The French government is copping lots of flack for its ban on face covering in public, and rightly so, for outright bans are rarely effective, and this one is seen, rightly or wrongly – and probably rightly – as discriminating against Moslem women and the burqas that some of them wear.
However having said that, I’m no fan of the burqa, or any form of dress that sharply divides women from men (I love women in suits, and I wish I had the courage to wear skirts in public – I’m still considering buying one of those kilts I saw advertised on Facebook recently). But the burqa seems particularly regressive, and it’s clearly not a coincidence that it’s an outfit favoured by the Taliban and the Islamist Saudi government. Of course there are many variations of Islamic head-wear for women, but according to the women themselves, from what I’m always hearing, they choose to wear these head trappings as a sign of modesty.
It seems to me that modesty is the ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ term for these women, because modesty’s a virtue, and who’d criticise a woman for wanting to be virtuous? However, given that men and women are equal in intelligence and ability, I see no reason whatever for modesty to be a woman-only virtue. So why aren’t men wearing burqas? It isn’t a rhetorical question – I note that there’s a movement in Iran for men to wear hijabs in support of female associates targeted by the government there for being ‘improperly dressed’. Government imposed modesty.
This kind of modesty is of course highly dubious, it’s about not putting yourself forward – for education, for advancement, for leadership. It’s about knowing your circumscribed place. It’s a shame because the term ‘modesty’ has I think a value that has been demeaned by this more recent cultural usage. The modesty I value is where people tend to avoid trumpeting their achievements, however impressive those achievements might be. This kind of modesty is obviously not gender based and surely has nothing to do with head coverings.
However, this modesty-in-women malarky is about more than just trying not to be seen as, or even not to be, a great achiever. It’s about sexual modesty, and that’s what the covering is all about. One of the key features of patriarchy is controlling women’s sexual freedom. It really is about women as objects which need to be hidden from the lusty urges of male subjects, though women themselves are subjects only insofar as they must effectively hide or cover themselves from male appetites, otherwise they’re blameworthy and need to be punished.
So all this stuff about female headcovering is essentially about female sexual control, which is of course most effectively achieved if females internalise the idea and exercise the control themselves, thereby assenting to and bolstering the patriarchy that deprives them of sexual and other freedoms. Banning these head-coverings isn’t the solution, though it might be necessary in some places for practical purposes. What we need to do is win the intellectual argument against the stifling restrictions of patriarchy, and engage women on the hypocrisy of female sexual modesty where there is a different standard and expectation for males.
In one of the international English classes I occasionally teach, we have an opportunity for debate. Here’s a debate topic I’ve thought up but haven’t yet tried out: If 90 to 99% of the world’s business and political leaders were female, instead of male as they are today, would the world be a better place to live in?
It’s not a question that’ll find a definitive answer in the foreseeable future, but my strong view is that the world would be better.
Why? I’m not entirely convinced that women are the gentler sex, and I’m very wary of succumbing to a facile view of women as inherently more calm, co-operative and conciliatory, but I think that on balance, or statistically, they’re more risk averse, less impulsive, and, yes, more group-oriented. Whether such tendencies are natural or nurtured, I’m not at all sure. It’s a question I intend to investigate.
So to stimulate myself in pursuing the subject of patriarchy and its obverse I’m reading Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, a rather optimistically-titled book by an American doctor and teacher, Melvin Konner. It’s one of many sources of information I hope to access in the future. It argues that there are fundamental differences between males and females, and that females are the superior gender. I’m not sure about the ‘fundamentals’, or categorical differences, but I agree that the current differences can and probably should be interpreted in terms of female superiority. Certainly, given the needs and responsibilities of humanity in this time, woman appear to have more of the goods than males for facing the future. After all, if we look back at the last 6000 or so years of human history, it’s dominated by male warfare, and if we look at today’s most violent and brutish cultures, they’re clearly the most patriarchal.
