The APR Hypothesis: autonomy + pattern recognition

The standard model for the origin of life requires a vast number of combinatorial states, and possibly more molecules than exist in the universe, for random mutation to produce the improbable state called “first life.” I argue that a purely materialistic view of the origin of life cannot solve this combinatorial problem, that it is only soluble when the origin of consciousness coincides with the origin of life. The A-PR hypothesis (Autonomy | Pattern Recognition) posits that the capacity to engage in A-PR cycles distinguishes life from non-life.

Gill-A-PRdiag-bw-1-16Life originated when two behavioral functions, autonomy and pattern recognition, were first coupled in a single feedback loop, the A-PR cycle, complementing each other. The A-PR hypothesis reframes the origin of life problem to address four issues:

1) the combinatorial improbability of non-life becoming alive;
2) characterization of the origin of life threshold;
3) disagreement about how to define life and its origin; and
4) debated hypotheses about what occurred first in the origin of life that logically imply the A-PR hypothesis as its precursor.
A-PR-ThresholdIf A-PR cycles mark the threshold when non-life became alive, the first instance when data processing enabled internally-directed behavior, then the A-PR hypothesis responds to the paradigm shift called for by Francis Crick, from prediction to retrodiction (recognizing the origin of life after-the-fact), overcoming the improbability of the standard model for the origin of life.

Scientists working on the origin of life accept that there is no consensus about how to define life (Sagan 1970; Luisi 1998; McKay 2004). The improbability that a state called “first life” (however defined) would ever occur solely through random mutation and environmental selection has attracted attention of information theorists and theoretical biologists (Yockey 1977; 2005). The definition conundrum, and the combinatorial improbability of the standard model, demand reframing the origin of life which theorists such as Terrence Deacon, Stuart Kauffman, Christopher P. McKay and others have recognized.


Materialistic analysis reduces the origin of life to a problem in ordered complexity: the right ingredients must come together under suitable conditions, achieving sufficient complexity with requisite order, for a remote probability that the origin of life could occur. In the standard model these prerequisites, and particularly their random assembly into an order that could live, entails surmounting enormous improbabilities. Carl Woese noted that “it is becoming increasingly clear that to understand living systems in any deep sense, we must come to see them not materialistically, as machines, but as (stable) complex, dynamic organization. Twenty-first century biology will concern itself with the great ‘nonreductionist’ 19th century biological problems that molecular biology left untouched” (Woese 2004).

Life’s unique behaviors underpin the A-PR hypothesis (Autonomy | Pattern Recognition): capacity to engage in A-PR cycles, is proposed as a defining attribute of life. Life originated when two behavioral functions, autonomy and pattern recognition, joined to create a co-dependent feedback loop. Autonomy was guided by capacity for pattern recognition, which in turn enabled life to navigate unpredictable circumstances in its “struggle for existence.” At the threshold when non-life became alive, the first A-PR cycle occurred: data processing enabled internally-directed behavior, the seed for consciousness.

Capacity for rudimentary sensing (pattern recognition) and response (autonomy enabling agency) makes life an information processor, using information to navigate in its environment. Defining life as an information processor, processing not only energy, but also information, calls for agreement on what constitutes “signal processing,” and how capacity for signal processing entails pattern recognition, the basis of the A-PR hypothesis.

Freeman Dyson wrote, “I do not claim that [this] hypothesis is true, nor that it is supported by…experimental evidence.… I would like to stimulate experimental chemists, and biologists and paleontologists to find the evidence by which the hypothesis might be tested” (Dyson 1985 p.10). So too, the A-PR hypothesis aims to stimulate debate toward its proof or disproof.

Related topics:

earthDECKS as the neXt game 

       Emerging meta•Discipline: Collaborative Intelligence (CIQ)
       Design, Synthesis & Collaborative Intelligence

       Tragedy of the Commons & Collaborative Intelligence
       ZIG, ZIR and their Zebra


Gill, Zann. 2013. The Other Edge of Ockham’s Razor: The A-PR Hypothesis and the Origin of Mind. In: Biosemiotics. Special Issue “Origins of Mind” edited by Liz Stillwaggon Swan and Andrew M. Winters, Dordrecht, Springer. DOI: 10.1007/s12304-013-9176-6
Gill, Zann. 2012. A Response To Darwin’s Dilemma: A-PR cycles and the origin of design in nature. In: Seckbach J, Gordon R, and Swan, L (eds) The Origin of Design in Nature. Dordrecht, Springer.
Gill, Zann. 2011. The A-PR Hypothesis: Autonomy and Pattern Recognition in the Origin of Life. Origins 2011, ISSOL (International Society for Study of the Origin of Life) & Bioastronomy Joint International Conference; July 3 – 8 – Montpellier, France.