The question of ‘why?’ has often been seen as a dirty one in biochemistry. But Nick Lane isn’t your ordinary biochemist, not even your ordinary scientist. In this interview, Nick offers us an exciting account which not only starts to reveal how we all came to be but addresses some core philosophical problems. We delve into some of these questions and what he thinks his work in biochemistry tells him about the nature of the world, the physical laws and consciousness.
Nick Lane will be speaking at the IAI's upcoming music and ideas festival HowTheLightGetsIn alongside Daniel Dennett, Brian Greene, Fiona Hill, Roger Penrose and many, many more. Explore the full programme and book your tickets here.
Thanks so much for speaking to us Nick, I wanted to start off by asking about the philosophical principles you use in the lab every day. Philosophers often see science as proposing a reductive theory of the world, breaking it down into its constituent parts. Some worry that this ignores the complexity of life. Do you think that this reduction plays a role in your work and science more broadly?
I have to say that reductionism plays a rather ambiguous role in my work, and I think in the work of most scientists. Of course, there are some necessities about the scientific method which mean that the only way we can answer certain questions is by reducing a problem to its fundamentals. However, I think this misses out on what scientists are really doing. We aren’t trying to just give a reductive account we are always working within a framework. And that framework is going to be synthetic.
You of course have to think about what exactly you are going to put in the test tube, but you have to think about what you’re trying to learn. What is it that we want to know and how is that going to fit into the bigger picture? Because when you’re looking at the origins of life, for instance, you can’t simulate every aspect of a hydrothermal vent at the bottom of the ocean. There are just too many moving parts and you would need several million years and the entire ocean floor. What you need is a framework; which is in some ways a more holistic, philosophical thing. At the level of trying to answer the questions of the origins of life, we cannot know what the answer is. Even if we had a time machine to go back 4 billion years, what would you look for, how would you know if you were looking for the right thing? What you need is an intellectual framework, which is the very antithesis of reductionism. What are we looking for, how do we know we’ve found it and then, how do all the pieces fit together?
Moving on from one big R word in philosophy to another. You have previously stated that you are a realist – the idea that we humans can access an objective, true reality. A standard position for much of the scientific community outside of physics. What is the underlying philosophy that you think motivates you to adopt that position?
Well I think it's rather a pragmatic argument, to be honest. Especially for myself as a biochemist, I never see any of these molecules. Even with an electron microscope, they are too small. So, there is some sense in which everything we deal with is already at arm's length. We are already relying on some kind of causal story for any results that we see. For it to be worthwhile, again thinking about that synthetic framework, we have to take the pragmatic argument that there is a real world out there.
A philosopher can challenge any of those causal links, I want to emphasise there are good reasons to look into them. But as a scientist, you see that they are able to give you a framework, a story, which seems to be coherent and consistent. We can look at the work we do and then use those frameworks to change the world in predictable ways. And where those results don’t make sense or are inconsistent with what we expect, well that’s where the real excitement for a scientist comes in. And here I think the realist philosophy underpinning my framework is really effective. It just means I’ve not gotten at what is really going on. And I think that is true for most scientists, not getting the results you were expecting tends to lead us to think we were mistaken about our theory rather than getting rid of realism altogether. That seems like a much larger philosophical leap.
I find the idea that the emergence of life was unavoidable, part of the teleology of the universe, to be a worrying idea
Just to follow up on that point. Anti-realism in physics has received a large boost of late, is there something different between physics say and the rest of the sciences?
I do also see that this can be somewhat different in different sciences. For instance, in physics there have been some who suggest that where their theories don’t operate within this framework of realism. Though very successful physicists such as Lee Smolin have been able to make far more explanatory stories by having a background philosophy of realism. There is where I think there is an interesting overlap of philosophical and scientific questions. When you’re trying to understand what reality is, you are allowed to question the realist assumptions. But for our ordinary story of the world, the one we operate with day-to-day, it makes less sense to question realism. The explanatory power of realism, even in the case of physics, leads me to think realism is the appropriate underlying philosophy. At least for me I assume the laws of physics haven’t changed since the origin of the solar system. I am less concerned with whether further back things might have been different. But as a final thought on your question, I think a non-realist makes any sort of knowledge impossible. But realism gives us a framework which we can use. And that is a vital part of the scientific method.
You’ve said previously you want to avoid the idea of emergence in your work. But your lab work tries to show that a few chemicals put together in hydrothermal vents lead to metabolic pathways arising. Is this not worryingly close to a teleological view that life would always emerge due to the laws of chemistry and thermodynamics?