Of course if you believe that women and men are fundamentally different, as Konner does, then it becomes straightforward to argue for women being in control, because it’s highly unlikely, indeed impossible I’d say, that these fundamentally different genders are precisely equal in value. And given the devastation and suffering that men have caused over the period of what we call ‘human civilisation’, and given that women are the (mostly) loving mothers of all of us, it seems obvious that, if there is a fundamental difference, women’s qualities are of more value.
On the other hand if you’re a bit more skeptical about fundamental differences, as I am, and you suspect that the idea that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is as applicable to women as it is to men, you’ll feel rather more uncertain about a profoundly matriarchal society. And yet…
I draw some inspiration for the benefits of matriarchy from the closest living relatives of homo sapiens. There are two of them. The line that led to us split off from the line that led to chimps and bonobos around 6 million years ago. Chimps and bonobos split from their common ancestor much more recently, perhaps only a little over a million years ago, so they’re both equally related to us. Chimps and bonobos look very very alike, which is presumably why bonobos were only recognised as a separate species in the 1930s – quite extraordinary for such a physically large animal. But of course bonobo and chimp societies are very very different, and vive la différence. I’ve written about bonobo society before, here and here, but can’t get enough of a good thing, so I’ll look more closely at that society in the next few posts.
The Roman Catholic Church is one of the few institutions in the western world permitted to discriminate, in terms of employment, on the basis of gender. Recently it announced that it would allow women to become deacons. The term deacon comes from ancient Greek, meaning servant, which of course accurately expresses the RCC attitude to women. There’s no upward employment pathway for women who become deacons, and I’d strongly advise any woman against applying for such a position. Of course I’d also strongly advise them to reject Catholicism altogether, as the religion, or business organisation, whatever it is, clearly has an attitude towards women which should have no place in modern society.
So given the outrageous discrimination practised by the RCC, why do so many women sheepishly accede to its restrictions? Well, maybe they don’t. I know this is anecdotal, but in a recent trip around Europe I took a few tours of major European cities. These unsurprisingly involved visits to quite a handful of historic cathedrals, featuring tombs of popes and sculptures of saints and such, but what impressed me more was that each of our tour guides felt obliged, apparently, to say that though their city was nominally Catholic, few of its residents actually practised the religion today. Maybe there was collusion among the tour guides, maybe they were all keen not to frighten the many Asian tourists, but they were surely speaking the truth. Roman Catholicism is the largest non-practiced religion in the world (though of course in some parts it’s practised fervently).
So since the RCC isn’t yet dead from indifference, perhaps something should be done to kill it off legally, and mounting legal challenges to its discriminatory policies on employment and other matters would be a good way to speed up the dying process. Sadly, I can’t find any legal or rights-based organisations keen to take up the challenge. The influential American Civil Liberties Union has many strong statements about Catholic and other religious charities and health providers discriminating against the women they serve, on issues such as abortion, family planning and homosexuality, but nothing about employment within the religious orders of the RCC. Of course the RCC doesn’t discriminate against women in their welfare arm, because to serve is a woman’s vocation. And of course the ACLU only highlights issues, it doesn’t have the resources to go any further, nor would it succeed, as religious groups are routinely exempt from anti- discrimination laws.
In Australia, the Sex Discrimination Act, particularly sections 37 and 38, provides the legal backing to religious sex discrimination. The sections are written with ‘religious freedom’ in mind, and with an eye to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Religious Rights. These freedoms, though, aren’t absolute and are to be balanced against other human rights, such as equal opportunity based on gender.
There are of course good reasons why nobody is legally challenging the RCC on this issue. Women as priests, bishops, cardinals, popes – this is hardly low-hanging fruit, it’s the heart of the Catholic system. Better to focus on discrimination against homosexuals and LGBT individuals employed in, or just attending, RCC schools. This chips away at the edges of this dreadful patriarchy and slowly weakens it. Every concession the RCC makes to modernity is like another gulp of poison it’s forced to take. Its strength will ebb away…
Okay I’ve recently become a bit depressed that my blog is heading south, comme on dit, being read by nobody, due largely to my personality. A recent SBS program on the celebrated Dunedin longitudinal study of human behaviour and personality told us that there were five essential personality types. Three were considered ‘normal’, and they were the well-adjusted (40% of the population) the confident (28%), and the reserved (15%). In case you can’t add, this makes up some 83% of the population. The other 17% can be divided into two rather more dysfunctional types, the under-controlled (10%) and the inhibited (7%). You’re more than welcome to be healthily skeptical of these categories, but I’m prepared to take them as granted.
