24. Let there be life

(continued) Chapter 3.           Long Evolution: Life Emerging



First life

Let us imagine that the first living thing, the very first ever, was some sort of complex molecule. That’s by no means the only option, but it seems reasonable to further explore the continuum of complexity we’ve just been discussing, i.e.:  1) Unexplainably, quarks come together to make protons and neutrons, which 2) come together to make subatomic nuclei. Complexity increases. 3) These nuclei capture electrons to make atoms. And complexity increases. 4) Increasing the numbers of electrons and protons makes different kinds of elements. And complexity increases. 5) Via their outer electron shells, atoms “hook together” to make molecules. And complexity increases. 6) Some molecules hook so many dozens of atoms together that they are said to be “very complex”. 7) Some of these very complex molecules start exhibiting “behavior,” almost as if they were alive, and these are called “viruses” – not as complex as a mouse yet, but far more complex than the infinitely tiny spark of energy called a quark, which started it all.


As we search for first life it is reasonable to be speculating at the molecular level because science tends to regard viruses as more alive than not-alive – even though a virus is nothing but a complex molecule, usually a quite large and quite complex molecule. (Be aware of this unresolved question about whether viruses are “alive.”) So maybe the first life on earth was a proto-virus, a distant ancestor of the many modern viruses which live in our bodies, some helping us, some afflicting us with what we call viral diseases. Doctor, why am I stuffed up? You have a virus. Will you prescribe an antibiotic please? Sorry, viruses are not “biotic” so an “anti”-biotic won’t help – just go about your normal business and your body will soon heal itself by throwing the invader out. Really? – my body can heal itself without medicine? – I never heard that before…


Self assembling itself by attracting and attaching additional atoms – as molecules do, rather like tinker toys – this first life became a “living” molecule that was different from all the other self-assembling but non-living molecules. Its difference from all those non-living molecules was that it “had” an urge to re-produce, to make more of itself. It “felt” this inner urge that all the others did not feel, could not feel, because they weren’t “alive.” By what means this small but important transition from non-life to life occurred we don’t know, but of a certainty it in fact did occur because here we are. This particular molecule was the first of its kind to be “alive.” Maybe that one molecule was the first and only one, and we’re all descended from it. If so, “life” came into being only that one time, in that first living thing. Or, an equally possible alternative, perhaps a dozen such molecules independently and redundantly did the same trick at a dozen times and places around the earth. Maybe a million – who knows? We don’t know and likely cannot know, so we have little alternative but to be agnostic on the matter. Call it forced honesty. Turn thrice around and repeat after me:  I..Don’t..Know.


Regardless whether life began once or many times, there is no point thereafter at which aliveness did not already exist on the earth. And, like the universe before it, this life immediately proceeded to evolve, constantly changing in small ways, because – with mutations modifying each and every generation – every descendant inherits its parent’s pattern, right down to you and me. And since that (those?) first-ever living molecule(s?), whether by self-division or copulation, living things have never stopped exhibiting an urge to reproduce themselves. Why do living things have an urge to reproduce themselves? We don’t know – all we know is that the reproductive urge is a definer of life, and it creates the continuity we call generations.


Continuity needs a bit more thought. If a given living thing produced only one more of itself, and that one produced but one more, which in turn produced one more and so on, life would be but a single line highly prone to chances of getting stopped – killed. Hence living reproduction must involve producing more than one in most generations, in order to improve the odds of a generation surviving in case a particular one does not survive. Aliveness is very much about the odds of a living thing surviving at least until it has reproduced itself into – usually – two or more additional living things.


And that “more” – i.e., more than one – is an essential, indispensable, third characteristic. Re-production of an alive thing must be exponential – one reproduces more than one. Then each of those produces two or more; then each of those… and so on, like rabbits and duckweed (but for real capacity to overrun the earth, see the species homo sapiens). Many are the species that depend for their species survival on a strategy of producing so many thousands – even millions – of offspring that some small percentage will survive, to carry on a continuum of their kind, notwithstanding the staggering losses of that vast majority which will not live to reproduce. Since the very first living entity(s) almost certainly reproduced by simply dividing in two, we cannot know when this two-or-more urge began; we can only be certain that the resulting two halves felt a natural urge to divide again, and then there were four, then eight… In any case the effect of evolution over long eons was the same – descendants eventually evolved which reproduced by other means, such as sexual union. Some of the less complex species missed out on the joy of orgasms and still to this day do it the old original way, by simple division.


Why do they and we have these urges, these carings, to 1) survive (eat, avoid danger) long enough to 2) reproduce? The early French proto-scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck recognized these urges and called them “the power of life.”  To this day the reason why living creatures possess such built-in urges remains the most important mystery in all biology.  Lamarck also believed organisms move from simple to complex in a steady upward progression, based on the physical principles of alchemy, and convinced himself that simple organisms never disappear because they are constantly created in spontaneous generation by the environment. As is evident, Lamarck generated many ideas, some right some wrong.