I find the idea that the emergence of life was unavoidable, part of the teleology of the universe, to be a worrying idea. But I tend not to think about it. If it is true, then it would take a long time to find it to be the case.
What we are beginning to learn is that if we find carbon dioxide and hydrogen in a specific environment most of metabolism happens spontaneously. It recapitulates in the absence of genes and cells.
It seems uncanny that this should all be written in thermodynamics. I can see there is a feeling of teleology about this. But there is also something of the cosmological or anthropic principle about this, the idea that the universe is so finely tuned for our existence.
When you are thinking about biochemistry, it's hard to think of different rules of chemistry. So, why? It seems too simplistic or perhaps naïve to say this is all inevitable as so much of it is contingent on so many conditions. But it is again uncanny that we have this whole metabolic network which seems to shadow all living things.
What genes do is encode for catalysts they speed up reactions which happen anyway. If you only sped up one then not a lot would happen, it would be negligible. So, catalysts had to act more generally. And the earliest genetic systems had to amplify reactions and deal with biological information, that didn’t have any genes acting on them.
What you would predict is then to see the amplification of these systems. Life is an amplification of these basic systems; genes nail it down. Maybe it is not so surprising then, maybe therefore there were ranges of systems which could be amplified and ours is just the one that occurred and was then encoded in genetics.
Then the whole thing is even more contingent. But that is really interesting from an experimental point of view. Maybe we can discover not only the origins of life that led to our system but also see where it could have happened and what those conditions would be. Whether there could be divergent systems. Lots of philosophical questions there.
It doesn't have to be mysterious. Though I am not a theist myself, I do understand the interest in some explanatory principles. I use the word thermodynamics and God interchangeably. Einstein’s God is something I would consider, or something similar to Spinoza. God as a collective whole. That means there is a logic and something we begin to pick out bits to understand.
I am not a panpsychist. Consciousness is a property of living things
Where then do you think we should start to look for life? Do we need to start at the genes as Dawkins suggests or is your work on metabolism the basis?
The only way I can imagine genetic information arising is from the amplification of things that already exist. Without those pre-existing conditions, life has to bootstrap itself up from nothing. I don’t see any way information can gain function without a whole load of steps in the biological pathway. A biological pathway needs something to select for.
Natural selection works, with the absence of genes, and then with the amplification of genes of the biological pathways seems to me a much more simple way of comprehending the way these things (life) happen. This doesn't mean that is what happened, as I stressed earlier this is a framework which makes sense to me, so why not? What do we want to know if not a way of making sense of the world?
That does however seem to allow for the emergence of biological genetic information. You have previously rejected that view. Is there not also a worry about information then can be moved to a worry about the physical laws? Do you worry about whether we can know why the physical laws are the way they are?
I’ll never know besides what physicists tell me. If you spend your time worrying about how chemistry came to be then you won’t spend too much time doing chemistry. The intellectual picture is big and beautiful and it might even be true. But this is also where reductionism comes in, you can’t allow yourself to believe it.
A final question is about your work on the biological account of consciousness. I know you are just beginning this work and are going to be speaking about it more with us at HTLGI May 2023. But I wanted to follow up on your concern about emergentism and what your thoughts were on this new idea that keeps popping up – panpsychism. The idea that everything is conscious.
I am not a panpsychist. Consciousness is a property of living things. And so far as consciousness is a property of living things, we can obviously see this in apes, dogs even possibly octopuses etc. We now know lots of things act consciously. Not perhaps a philosophical argument but whether it is a product of a central nervous system then what is it that then arises and gives rise to feelings? We can draw the wiring of the brain and we can build up this picture with science. Information processing is not a conceptual difficulty here. But then there is the hard problem.
I think some of the difficulty comes from the way the question was first raised. The idea that we first should address the ‘qualia’ say of red was perhaps an interesting question but not the best example, to begin with. Pain is a better example, love, thirst, and hunger; real emotions. Far more animalistic feelings. These things which are primarily things that we animals are interested in, which are of interest to us, are distinct from just the reaction of one thing to another like in the story of panpsychism.
Mostly what are our feelings about? Things which concern our survival. What is about a depolarising neuron that gives rise to a feeling of anything? Since then I’ve had some ideas which I find easier when I’m thinking about cells and their chemistry. And these ideas came together whilst thinking about my most recent book, Transformers: The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death (2022). Thinking about that idea of metabolism gave me insights into consciousness I was missing when I wrote a chapter on consciousness in my book, Life Ascending (2009). I’ll be exploring this more at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival this May in my talk.
Looking forward to it Nick. And thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.