I’m not sure if I’m fully in the reserved category or the inhibited one, but I’m quite certain that most of the problems or failings of my life have been due to inhibition. For example, I live alone, have very few friends and no family connections and I visit and am visited by nobody. I have no sex life but a strong sex drive – make of that what you will – and I like other people very much and have many heroes and heroines, and I believe strongly that humans have gotten where they are through communication and collaboration. We’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. I love children and would love to have been a father…
Enough, I hope you get the picture. What’s interesting is that, in accord with Dunedin’s personality types, my character seems to have been fixed in early childhood, which I spent largely enjoying my own company, but also being fascinated by the world, soliloquising on it at delightful length. And sometimes, as I grew older, falling to despair, weeping at night over a projected future of loveless isolation. Oh dear.
So what does this mean for my blog? Writing a blog that’s sent out into the public domain is surely not an inhibited act, and craving attention for it is arguably not what a reserved person does. It’s a puzzlement. In any case, I will try harder to expand my readership by writing shorter pieces and narrowing my focus. I’ve decided, for the time being at least, to confine my attention to a subject I’ve long been bothered by: patriarchy. I want to critique it, to analyse it, to examine what the sciences say about it, to shine lights on every aspect of this, to my mind, benighted way of thinking and being-in-the-world. I’ll take a look at bonobos, the Catholic Church, homophobia, the effects of religion and culture, male and female neurophysiology, history, sex, workplaces, business, politics, whatever I can relate to the main subject, which surely will provide me with a rich, open field. And I’ll try, really try to communicate with other bloggers and commentators on the subject. Maybe I’ll become just a little less reserved before it’s too late. It’ll be a cheaper way of getting myself out of a rut than visiting a psychiatrist, of whom I would be healthily if self-servingly skeptical.
I’ve never been too much exercised on US domestic politics, but I listened with some interest to an interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast recently with David Cay Johnston, the author of a book on Donald Trump, inter alia, and he effectively explained how such an obviously boorish character functioned, though he didn’t so much explain why he got to where he is today – which would require a different book, one that reads the psyche of a particular type of individual, or ‘mark’.
The term ‘mark’ is used by magicians playing as ‘psychics’ or ‘faith healers’ etc to refer to the easily duped. Johnson, in his book The Making of Donald Trump, describes Trump as a Barnum & Bailey ‘huckster’ type, far more interested in persuasion, usually for the purpose of making money, than truth. What struck Johnston, when he first reported on Trump in relation to his interest in casinos in the late eighties, was his ignorance, even of the business at hand. He tested this himself by asking Trump questions which contained deliberately false information and watching how Trump handled them. And of course got the usual arrogant bluster that we’ve all observed.
So this is the question. Why does anyone takes Trump seriously? I remember my own first experience of Trump, years ago, when he hosted some kind of reality show in which he was interviewing prospective job-seekers. It only took about five minutes to realise that the fellow was a self-important loudmouth and a bullying dirtbag. So it didn’t take long for my feelings of contempt to switch from the oxygen-thief to his ‘victims’. What kind of idiot would put herself in this position? Apparently it had to do with money and the power that it brought…
So the worry I have is not about the huckster Trump, it’s about those who take him seriously, his ‘marks’. And it’s also about the process by which anyone can obtain high political office in a very powerful country – a position of huge responsibility. Arguably, it’s a problem of democracy.
This problem was highlighted some 2,500 years ago, right at the beginning of democracy as a political system, when the sort of populism and demagoguery that Trump utilises so instinctively brought ancient Athens to its knees, and it’s the principle reason why the intellectual elites represented by the likes of Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle were so vehemently opposed to democracy. They’d witnessed the disastrous Sicilian campaign (which precipitated Athenian decline in the region) which they blamed, not entirely fairly, on that system. Certainly they recognised the dangers of such populists as Cleon and Alcibiades, though neither they nor anyone after them were able to come up with a better system. Plato’s Republic, which advocated, perhaps not entirely seriously, rule by an intellectual elite, was hampered by an absurdly static notion of society, a sort of eugenics avant la lettre, as if intellectuals (and warriors, and servants) were born and not made – or, at least, a mixture of both.
