Self-organization and pre-biotic organization in chemical substance-systems

The concept of self-organization means, in science, the spontaneous formation of complex structures in chemical and other systems.  The ripple and dune forms created by the interplay of sand with water and wind, ice patterns on car windows, hoarfrost on branches, and the fern-like dendrites within some rocks and the forms within agates are further examples.  With questions of self-organization one touches on branches of science such as synergetics, cybernetics, chaos theory and others.  The phenomena of self-organization attract great attention, as they can suggest that life itself could be the summit of a tremendous capacity for self-organization in matter.   This can be expressed as follows: If processes can be observed in lifeless nature which bring about complex forms, and testify to and astounding „meaningfulness‘ within the chemical and physical properties of matter, is it necessary to seek for an explanation of life in a force or intellegence outside of matter?  It seems best to leave this question open and first turn to the phenomena, as it could also be possible that „self-organization“, despite the name, could in part involve organization through the influence of non-physical influences.

Examples of Self-Organization:

Left: Wave-structures on water surface in response to air movement Right: Sand ripples created by streaming water

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Left: Branching forms created by freezing of a thin layer of water on an automobile windshield.

Right: Branching forms of hoarfrost, freezing onto a twig from fog.

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Manganese dendrites in rock                                        Flame-Agate (structured chalcedony)

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The discovery and research of spontaneously-forming patterns in chemical mixtures began in the 19th century and continued with increasing intensity in the 20th century.  The first researchers, such as F. F, Runge, were concerned largely with esthetic and natural-philosophical implications, but researchers such as R. E. Liesegang delved strongly into the chemical relationships involved in the formation of spontaneous structures.

Capillary-flow picture in filter paper Liesegang rings in gelatine
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The capillary-flow pictures are created by introducing particular chemical solutions in stages over time onto filter paper. The well-known Liesegang rings arise through the working-together of diffusion and chemical reactions in gels. The rings, resembling the growth rings of trees, led soon aftr their discovery to associations with living structures. These associative thoughts can easily be set aside as false analogies, but the idea that life could derive from the forming of self-organizing structures has maintained its fascination to the present day.

Research was expanded to a further dimension through the discovery of oscillatory chemical reactions by B. P. Belousov and A. M. Zhabotinski in the 1950’s. In the BZ-reaction, particular combinations of substances lead to an ongoing periodic change of color during the mixing of substances. In the process there takes place an alternation of the directing substances (the catalyzers) from an oxidizing to a reducing condition in their interaction with the color-creating reactions. If the experiment is performed in thin fluid layers, the oscillation leads to ring-formed spreading reaction fronts.

Snapshots of ring-formed, spreading reaction fronts of the BZ-reaction in thin fluid layers.

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From this discovery it was possible to find a connection to processes in animals and humans that are in principle similar, giving a basis to the thesis of the self-organization of life.  Through the simultaneously-developing findings of molecular biology and physical chemistry, it has become increasingly clear that a bridge could be built between self-organization and life.  With the theoretical system of so-called dissipative structures, introduced and build up largely by Nobel prize winner Ilya Prigogine, the research field of self-organization took on a leading position of scintific interest and advancement.  Dissipative structures are ordering structures which can occur spontaneously in sensitive systems which are underlain by a flow-through of energy (see, for example, the pictures above)  In contrast to the closed, more or less completely calculable systems of classical physics which are in „dead“ equilibrium, such systems exist in a sensitive, partly unsteady condition far from equilibrium.  The living processes within the cells of plants and animals exist in this sensitive, „perceptive“ condition.  As a consequence, the idea that life could have arisen through the self-organization of matter could be followed with increasing energy.  This optimism was not diminished through the newest molecular-biological discoveries showing a much more complex relationship between genes and protein formation than was previously assumed.  On the contrary, the clear interactions between the productive entities (genes) and the products (proteins) seemed to point clearly to an immense self-organization resources hidden within matter.

It would be possible at this point, particularly with respect to living organisms, to take the step to spiritual science and say:  Could this organization not be simply the result of the working of non-physical formative forces, the forces referred to by Rudolf Steiner as life-forces or etheric forces?  Then „self-organization“ would be an organization at a higher level, namely imprinted through the underlying etheric world, whose form principles derive from an even higher, purely spiritual world.

Let us follow the natural-scientific path further, however, and examine the phenomena and conclusions which we meet there.

