One of the most challenging questions in basic biology and the history of evolution and life stems from the unknown origin of the first cells billions of years ago. Though many pieces of the puzzle have been put together, this origin story remains somewhat murky. But a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge believe they’ve accidentally stumbled on an answer, and a very compelling one at that.
Was the origin of life willy-nilly? Or was it primed by pre-existing affinities in non-living matter that gave the creation of the first replicating for of life a jump start? New Research suggests the latter:
The chemical components crucial to the start of life on Earth may have primed and protected each other in never-before-realized ways, according to new research led by University of Washington scientists.
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-07-natural-affinitiesunrecognized-nowmay-stage-life.html#jCpIt could mean a simpler scenario for how that first spark of life came about on the planet, according to Sarah Keller, UW professor of chemistry, and Roy Black, UW affiliate professor of bioengineering, both co-authors of a paper published online July 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This article reminds me of some of the theoretical work done by Stuart Kaufmann of the Santa Fe Institute. Both the affinity of matter to tend toward life and autocatalysis reduce the space of possibilities, making life less of a needle in a haystack proposition.
Beware the gut feeling that like begets like and that we should thus be able to anticipate effects from their causes. This leads far too many of us to doubt that sentience can emerge from primal goo. Those of us (like me) who are enthralled by complexity know that like begets like is far too often untrue. I’ve constantly seen that nature creates elaborate macro patterns using only a dynamic process involving far-too-simple component parts. With that background, take a look at these sand patterns generated by nothing but sound waves. I knew what was coming and I still felt chills when the patterns emerged. There is a deep lesson in these shallow grains of sand.
Here’s a web page with further explanation.
From the NYT–most of the cells that comprise you do not contain your DNA:
I can tell you the exact date that I began to think of myself in the first-person plural — as a superorganism, that is, rather than a plain old individual human being. It happened on March 7. That’s when I opened my e-mail to find a huge, processor-choking file of charts and raw data from a laboratory located at the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. As part of a new citizen-science initiative called the American Gut project, the lab sequenced my microbiome — that is, the genes not of “me,” exactly, but of the several hundred microbial species with whom I share this body. These bacteria, which number around 100 trillion, are living (and dying) right now on the surface of my skin, on my tongue and deep in the coils of my intestines, where the largest contingent of them will be found, a pound or two of microbes together forming a vast, largely uncharted interior wilderness that scientists are just beginning to map.
There’s snow on the ground outside of my house. It’s thus a good time to take a look at the beauty of snowflakes, from a scientific perspective:
And check out this video featuring Physicist Ken Libbrecht at Discovery TV (embedding disabled).
Finally, a meditation on snowflakes with Satie playing in the background:
For me to exist, my mother and father had to meet each other, which is a rather unlikely thing to have occurred in the scheme of things. Even assuming that they met, they would also need to mate at just the right time, and then the right sperm (out of hundreds of millions in each ejaculation) had to fertilize the right egg (or which there were many thousands of candidate eggs). But the same thing had to happen to each of their parents, and their parents, and so on. How many sets of parents did this need to happen to? Quite a few–consider my earlier post, “Ancestors Along the highway.” Before all of those parents came onto the scene, the right non-human ancestors had to meet and mate, and before them . . . [skipping way back] the right sponges had to have offspring, and the fungi before them. Had any of these organisms been eaten as prey prior to having offspring, I wouldn’t be here. If any of them had succumbed to disease prior to having offspring, I wouldn’t be here. If any of them had broken a leg or gotten lost in the forest, they might not have gotten around to mating on that critically important date and time (from my perspective). The adventures of Marty McFly (“Back to the Future”) barely scrape the surface.
The seemingly impossible hurdles faced by each of us are addressed by a well-constructed website, “What are the Odds,” which stirs quite a bit of eye-popping mathematics into the description. Wait until you get to the bottom of the page to read about the trillion-sided dice.