Yet if you look at our political system today, you’ll find that we temper the democratic political system with a fair degree of intellectual elitism in the form of our judiciary – the ‘unrepresentative swill’ that preside over our high court and other courts throughout the land, interpreting legislature judiciously and causing grumbling parliamentarians to find new and more thoughtful laws to get round them. And I would advocate another form of ‘elitist’ intervention to ensure more responsible government.
I’ve mentioned this before when I suggested that individuals who want to stand for public office, thus to participate in making laws that influence our citizenry and showcase our nation to the world (and more than this in the case of powerful nations), should have to pass a reasonably stringent scientific literacy test. Of course, such an idea will never get up, so I’m proposing an even broader one.
It’s expected that anybody applying for a job involving considerable responsibility should be submitted to considerable scrutiny regarding their plans for the job, their understanding of the job’s requirements, and their knowledge of the fields covered by the job. In the case of becoming the President of a nation, this scrutiny should surely be imperative. So, a rigorous questioning of the candidate’s knowledge and ideas with respect to that nation’s economic situation, its domestic and foreign policies, as well as a basic understanding of science in relation to national and global issues, should be an absolute minimum requirement.
Compare this requirement to what actually exists today. No scrutiny whatsoever. A complete protection against tough questioning on these matters, with no requirement to justify to the people who they serve – as the ultimate public servant – any remark or decision they make. It’s a problem.
Trump won’t become President, because though he knows how to play to and work a particular crowd, that crowd will continue to shrink as his tactics are exposed by the media and especially by those who otherwise would support the conservative side of politics he’s vaguely aligned himself to, but it’s surely a systemic failure that such an inappropriate and ignorant candidate should ever get to where he is today. If that’s how democracy works, then democracy isn’t enough. Democracy has its limits – it has become far too unquestioned as a political system. Its limits are in fact considerable. We shouldn’t decide scientific matters by democratic process (that sounds obvious, but I’ve heard more than one polly say the exact opposite), and we shouldn’t, in my view allow just anyone to stand for political office, especially at the top level. The consequences might be dire. And we should also do our best, though it’s a hard road to hoe, to make every vote count, by making it as generally informed and reasoned as possible. There’s nothing new about that last statement, but it still holds true. Democracy without education, in the broadest sense, isn’t worth much.
Canto: So Michelle Obama thinks America is the greatest country on Earth…
Jacinta: Not just thinks, but tearfully feels, in every cell of her body, but you know, even she must realise it’s all rhetorical baloney.
Canto: I prefer to call it balderdash – less American.
Jacinta: But you can’t blame pollies for getting all jingoistic come election time, can you?
Canto: I do. I can’t stand it at any time. But I want us to reflect for a while on the meaning of ‘the greatest country on Earth’. Is greatness measurable? Is there currently a fifteenth greatest country on Earth? What are the measuring criteria?
Jacinta: I think you’re taking it all too seriously, but it’s interesting – we’ve observed this before – that every nation in history that has had economic and military superiority over others has assumed this entailed moral superiority. Whereas in the world of realpolitik it just means they’re an apex predator.
Canto: I’m sure Donald Frump would agree, though I think he’s wrong to claim that the USA is no longer an apex predator. There can be room for more than one at the top, though it wouldn’t do to let that space get too crowded.
Jacinta: Yes, so ‘greatest’ can only mean ‘most powerful’, it’s not the kind of term you use to measure a nation’s quality for its own citizens.
Canto: But why are Americans so keen to trumpet their nation’s superiority? I mean methinks they do protest too much.
Jacinta: Well a couple of centuries ago, when the Brits had the strongest economy, weren’t they the same?
