What to Look for On Mars

The search for life on Mars concentrates on geology and chemistry, not because life is entirely a business of geology or chemistry, but because a) those things can be measured and b) the scientific community is pretty certain that their logic is correct: if geological and chemical traces are found on Mars which can only have been formed by organic (i.e. hydrocarbon-based) life, they can claim, with assurance, that there is (or was) life there.


Some Life Doing Its thing (Not Mars.)

This is all predicated on the following definition of life, or others similar to it:

“Any contiguous living system is called an organism. Organisms undergo metabolism, maintain homeostasis, possess a capacity to grow, respond to stimulireproduce and, through natural selection, adapt to their environment in successive generations.”

Thanks, Wikipedia.

It is a beautiful definition of earth life, but what if it misses stuff, or what if some parts of it are applicable to earthly life, such as deer or bunchgrass, but miss out other things, like the earth itself, or clouds or something? What if a relational system were alive, rather than just the individual organisms within that system? I think these questions are worth asking, because humans are relational creatures.


What if the Human Capacity to See a Giant’s Head Here Were Life?

And not just the beautiful mosses and lichens?

I think it’s faulty logic to apply the definition of life, which applies well to skunks and lettuces, to relational matrices, or to the earth itself as a whole. The definition wasn’t meant to do that. I think such an application (often made, too) is like saying that men are lawyers because lawyers are men, or that the wilderness of British Columbia is untouched land because the people who inhabited it and used it for 6,000 or 12,000 or 16,000 years died.


Is This a Great Blue Heron Hunting for Mice in a Hayfield?

Or is it a relationship between a hunting behaviour (“heron”), a sun harvesting behaviour (“alfalfa”), a carbohydrate harvesting opportunity (“mice”), and human social patterns (“neglected farm”)?

Would there be traces of such patterning, which could be found on Mars? It’s interesting to contemplate. One thing that should be kept in mind, however, is that the only instances known of life to creatures on earth consist of organisms on earth. At least, this applies to the standard definition of “life”. It could be that there is a human (earth-based) bias written right into the definition, based upon human brain processing (such as the notion of “bodies” or “movement” or “individuals” … hunting behaviours, all), at least among dominant classes within the human spectrum. This plastic head jammed in a tree trunk, for instance, is not alive …


… and neither is this duck head …


… yet they both demonstrate a niche (tree crotch) and a relationship (jamming) that reconfigures the human body (sexual penetration, birth, and so on) within the physical things of the world. The biological sciences found their form before post-Freudian psychology. Perhaps something was missed. If this particular form of representation and relation was missed, what else might have been? The earth, I think, is a good place to look.  And what better here in the Okanagan Okanogan than to climb up the hill and see what’s going on.


Up you go now!

Hint, take a walking stick. The deer have made some slick trails up there by stomping on the snow. Note the saskatoon bush, because…

Ta da! Here it is again…

P1050345 Saskatoon in the Fog

Some things to note here:

1. The saskatoon bush exists in a cold climate, too cool for water to flow,  yet it is still alive. It is not in a biologically active state, but it is in an active relational state.

Lesson: flowing water is just that: flowing water. It is not synonymous with life. Searches for extraterrestrial life concentrate on planets that lie within the zone in which water might be liquid, on the presumption that carbon is the only suitable matrix for life and hydrocarbon molecules the only way of gaining the required fluidity and complexity for individual organisms to replicate. This is a way of restating the original definition of life.

2. The saskatoon bush has been browsed by deer (that’s why it’s heart is low and scrubby).

Lesson: The activity of life (a relational matrix) might be  noticeable in situations in which the chemical traces of that life (which the Curiosity Rover is searching for) are not.

3. The saskatoon bush is in a fog of warm water lifted from a large lake below, which crystallizes (i.e. comes out of solution) on the bush’s colder twigs. The warmer, darker (and thicker) trunks catch enough photons from the sun (even the sun that has filtered through fog) to prevent crystallization.;

Lesson: The forming of elaborate patterning (heat and solution matrices) and elaborately patterned material (hoar frost) doesn’t require liquid water, or perhaps even water. Cloud will do. These intricate patterns fail the organism definition of life, but they are pretty self-sustaining on the level of relationships (as long as individuals aren’t placed in there as a bias.)

4. The saskatoon bush has seasons of growth and seasons of stasis; it has a place in a chain of life within both seasons.

Lesson: Life need not be defined by its seasons of growth, its seasons of stasis, its seasons of birth or of death. Its patterning in relationship to the environment in which it finds itself might be a more accurate point of measurement.

Here is an image of a brittle briskly pear cactus individual caught in the frost near the limit of its terrain.


