific vision of evolution, encapsulated in the famous tree of life, which has only three branches, is based on the DNA metaphor.[1]

However, the wisdom of our age is flimsy. It is becoming increasingly clear that life cannot be reduced to genes and codes. The gene metaphor is not only too simplistic but also deeply flawed. If there is a way to reduce life to a single principle, that principle must acknowledge the creativity of life that turns genetic and informational determinism on its head. Creativity and determinism are opposing forces. One force searches for novelty, the other suppresses it. The belief that changes in genes, or gene mutations, are the ultimate source of biological novelty is shattered by epigenetics – DNA is not the only messenger of biological information.[2] A genius mathematician, Freeman Dyson, summed up our misplaced obsession with genetic determinism: ‘The rule of the genes was like the government of the old Hapsburg Empire…despotism tempered by sloppiness.’[3]

If we downplay the importance of genes and codes, we arrive at a different principle of life, formulated by anthropologists Anne Buchanan and Kenneth Weiss: ‘Life is an orderly collection of uncertainties.’[4] This is a groundbreaking statement. Life suddenly breaks free from our deterministic prison and turns into a river that sweeps us along in its current on an indeterministic – that is, uncertain – journey. We suddenly realise that this journey is the biggest mystery in the universe. This is because the universe is an open system.[5] The openness of the universe reduces the importance of determinism, including genetic and informational determinism.

With the sobering thought that our science of life may be based on flimsy principles, I turn to the topic of this book. The term ‘biocivilisations’ is an acknowledgement of the mystery of life and its deep uncertainty, as opposed to the quasi-certainty of the human position governed by the narrow time window of the Scientific Revolution. Humans, and our technoscience, are too young, evolutionarily speaking, to be able to claim any form of wisdom. More than 99.99% of the time that life has existed on Earth has been without us. Given that all forms of life except bacteria become extinct and are replaced by new forms of life, it’s clear that life will continue in some form, post–Homo sapiens, long into the future.[6]

A simple solution to the discrepancy between our evolutionary youth and the maturity of life and its wisdom is to turn anthropic naïvety on its head. Let’s allow bacteria, amoebas, plants, insects, birds, whales, elephants and countless other species – all evolutionarily much more experienced than us – to lead the way and show us how to rectify schoolboy ecological errors that reduce the chances of human civilisation surviving for even the next hundred years. The consequence of this turning is the emergence of millions of ‘new’ civilisations that preceded our own. Some of these civilisations, which I call biocivilisations, are hundreds or thousands of million years old. Take bacteria, for example. Bacteria have built cities and connected them with information highways.[7] This process brought the whole planet to life 3,000 million years ago. The name of the first biocivilisation, which exists to the present day, is the Bacteriocene. This primordial biocivilisation has given birth to all other biocivilisations, including the most recent one, the Anthropocene.

One of the youngest biocivilisations (humanity) must communicate with other biocivilisations in search of the wisdom we so plainly lack. You may think this is impossible. How can we talk to elephants and whales? Or bacteria and amoebas? Yet imagination is a powerful tool. In a 1917 satirical short story, ‘A Report to an Academy’, Franz Kafka imagined a world in which an ape called Red Peter adopted human behaviour in order to escape from the zoo.[8] Red Peter was so successful at assimilating with human civilisation that he was invited to address the esteemed members of a scientific academy. Our task is to do, in all seriousness, what Red Peter did, but inversely. In the world of biocivilisations, humanity must seek to understand and adopt the best practices of other biocivilisations to the depth and degree that we can convincingly address the academy of life and its principal authority: Gaia. My argument is that this humbling transformation – from a self-centred and naïve young species into a more mature, desegregated species that is aligned with its surroundings – is the only true prospect for us to save ourselves, and the living planet, from our own violence.



{1] One of the main postulates in biology is that all modern organisms have a universal ancestor. Charles Darwin argued that a genealogical tree can be constructed to connect all living organisms, past and present. In 1960, Carl Woese identified a ‘universal molecular chronometer’, small ribosomal RNA molecules that make up ribosomes, the structures in cells on which protein synthesis takes place. Using this genetic chronometer, Woese discovered a new domain of life, archaea, and constructed a new tree of life consisting of three domains: Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya. The domain Eukarya contains all plants and animals. What I call ‘branches’ are domains in scientific vocabulary.

[2] Biological information is stored in DNA owing to the genetic code. Each protein is synthesised on the basis of DNA code in which three letters in the DNA ‘alphabet’ (adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine) are translated into one amino acid, a building block of proteins. However, this simple genetic code works only in bacteria and archaea. In eukaryotes, epigenetics dominates. Epigenetics means that many phenotypic features can be inherited without changes in the DNA sequence. This is because eukaryotes have chromosomes, structures that suppress or activate DNA sequences selectively.

[3] Freeman Dyson, Origins of Life (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), Kindle location 1117 (emphasis my own).

[4] Anne Buchanan and Kenneth Weiss, ‘Things genes can’t do,’ Aeon (9 April 2013), https://aeon .co/essays/dna-is-the-ruling-metaphor-of-our-age. The quote is from the subtitle of the essay: ‘Simplistic ideas of how genes “cause” traits are no longer viable: life is an orderly collection of uncertainties.’

[5] Karl Popper argued in The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism (London: Routledge, 1988) that the universe is an open and indeterministic system that will forever remain beyond scientific efforts. See more about this in Chapter 11.

[6] Lynn Margulis often said that bacteria are indestructible because they can adapt to any terrestrial habitat. The fact that bacteria have existed since the dawn of life means that they have defied all potential extinction threats.

[7] A study published in 2020 revealed the method by which bacteria construct their metropolises. Amauri J. Paula, Geeslu Hwang and Hyun Koo, ‘Dynamics of bacterial population growth in biofilms resemble spatial and structural aspects of urbanization,’ Nature Communications 11 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-15165-4.

[8] Franz Kafka, The Complete Short Stories (London: Vintage Classics, 2018), 269–279.

Predrag B. Slijepčević

Predrag B. Slijepčević is a senior lecturer in the Department of Life Sciences at Brunel University London. He is bio-scientist interested in the philosophy of biology. In particular, Predrag investigates how biological systems, from bacteria to animals and beyond, perceive and process environmental stimuli (that is, biological information) and how this processing, which is a form of natural learning, affects the organism–environment interactions. He aims to identify those elements in the organization... Read more.

Tags: biology, life, more-than-human world