Canto: Well, not really… I mean, that wouldn’t be British, would it? I mean they thought they were morally superior of course, but they weren’t so utterly boorish as to proclaim it while banging their tits.
Jacinta: Well you’re making a good point. When imperialist nations or superpowers or whatever start believing they’re better than others in some moral way, they may act accordingly, pushing their weight around, hectoring, lecturing, even taking it upon themselves to punish other nations for not being like them.
Canto: Or invading other nations to show them how ‘being great’ is done. So that’s why we need correctives. We need more objective measures, not for measuring national greatness, which is just a term of power, or just rhetoric, but for measuring success in terms of the well-being, happiness, freedom or whatever of the members of that nation.
Jacinta: I think that people like Obama, and so many Americans, really believe in this rhetoric though. They take a term like ‘great’, and they really think it refers to all those other things – opportunity, well-being, smarts, etc.
Canto: Which is why reality checks are in order. Take the ‘land of opportunity’ rhetoric. What this refers to is social mobility. Anyone has the chance to be anything. But there are surely ways to measure social mobility, which are more or less objective.
Jacinta: Certainly more objective than just making the claim. And it’s interesting, we’ve looked at a few national surveys, based on various criteria, and I can’t recall the USA ever coming in the top ten in any of them. Usually it’s well down the list.
Canto: So it’s time to revisit those surveys. First the OECD survey that was posted on in the past, its better life index. The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)…
Jacinta: Such a positive, feel-good internationalist title.
Canto: Isn’t it? It was founded in 1948, another of those positives to come out of the negativity of warfare. It’s headquartered in Paris, it has 35 member countries and its purpose is pretty well self-explanatory.
Jacinta: Yes, but while its focus is obviously on economics, primarily, the better life index is a kind of side project, which is almost saying ‘money ain’t everything’, there are all these other factors as well as the economic, to consider when striving for a better life, and a better country.
Canto: Yes they consider 11 factors in all: housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. People can give different weightings to these factors, and on their website they allow you to change the weightings so that you’ll come up with a different top ten or twenty of the 35 participating countries.
Jacinta: But according to the weightings they favour, the USA comes a fairly creditable ninth behind Norway, Australia, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, in that order. But since we’re in Australia we can surely permit ourselves some eye-rolling at your standard Yank jingoism.
Canto: Surely but of course many will say that these ‘objective’ assessment criteria are highly suspect, and possibly anti-American.
Jacinta: Naturally, and we haven’t the resources or the time to evaluate them, so instead we’ll look at a number of these surveys with the assumption that they’re not all anti-American, to see how our chauvinistic allies fare. But it’s interesting that the OECD survey doesn’t highly rate any of the non-Scandinavian European counties. A Scandinavian bias perhaps?
Canto: Well here’s another rather different international survey, which looks instead at cities.
Jacinta: Very relevant considering the world’s rapid urbanisation shift.
Canto: The Mercer Quality of Living rankings looks at living conditions in hundreds of cities ‘according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories’: Political and social environment, Economic environment, Medical and health considerations, Schools and education, Public services and transportation, Recreation, Consumer goods, Housing, and Natural environment. And again, you may want to believe its findings are biased and you may be right, but its highest ranking American city is Honolulu at number 31.
Jacinta: Honolulu? Hardly the heart of America.
Canto: Compare neighbouring Canada, which has 5 cities in front of Honolulu. Vancouver (4), Ottawa (14), Toronto (16), Montreal (21) and Calgary (28). Australia and New Zealand also rate far better than the USA with Aukland ranked at 4 (tied with Vancouver), Sydney ranked 10, Wellington 12, Melbourne 18, Perth 21 and Canberra 26. Some 16 European cities are in the top 25, with Vienna being ranked the number one city for the past 6 years in a row. There are no Asian, African or South American cities in the top rankings.
