A living cell is not an aggregate of molecules but an organized pattern, structured in space and in time. This article addresses some conceptual issues in the genesis of spatial architecture, including how molecules find their proper location in cell space, the origins of supramolecular order, the role of the genes, cell morphology, the continuity of cells, and the inheritance of order. The discussion is framed around a hierarchy of physiological processes that bridge the gap between nanometer-sized molecules and cells three to six orders of magnitude larger. Stepping stones include molecular self-organization, directional physiology, spatial markers, gradients, fields, and physical forces. The knowledge at hand leads to an unconventional interpretation of biological order. I have come to think of cells as self-organized systems composed of genetically specified elements plus heritable structures. The smallest self that can be fairly said to organize itself is the whole cell. If structure, form, and function are ever to be computed from data at a lower level, the starting point will be not the genome, but a spatially organized system of molecules. This conclusion invites us to reconsider our understanding of what genes do, what organisms are, and how living systems could have arisen on the early Earth.
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