In the theoretical realm of research, astounding relationships were discovered and models described which were also fruitful in other branches of science, or found their parallels there.  An important result was the revision of the classical deterministic thinking stemming from the time of Newton which, on the basis of the enthusiasm over the successful determination of the planetary orbits and gravitation, allowed itself to be carried away with the conception of a fully calculable universe.  The neew results could prove mathematically the incalculability in principle of innumerable pysical, chemical and other processes.  According to it, on the one hand, the exact measurability of the initial conditions of such processes could not be determined (as with the „uncertainty principle“ in quantum mechanics), and on the other hand, two starting-points with the smallest atomic-scale differences could lead to entirely different courses on the macroscopically-observable world (compare with the so-called „butterfly effect“ in meteorology).  Through these steps in thought, the concept of „irreversibility“ gained an entirely new weight, and with it the concept of the „history“ of natural processes.  Self-organized structures arise in irreversible processes and maintain through this their own history, which cannot be reversed.

This point is of interest to geology, since it would then be possible that also earth-historically there have been numerous irreversible processes, that is, occurrences have taken pllace which can be followed in thought but hardly reproduced experimantally, since the determining conditions no longer exist.  A greater attention to the possibility of irreversibilities over great time periods would lead to an altered view concerning uniformitarianism.  This could be the case, for example, with the „rock cycle“, derived from processes observable today, which could then become a process running parallel or subsequent to a nmber on older, „irreversible“ processes of rock origin, which do not run in cycles.

The phenomenon of self-organization, or highly-differentiated organization, can be found frequently in geology.  Thes include a number of puzzling geological formations which can only be convincingly explained through complex self-organized (or simply organized?) processes.  They also may include certain large, geologically-relevant formation of substances, as with certain silicatic rocks.  Naturally the normally-postulated magmatic processes of differentiation, crystallization and recrystallization already constitute simple examples of self-organization, but with respect to the investigative results mentioned above, much more complex processes of self-organization are conceivable.  The processes which one could consider here would be no longer experimentally reproducible, due to the entirely different condition of the primeval earth and atmosphere, which exhibited initial conditions which, in their entirety, can no longer be reproduced.  Only such processes as crystallization and other comparatively simple physical processes are accessible to experimentation today, in that they are in a sense „reversible“ and largely calculable using mathematics.

In the following, several geological phenomena will be considered, which have been described in earlier chapters of the website.  First let us consider agate formation.

Agate (banded chalcedony)                                            Agate with spherulites
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It seems significant, keeping in mind the Liesegang rings and the BZ-reaction, that the origin-process of agates has been brought into connection with self-organization in a colloidal (gelatenous) state.  The Liesegang rings are made possible particularly through the reaction-slowing and spatial-restricting properties of gels, and the ring-formation in the BZ-reaction is a consequence of the immobility of the mixture in the thin fluid layer.  Today the corresponding theories are well-developed, and the central point (colloidality) hardly challenged any more.  It still remains a riddle, however, under what external circumstances the form-giving hollow spaces could be filled with saturated silica capable of converting to a gel condition, and what type of diffusion reactions led to such highly-formed structures.  Were processes involved here, which one would not yet speak of as living, but perhaps as pre-biotic processes with complex „form-giving power“ of self-organization or organization?

A problem seemingly related to the phenomena of agates is that of Orbiculites.  These spherically-structured granites, which are found in only very limited locations, have led to similar controversies regarding their origin as have agates (compare the chapter „The Orbicular granite Problem“).   One thesis starts from diffusion-controlled growth around seed crystals in a magmatic melt.  Here the melt would have to provide the same reaction-slowing and spatial conserving properties as the gel condition.  There seems to be no reason why a melt should act in this way, which casts doubt on the idea.  There are also grounds- mentioned in the earlier chapters referred to- for considering the starting point to be a moderately-hot solidified gel condition with a large component of chemically-bound water, rather than a melt.  Here also one could consider, in view of the remarkable plastic and „non-crystalline“ types of forms, that in the material of the primeval earth, on its path of evolution, prebiotic „experiments“, so to say, played themselves out.

Orbiculites in Granite from Finland (left: Virvik – Porvoo, right: Pengonpohja – Kuru)

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A phenomenon which can be observed far more frequently, but is nevertheless still puzzling, is the existence of spherically membered (layered) late-formed crystals and other spherical depositions within particular granites.  Here also, one can receive the impression that not simply crystallization-processes were involved, but rather complex, organized processes have taken place, possibly also with the contribution of diffusion, in a dense, gelatenous silicious mass.

Left: late crystal with a darker inner biotite layer, Black Forest, Germany

Right: spherical structures in orthoclase-granite; Brasil

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Such forms pass over without any clear boundary into orbicular granite.  Indeed, one has the impression with certain „normal“ granite types, that one is dealing with a material which possessed earlier a strongly-organized structure, which was lost through subsequent heating or other metamorphoses.
Left: Rapakivi orbicular granite, Finland
Right: A likely orbicular granite, altered through subsequent crystallization, Finland

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The potential for self-organizing ability in mineral formation is illustrated by the phenomena of differing form-types for crystals of the same chemical composition:

Left: Chemically-identical pyrite crystals as tetrahedra, cube, dodecahedron, sphere und intermediate forms.