Jacinta: Mercer, by the way, is a human resources consulting firm headquartered in New York, and it’s really hard to get full data from it because it restricts full access to ‘professionals’, presumably behind a paywall. Nosy impoverished amateurs like us are unwelcome. So most of the data we’re using is from back in 2010 (and that’s only from press releases, with little detail) but I doubt that the USA has become any ‘greater’ since then. So it’s clear that the USA is no great shakes, city-wise – in fact it would be classed as probably the lowest-ranked western country in the world, according to this survey…
Canto: Conducted by a New York based firm…
Jacinta: Insofar as the liveability of it’s cities are concerned. And that’s where most people live, after all.
Canto: So it’s not looking good for the bad old USA. Any more surveys?
Jacinta: And in case people quibble about the term ‘western’, let’s be a little more precise. The USA, in terms of the quality of its cities for their own residents, lags behind Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Canto: That way greatness tells lies.
Jacinta: There’s a website called numbeo which claims to provide ‘the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide. Numbeo provides current and timely information on world living conditions including cost of living, housing indicators, health care, traffic, crime and pollution.‘ Its ‘quality of life index’, based on countries, looks somewhat similar to that of the OECD, with the USA ranked tenth, well below Australia and New Zealand, ranked third and fourth respectively. However it differs from the OECD in that it ranks a number of non-Scandinavian European countries above the USA, namely Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Spain. And it ranks Canada below the USA, which is unusual. And again the top rankings are dominated by western countries, with Japan being the top Asian country at 16.
Canto: I’ve never heard of numbeo, what are their bonafides and how do they gather data?
Jacinta: It’s a crowd-sourcing site, founded in 2009 by one Mladan Adamovic, a former Google software engineer. It’s evolving, and its findings suggest it’s not particularly an outlier, though at this stage not perhaps as reliable as the OECD.
Canto: Well, with crowd-sourcing, there would be some nation-participants where information would be scarce, or virtually non-existent.
Jacinta: That’s right, but all of these survey organisations and websites face the same problems, and it’s pretty likely that the places from which info is scarce wouldn’t be in the top rankings in any case. If you know your country’s doing well, you’d want to share it.
Canto: Okay, so we’ve looked at three sources. One more?
Jacinta: Yeah well a few more, which I’ll summarise. Monocle magazine, a British lifestyle magazine, has been doing an annual quality of life index based on cities since 2006. Its criteria are ‘safety/crime, international connectivity, climate/sunshine, quality of architecture, public transport, tolerance, environmental issues and access to nature, urban design, business conditions, pro-active policy developments and medical care’, and it ranks Tokyo at number one, whereas Mercer ranked it 44th! It did rank Vienna at number two, however. And it ranked Melbourne at 4 and Sydney at 5, so it must be very objective.
Canto: And the US?
Jacinta: Its highest ranking city was Portland Oregon at 25. So there’s definitely a pattern emerging.
Canto: Where’s Adelaide?
Jacinta: They’ve never heard of it. Another survey based on cities comes from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), from the London-based group that publishes The Economist. They go into a lot of detail about their criteria on their website, so I won’t go into it here. I only had access to their current top 10. It shows Hong Kong at number one, and Sydney at 5. No US cities make the ten, and Vienna isn’t there either. Tokyo comes in at 10. It should be added that they seem to have drastically amended their criteria recently – before that, Vienna regularly came in at number 3, with Melbourne and Vancouver also in the top 5 regularly. Melbourne ranked number 1 in 2011.
Canto: That’s interesting about Hong Kong, because I read elsewhere that life expectancy of its residents is about the highest in the world. So the city must be doing something right.
Jacinta: Well I’m sure the Chinese government will put a stop to that.
Canto: Okay I think we’ve done enough survey of surveys – let’s summarise. We started with Michele Obama, in typical US pollie style, proclaiming the greatness of her country.
Jacinta: I.e. not just great but ‘the greatest on Earth’. So we had a look at a handful of the most well-known global surveys of nations and cities, based essentially on liveability criteria. Though it’s impossible to be entirely objective in these surveys, they collectively present a pattern. In none of them did the USA distinguish itself, and in terms of its cities it really did quite badly, as a western nation. As to why that might be the case, we leave that for the reader’s speculations, for now. The gap between US perceptions and reality, I would contend, is largely caused by the assumption that if you’re globally dominant in economic terms, you’re in a ‘great’ country in any or every other way.