When this landscape was covered with glaciers, there was no inhabitable space for cacti here. They moved over time, most effectively by a) gravity and b) animal transportation (ouch.) They established themselves when heat conditions were right. They are, in other words, indicative of complex relationships between heat, cold, water, animal life, and atmospheric pressure, among others. These things are traditional lumped together under the term “ecosystem”, but what if that were re-termed: “ecological organism”, and set beside the traditional term “individual organism”? Would that not deepen our understanding of life, rather than diminish it? Or, put it this way: currently we have individual organisms, filling ecological niches within ecosystems, while within those organisms we have defined molecules filling hydrocarbon niches within replicable DNA strings. Is there really a difference? Might they not both be life? Maybe. One of the definitions of life is that it is self-replicable. Here is the seed head of an arrow-leafed balsam root, holding crystals of lake that have condensed out of the air.


Tiny Little Sunflower Seeds in the Snow

By the standard definition of life, the seeds are alive. What they are, however, is only a stage in the organism, which can only be seen in its entirety, over time. The seed head above is as much the plant as are its arrow-shaped leaves in the early spring or its yellow flowers in May.


Arrow-Leafed Balsam Root

These flowers are as much the plant (but no more than) as its seeds in winter.

Organisms exist in time. Measurement of any point in that span of time (which is also a span of space and a span of energy and a span of relationships) is an incomplete measurement of that organism, as it concentrates on an individual in time and space rathe than an individual that lives and expresses itself through time and space. The difference is subtle, but important. For instance, lichens, one of the most ancient organisms on the planet, are actually a symbiosis (a mutually-sustaining community) between a moss and an algae (often a cyanobacteria, the first life form on earth.) These organisms, in other words, exist in an unbroken line of time, stretching back through their cyanobacteria partners perhaps 3.5 billion years.

P1050411Looking at Lichen is to Look at 3.5 Billion Years of Time, Expanding into the Future

Interestingly enough, cyanobacteria also exist within the chloroplasts (light-eating and sugar-synthesizing structures) of plants, such as the green pigments here:

p1230442Each of the millions of chloroplasts within the leaves and the pear here are centred around a captured cyanobacteria, which was integrated into the DNA of the plant long, long, long ago. The little animal (cyanobacteria) is actually farmed by the plant, just like the ants are farming these aphids…


Another Ancient Relationship

The ancient aphids tap into the sap of the plant, which is drawn up through the sagebrush by capillary action and the sun, and then let it pour through their bodies, digesting what they can of it along the way and letting the excess pour out. It is this excess sugar water that the ants harvest. Aphids are present on most plants in the grasslands when ants put them there, and survive when ants fight off their predators.

You can follow the entire history of the world in this grassland, up from the first life to its most complex. There is a series of relationships here that sustain each other by other than chemical or geological or physical processes. One thing that is sustained is the notion of evolution. If an organism living within a certain relationship within an ecological organism is removed, the relationship remains, and another organism will move in to fill it. The cod can be removed from the Grand Banks off of Newfoundland by human stupidity and greed and replaced by skates, but the energy relationships remain intact. They are self-sustaining, by attracting different organisms to fulfill their roles. This is a basic principle of evolution. Another thing that is sustained by other than physical, chemical or geological processes is the notion of life itself. By scientific definition, it is (to save you from scrolling up again…)

“Any contiguous living system is called an organism. Organisms undergo metabolism, maintain homeostasis, possess a capacity to grow, respond to stimulireproduce and, through natural selection, adapt to their environment in successive generations.”

Thanks, Wikipedia.

There are multiple definitions, one of which is energy, or enthusiasm. It can be applied to organisms, but also to cities, roads, artworks, the movement of the planets, talk, marriage, and so much more. The reason is that the English language is drawing the term from an old source, in which life was seen as energy, that animated objects before passing out of them again. The scientific definition was brought forward in order to create a measurable science of manipulable things. That worked very well. It did, however, drop some things out of the picture, and left the alternate definitions of life to spiritual and artistic work (and to the psychological sciences that rose out of the combination of those two realms). It now appears time to join them all together again, into a larger picture. After all, water doesn’t have to flow, always, for their to be life …


Lichen and Moss Blooming in the Hoarfrost

…and the temperature range for life is rather broad, and extends not only across seasons, but across altitude, global location, and deep geological history, as evidenced by these ancient lichens doing just fine in what for them is the height of spring and for humans is seen as the deep of winter …


Life explores edges of light and dark, substance and energy.

P1050444I don’t think that is entirely the domain of traditionally-defined organisms, nor that a new definition takes away any strength or rigour from organism-defined biology. It adds this, though:


A Small Ecological Organism on the Grassland Hill (Silver Sage Lookout)

And that, too, is a kind of geology, just one that sees life as part of geological process, not separate from it. By changing the picture to include “ecological niches” as ecological organisms, the definition of life is broadened, which might make it easier to defend, celebrate, and find. I think as well, it will increase the capacity of human social life for non-human social integration. I think it is time. Maybe it is all about water.

P1050452On earth, anyway. Maybe the energy flows within that water …

P1050450What Are the Bubbles All About, Eh?

… will lead to discovery of non carbon-based life. Maybe life is everywhere in the universe, but water life is only located in certain zones. If that were so, we would be richer by far.

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