Right: Quartz crystals in various types of forms.

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The phenomena could be explained by saying that the self-organizing processes active also in crystallization are sensitive to the minutest differences in physical or chemical starting-conditions.  The pyrite crystals in the photo on the left come from completely different geographical locations.  Generally in each of these regions only one, or at most two forms are found.  Some ( for example the cubic type) grew in a mud-like lime material through diffusion of substance.  The crystals pressed the mud away during growth, and today can be easily separated from the dried lime marl.

The same phenomenon is shown by quartz crystals, which often show particular characteristics according to geographical location, despite their identical substance.  There are dealers in minerals who can confidently assign a multiplicity of crystals to particular geographical locations.  There are also quartz crystals (for example the cathedral-crystal) which only occur rarely worldwide, and exhibit a highly independent form-language.  Their forms are not explainable by thoughts of atomic layering alone.

One is again tempted here to think of a form-giving force working from outside, and again could see it as pointing to spiritual-scientific indications, which deal with such form-giving forces (etheric forces).

Here I would like to return to ideas concerning organizing rock-forming processes, taking place for example in a dense, firmly-gelled silicious mass: one can approach such speculative ideas concerning diffusion-created forming of a prebiotic character, involving water, from another direction.  One example, which is occasionally referred to in self-organizational research, cam illustrate the scope of thinkable possibilities:  this is the phenomenon of slime mold.

Slime mold appears at a particilar moment in its life-cycle as a collection of amoeba-like single-celled organisms.  Under particular circumstances (shortage of food) these cells can combine into an organism-like formation (often a plasma mass without cell walls, but with numerous nuclei), which is able to move about underground like a snail, for example in rotten plant-substance.  At a later stage, depending on the species involved, mushroom-like growths (fruit bodies) deelop, at whose ends spores develop.  These spores, under the proper conditions, can develop again into the amoeba-like individual organisms.

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Clearly one has to do here with a type of organism which adopts a kind of precursor-stage to the plants and animals.  It is astounding that the amoebae, as with the bees in a bee colony, appear to be led by a superordinate force.  It has been found that the amoeba-like single cells make use of a chemical reaction which spreads out in a wave-like manner, which is similar to the already-mentioned oscillating BZ-reaction.  The organizing chemical processes can be seen to some extent as a part or organ of the superordinate slime mold organism. Certain species of slime mold exhibit a characteristic which wakes associations with geological processes:  these species can concentrate lage amounts of calcium, which has been measured at up to one-tenth of the body weight.  The same effect is known from the carbonate rock-forming stromatolites and corals.  Metals as well, such as manganese and zinc, can be concentrated by some species of slime mold.  With the radiolaria and diatoms of the ocean one finds the same concentrating-effect applied to silica, to quartz.

If one surveys the described features of the slime molds and brings this picture into connection with past geological periods, the following question can arise:  Could not ancient, presently extinct „beings“ or aggregates of substance existed on the border of primitive life, which had the capacity to concentrate the rock-forming materials such as calcium, silica, aluminum, magnesium, etc., and even metals?  And if so, could these aggregates, not restricted by a complex system of organs to a particular size as are present-day plants and animals, have reached a very large size and production?  One can think here of the huge fungus systems, which in certain places on earth reach kilometer-large extents in forests with their mycelium surfaces, although present-day fungi systems would only be less-dense successors to those past substance-concentrators.  If one adds the picture of such „mineral-collectors“ spreading themselves out in water or a similar fluid in the primeval earth, then even larger, more productive aggregates are cconceivable, up to the point of giant rock-creating carpets.

Such life-involved processes are accepted for the creation of stromatolites and carbonate reefs; for silicate rocks, however, analogous origins are in general not considered.  There generally the starting-point is taken to be magmatic processes or chemo-physical metamorphoses involving pressure and temperature.  The organizing processes are simpler, generally differentiation, crystallization and recrystallization.  If one approaches the silica rocks with a morphological approach, the question can nevertheless arise as to whether their origin also included certain complex, prebiotic parocesses, which are life-related.  The usual definitions for life which include metabolism, reproduction and the capacity for mutation and evolution can be fulfilled on a much simpler level without cell-formation and genetic structure: through intellegent organization with material flow-through, catalytically-controlled „reproduction“ and evolutive alterations.

Such purely speculative thoughts are clearly no proof for any hypothesis, but can perhaps serve toplace increased value on certain morphological features of crystalline and other rocks which indicate a larger involvement of water or water-containing substances which approach a living condition.  And the concepts derived here of substance-concentration in large-dimension,  living aggregates, one approaches the pictures presented by the anthroposophical spiritual science of Rudolf Steiner, which portray huge mineral-plant formations on the young earth.