Canto: Roman economic hegemony, in the old days, was largely based on a substantial slave population, wasn’t it?
Jacinta: Well, that and being able to dictate terms of trade with others, as every dominant nation or empire has been able to do. But you’re right, a lot of economic success in the past has involved the exploitation of a populous underclass. The USA is by far the most populous of the traditional western countries, and it effectively has no minimum wage. That’s very handy for the McDonald Frumps of that great nation.
Jacinta: So now we’re thinking of the Earth 4 billion years BP, with an atmosphere we’re not quite sure of, and we want to explore the what and when of the first life forms. Haven’t we talked about this before?
Canto: Yeah we talked about the RNA world and viroids and abiogenesis, the gap between chemistry and biology, inter alia. This time we’re going to look more closely at the hunt for the earliest living things, and the environments they might’ve lived in.
Jacinta: And it started with one, it must have. LUA, or LUCA, the last universal common ancestor. Or the first, after a number of not-quite LUCAs, failed or only partially successful attempts. And finding LUCA would be much tougher than finding a viroid in a haystack, because you’re searching through an immensity of space and time.
Canto: But we’re much closer to finding it than in the past because we know so much more about what is common to all life forms.
Jacinta: Yes so are we looking definitely at the first DNA-based life form or are we probing the RNA world again?
Canto: I think we’ll set aside the world of viroids and viruses for now, because we want to look at the ancestor of all independently-existing life forms, and they’re all DNA-based. And we also know that LUCA used ATP. So now I’m going to quote from an essay by Michael Le Page in the volume of the New Scientist Collection called ‘Origin, Evolution, Extinction’:
How did LUCA make its ATP? Anyone designing life from scratch would probably make ATP using chemical reactions inside the cell. But that’s not how it is done. Instead energy from food or sunlight is used to power a protein ‘pump’ that shunts hydrogen ions – protons – out of the cell. This creates a difference in proton concentration, or a gradient, across the cell membrane. Protons then flow back into the cell through another protein embedded in the membrane, which uses the energy to produce ATP.
Jacinta: You understand that?
Canto: Sort of.
Jacinta: ‘Energy from food or sunlight is used..’ that’s a bit of a leap. What food? The food we eat is organic, made from living or formerly living stuff, but LUCA is the first living thing, its food must be purely chemical, not biological.
Canto: Of course, not a problem. I believe the microbes at hydrothermal vents live largely on hydrogen sulphide, and of course sunlight is energy for photosynthesising oganisms such as cyanobacteria.
Jacinta: Okay, so your simplest living organisms, or the simplest ones we know, get their energy by chemosynthesis, or photosynthesis. Its energy, or fuel, not food.
Jacinta: But there are other problems with this quote re abiogenesis. For example, it’s talking about pre-existent cells and cell membranes. So assuming that cells had to precede ATP.
Canto: No, he’s telling us how cells make ATP today. So we have to find, or synthesise, all the essential ingredients that make up the most basic life forms that we know – cell membranes, proteins, ATP and the like. And people are working towards this.
Jacinta: Yes and first of all they created these ‘building blocks of life’, as they always like to call them, amino acids, in the Miller-Urey experiments, since replicated many times over, but what exactly are nucleic acids? Are they the same things as nucleic acids?
Canto: Amino acids are about the simplest forms of organic compounds. It’s probably better to call them the building blocks of proteins. There are many different kinds, but generally each contain amine and carboxyl groups, that’s -NH2 and -COOH, together with a side chain, called an R group, which determines the type of amino acid. There’s a whole complicated lot of them and you could easily spend a whole lifetime fruitfully studying them. They’re important in cell structure and transport, all sorts of things. We’ve not only been able to create amino acids, but to combine them together into longer peptide chains. And we’ve also found large quantities of amino acids in meteorites such as the Murchison – as well as simple sugars and nitrogenous bases. In fact I think we’re gradually firming up the life-came from-space hypothesis.
