I had something of a remarkable insight today*. We only are aware of about 5% of what is going on in the world around us at any one time. This is actually very difficult to imagine because it seems that the exterior world, which is really quite vast, is all that there is. So how could we be missing the majority (95%) of it? It comes down to the way we perceive things, that is, the senses we use to take in information from the world “out there”. They are just very limited that is all. Everybody is in the same position though and so are all the other life-forms on this planet. Everything that lives or breathes shares with us the time and space we exist in right now. They are all going about their lives just as we are. However each life-form also gets particular information from its surroundings just as we do in order to live their lives. Some have developed extraordinarily sensitive sense organs like bats, for instance, who can use their sense of hearing to take in highly detailed information about their surroundings which allows them to do spectacular feats of aerial agility in complete darkness. It is well known that the eyes of insects, such as bees, take in more information than we do as our eyes are only able to perceive a limited band of the spectrum of light. Bees can see the ultraviolet part of the spectrum which is beyond our range. This gives them special cues to aid the polination of certain plants that have through great ingenuity adapted to produce the right chemicals to create the necessary UV reflective markings.
How do plants even produce these chemicals in the first place? And how did any of us living creatures even begin to build the structures which allow us our sensory experience? The physiology of the body is mysterious and fascinating and many different types of materials make up our physical bodies. One important material of course is water which is found in every living cell and so makes up the vast bulk of our bodies. Many of the basic elements are present: oxygen, carbon, sodium, chlorine, to name but a few. These can be configured in many ways such as fats or aqueous solutions but there are some really fascinating molecules that can be very complex and are made to order by our own bodies. These are the proteins.
Proteins are made in the cells by special intra-cellular mechanisms which includes the genetic material that is resident in every cell. The cells have basically built themselves various materials they need to make a body and make the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin that we all perceive the world with. Sometimes these do get damaged of course and a sense is impaired or lost. No-one could be said to be alive if they lost the use of all their sense organs. There would be no contact with the external world and no consciousness. Consciousness can be lost temporarily and a person is still alive, like in sleep, but permanent loss of consciousness is loss of existence. As Descartes put forward: “I think therefore I am”.
I would like to return now to the role of the genetic code in producing proteins. This process has always fascinated me. The genetic code is contained in long sequences of base pairs. It is a fairly simple binary code because there are only 2 base pairs although it is slightly complicated in that the two spines of the DNA double helix can consist of base pairs in both orientations. This means that one of the spirals of the double helix can have 4 potential compounds in a sequence. During the building of protein the DNA gets unzipped so each strand of the double helix can be read. This also happens when the DNA needs to be copied for cell division which is how they multiply. The internal mechanisms for doing this are incredibly elegant and efficient. They have had a lot of practice. But they have to be as efficient and exact as possible because errors in the reproduction of the code could lead to important instructions for the building of proteins being lost.
There is a kind of intermediary between the DNA and the protein called RNA, which is basically like a bit of the complementary DNA double helix but it is only a snippet and doesn’t need to be kept for long, only until the protein gets made. Perhaps it could be thought of as taking down notes from a recipe book. The amazing thing is that there are various chemicals in the soup of the cell called amino acids and a little bit of special material in the cell (another protein) takes the RNA and uses it to string the amino acids together into a protein. The amino acids are linked as a chain and the sequence depends on the code on the RNA. How this works is quite remarkable and perhaps the bit I find the most fascinating. Each of the 4 options available from the sequence of the RNA are grouped with another 2 making a triplet. Mathematically this means that there are 64 possible triplet combinations and by some sort of mysterious convention the 20 different amino acids are assigned to each of these 64 triplets. So the RNA can produce a massively diverse amount of proteins by having all these sequences of amino acids. The amino acids, due to their chemical structures, fold into all sorts of 3 dimensional shapes fit for whatever purpose is required.
Now this is where you may decide I have taken a step too far but this part of our inner workings, our fundamental being, which has shaped our perceptions of the world is why I arrived at the conclusion that we only perceive 5% of the possible information that is out there. 5% is one twentieth and there are 20 amino acids.
When I was younger I was also really fascinated by something I discovered was part of our own cultural heritage but which has been pretty much forgotten. This is the ancient Ogham alphabet. It was a writing system used to convey information based on a simple set of lines on a stave. The 20 basic Ogham symbols were all associated with different trees and to this day the letters which comprise the Gaelic alphabet (also numbering 20) are each allocated a tree. Have a look at Dwelly’s for the tree/letter associations.
Now the reason why I also included the Logos in the title of this essay is because Logos is a Greek word which has been used in philosophical teachings going right back to the Pythagoreans and before. It is most commonly translated as “word”. Words are meaningful units in themselves and the study of the meaning of words is called Semantics. However words which can be spoken or written can be broken down into component parts, such as letters. Therefore a sequence of letters makes up a word, much in the same way that a sequence of amino acids makes up a protein. Again returning to my original subject, the sensory organs that are made out of the instructions contained within the body itself are the means by which we take in information from the outside world or the Cosmos to use another Greek term. The Logos in those early days of Greek philosophy was equated with the principle of order or intelligence, that sense experience we literally use to make sense and meaning of the world. And so the Logos could be seen as the consciousness within all living beings but also it might be said to be much more than that, encompassing all that we cannot perceive by our senses, that other 95% which is inaccessible to us, individually at least. The fellow creatures who share our planet could see and perceive things differently than us because of the way their inner workings have brought forth their means of experiencing the world. I think it is worth us remembering this when we try and relate to the rest of the living beings around us.
* This was actually quite a few months before I published this post and pre-lockdown for the Coronavirus pandemic. Just as a side note a virus is a piece of genetic code that hijacks the mechanisms mentioned in this essay to reproduce itself and spread to other organisms where it can continue to be reproduced. It is an instance of the blurring of boundaries between a living and non-living thing.