Actually, “What are the Odds” overstates the odds that you or I would exist, because there’s far more to being “you” than your biological substrate. If you were raised in a war-torn region rather than a suburban American school, you would be a very different version of you. And ask yourself whether you would be you even if a few of your closest, most influential friends or acquaintances weren’t around to influence you. Or what if you hadn’t happened to read some of the ideas that most influenced you, or if even one or two of those important character-building events that defined you (joyous or tragic or in between) hadn’t occurred?
Thus, it’s almost impossible that you should be here reading this post. Then again, you are here, because all of the antecedent events necessary to make you actually did occur.
I don’t know what lesson one is supposed to draw from this idea that it is essentially impossible that you should be here. Perhaps it’s merely an excuse for a healthy dose of humility. It also seems to me that working through this thought experiment is good for one’s mental health, at least once in a while. I consider it an existential vitamin that I should take periodically.
There is currently a strong suite of Discovery Institute bills running through state legislatures to allow “alternative theories” to be taught in science classes. See list here: Antievolution Legislation Scorecard. There is not a direct link back to the Discovery Institute, but it is their wording, seen before and passed in places like Texas and Louisiana and Tennessee.
From a legal standpoint, the bills look harmless, closely resembling intellectual freedom policies. But the point is clearly to sow confusion about the difference between science and just making things up, especially in regard to evolution and climate science.
Hemant Mehta suggests that it would only be fair to show this video in churches where the churches put their books into science classes.
I must confess that I have something in common with Creationists: I find it difficult to understand how the earliest and simplest life forms came to exist. Unlike the creationists, however, I am not willing to suggest that the earliest life forms were created as-is by some sort of disembodied sentient Supreme Being. I can’t fathom how such a Being could get anything at all done, given that “he” is alleged to be disembodied; for instance, some sort of physical neural network is a prerequisite for cognition. Further, those who posit that life was created as-is by a supernatural Creator need to explain how that Creator got here in the first place; their creation of a Creator constitute an eternal regress. Who created “God,” and God’s God, etc.
Thus, I don’t believe in a ghostly Creator, but where does this leave me? How did the earliest life forms emerge from non-life? Though firm answers have not yet been derived from rigorous scientific experimentation, I am intrigued by the ideas put forth by Stuart Kauffman in his 1995 book, At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self Organization and Complexity.
Early in his book, Kaufman points out that the simplest free living cells (called “pleuromona”) are highly simplified types of bacteria. They have a cell membrane, genes, RNA, protein synthesizing machinery and all the other necessary gear to constitute a form of life. Here’s the problem:
[more . . .]
I was staring out of my window, watching snow flurries and thinking about the essence of being. Philosophies and religions have long grappled with trying to understand and explain the human spirit, the soul, throughout time. I have a distinct and solid understanding, and thought of a useful metaphor for it as I watched the flurries descend.
Definitions of “the soul” generally include total individuality and immaterial nature. It is that which makes each of us unique, it manifests as long as we live, growing and changing within us, and then instantly vanishes from view as we die.
In most religions, the question then is asked, “Where does it go?”
Consider the snowflake. It begins as a small cluster of water molecules up in a cloud at the boundary of vapor and mist. As it hovers in the wind currents, it grows and evolves. The species (chemical formula) determines the basic nature, a flat hexagon. So why is every one different? Because they grow in subtly different mixes of molecules and temperatures. Each becomes an individual. When they grow heavy enough to drop below the cloud line, they are born as falling snowflakes.
But they have not finished growing. They continue to sublime and to collect molecules. As with any system, they increase in complexity and purity as they encounter random or systematic changes in environment. Sometimes they merge, often they fracture.
Finally they reach the ground. Some settle into clusters, becoming packed into a solid layer, and even all the way to ice. Others hit something warm and melt. In either case, what has become of the individual essence? It’s parts get recycled into other forms, compacted or melted, evaporated or metabolized. Eventually, all of the above. But the unique form is gone. Where did the unique shape of this snowflake go?
When we die, our spirit, soul, self is gone. It can remain in the memory of others, carried forward by our neighbors or impressions made on the environment. Like a melted snowflake.
In what way is the end of snowflake self any different than the end of a human self? Granted, humans are able to ask this question. And human life is naturally rated more highly by humans than the unique individuality of other creatures and things.
But besides that?