Jacinta: But amino acids and proteins aren’t living entities, no matter how significant they are to living entities. We’ve never found living entities in space or beyond Earth. Your quote above suggests some of what we need. A boundary between outside and inside, a lipid or phospho-lipid boundary as I’ve heard it called, which must be semi-permeable to allow chemicals in on a very selective basis, as food or fuel.
Canto: I believe fatty acids formed the first membranes, not phospho-lipids. That’s important because we’ve found that fatty acids, which are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms joined together in a regular way, aren’t just built inside cells. There’s a very interesting video called What is Chemical Evolution?, produced by the Center for Chemical Evolution in the USA, that tells about this. Experimenters have heated up carbon monoxide and hydrogen along with many minerals common in the Earth’s crust and produced various carbon compounds including fatty acids. Obviously this could have and can still happen naturally on Earth, for example in the hot regions maybe below or certainly within the crust. It’s been found that large concentrations of fatty acids aggregate in warm water, creating a stable, ball-like configuration. This has to do with the attraction between the oxygen-carrying heads of fatty acids and the water molecules, and the repulsion of the carbon-carrying tails. The tails are forced together into a ball due to this repulsion, as the video shows.
Jacinta: Yes it’s an intriguing video, and I’m almost feeling converted, especially as it goes further than aggregation due to these essentially electrical forces, but tries to find ways in which chemical structures evolve, so it tries to create a bridge between one type of evolution and another – the natural-selection type of evolution that operates upon reproducing organisms via mutation and selection, and the type of evolution that builds more complex and varied chemical structures from simpler compounds.
Canto: Yes but it’s not just the video that’s doing it, it’s the whole discipline or sub-branch of science called chemical evolution.
Jacinta: That’s right, it’s opening a window into that grey area between life and non-life and showing there’s a kind of space in our knowledge there that it would be exciting to try and fill, through observation and experimentation and testable hypotheses and the like. So the video, or the discipline, suggests that in chemical evolution, the highly complex process of reproduction through mitosis in eukaryotic cells or binary fission in prokaryotes is replaced by repetitive production, a simpler process that only takes place under certain limited conditions.
Canto: So under the right conditions the balls of fatty acids grow in number and themselves accumulate to form skins, and further forces – I think they’re hydrostatic forces – can cause the edges of these skins to fuse together to create ‘containers’, like vesicles inside cells.
Jacinta: So we’re talking about the creation of membranes, impermeable or semi-permeable, that can provide a safe haven for, whatever…
Canto: Yes, and at the end of the video, other self-assembling systems, such as proto-RNA, are intriguingly mentioned, so we might want to find out what’s known about that.
Jacinta: I think we’ll be doing a lot of reading and posting on this subject. I find it really fascinating. These limited conditions I mentioned – limited on today’s Earth surface, but not so much four billion years ago, include a reducing atmosphere lacking in free oxygen, and high temperatures, as well as a gradient – both a temperature gradient and a sort of molecular or chemical gradient, from more reducing to more oxidising you might say. These conditions exist today at hydrothermal vents, where archaebacteria are found, so researchers are naturally very interested in such environments, and in trying to replicate or simulate them.
Canto: And they’re interested in the boundary between chemical and biological evolution, and reproduction. There are so many interesting lines of inquiry, with RNA, with cell membranes….
Jacinta: Researchers are particularly interested in alkaline thermal vents, where alkaline fluids well up from beneath the sea floor at high temperatures. When this fluid hits the ocean water, minerals precipitate out and gradually create porous chimneys up to 60 metres high. They would’ve been rich in iron and sulphide, good for catalysing complex organic reactions, according to Le Page. The temperature gradients created would’ve favoured organic compounds and would’ve likely encouraged the building of complexity, so they may have been the sites in which the RNA world began, if it ever did.
Canto: So I think we should pursue this further. There are a lot of researchers homing in on this area, so I suspect further progress will be made soon.
Jacinta: Yes, we need to explore the exploitation of proton gradients, the development of proton pumps and the production of ATP, leaky membranes and a whole lot of other fun stuff.
Canto: I think we need to get our heads around ATP and its production too, because that looks pretty damn complex.
Jacinta: Next time maybe.