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From observing life-as-it-is, we have inferred that being alive means exhibiting certain traits: 1) urge to survive, 2) urge to reproduce and generate offspring which organize according to a parental template, and 3) do so exponentially. Regardless whether the living “organism” (as we’ll call the critter now that it’s alive) is a single celled bacterium or a multi-celled, vastly complex flower, reptile or mammal, it must have these characteristics in order to be distinguished from non-living things like rock crystals and planets, even if those non-living things are self organized. The simplest living virus is far and away more complex than mighty non-living Saturn with all its rings and moons, more than the grand Milky Way galaxy, more than any non-living structure in the whole universe.


There are some coincidental details. In order to live long enough to reproduce, life consumes energy and converts the leftovers to byproducts. But eating and pooping are more concerned with how the organism manages to live long enough to reproduce than with the fact of reproduction which sets life apart from non-life. And in any case, how is far less interesting than why it has the urge. Another thing: When living organisms reproduce, each “child” generation is almost exactly like its parent generation – except for quite minute differences.


Those minute differences always occur, and they always slowly accumulate as each new generation grows successively more distant from the grandparent original. After thousands of generations, with thousands of tiny modifications slowly accumulating, a descendant organism may look, and actually be, quite different than its original ancestor. Such slowly evolving modifications involve “speciation” – the way in which life separates itself into very different things, like worms and loons and fishes, so we can have earth, air and waters that swarm with swarms of living creatures. Evolution is continuous in both the non-living universe and in living creatures, but speciation is the way in which evolution works its special magic on the living things category.


Why would a little piece of energy, manifesting as matter, display self organization and reproduction that is capable of continuity? Why would it display evidence that it has an urge to assure continued ability to reproduce by doing so exponentially? Perhaps we really should ask the most basic question of all.


Why does there exist this condition called “alive”?

If there is an answer we’re not ready for it yet. Sadly, we cannot yet with any assurance say why life exists, we can only guess. I call this sad, because we want to know. For that matter, why is it that we feel driven by this desire to know?


In seeking a reason for why little pieces of the earth became alive, addressing the “why” requires that we also address “purpose.” This is something many scientists are averse to do. Why and purpose are inextricably conjoined. If a big bang “just happened,” for no reason, then there would be no such thing as purpose. But, being a normal human, you are compelled to ask “Why would such a colossal thing just happen for no reason? That doesn’t make sense.” And indeed, how could you not ask? The big bang and life are conjoined by evolution, and here you are alive within it, a product of it all, so your asking why is every bit as valid as the fact that it happened.


If either the big bang or life had a purpose, then certainly both could have, because they both are the one-two parts of an evolutionary continuum. And how in all common sense could such momentous situations as a big bang and life come into existence for no reason? Human minds, perhaps functioning in “the image of God,” have not evolved to avoid such questions. The fact that so many scientists go out of their way to avoid it seems exquisitely artificial, contrived, mindsets within blinders, determined to remain closed. Not to mention unscientific. To not wonder, to not ask why, is simply abnormal for our species. Asking why seems to set us apart from other species – “seems,” so far as we’re able to tell. But then why is it that our mindsets presume to know that dolphins and dogs and elephants and gray parrots don’t wonder why too, each in its own way…?


If, contrary to scientific mindset, we venture to hypothesize that there is or may be a purpose for which life exists, then the options narrow – we are compelled to consider “who” would have established that purpose. Purpose cannot exist without a living “who” behind it. And that Who might be God – or whatever S/He is called in your language. But for those already certain that God cannot exist, there’s the reason so many steadfastly refuse to consider the purpose – the why – for which all things including life exist in the universe. It’s also the reason religion eagerly rushes right in and can’t be stopped from claiming the territory. Scientists proclaim “it’s not our bailiwick,” religionists proclaim “it’s exclusively our bailiwick.” You’d think they could find a little common ground on that basis at least, but… out come the swords and crosses. Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war. Allahu akbar.


More. If there is purpose, the existence of a purpose maker is implied. Science is deterred by its closed mindset that there can be no such thing as scientifically acceptable evidence for the existence of a Purpose Maker, who might – god forbid – be called God. Religion is not so deterred and dogmatically cares not a whit about what science calls evidence.


I think they and their mutually closed mindsets both have much to learn. What do you think?


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Closed mindsets, again

From this discussion we derive at least one certainty. In refusing to even speculate on why life exists, the refuser evidences a closed mindset which has already decided there cannot be a purpose, nor can there be evidence of purpose, therefore there cannot be a God who would make a purpose. Or, more bluntly:  there is no god, therefore there can be no purpose and no evidence of it, case dismissed.


If you are a tad more open of mind, in order to say (or even speculate on) why life exists, you have to stick your neck out. Do it, by asserting that 1) purpose apparently does exist (life in fact arises out of non-life), and 2) evidence of apparent purpose does exist (universe and life do in fact demonstrate self-organizing upward emergence toward increasing complexity). Therefore, 3) some entity could exist to have made that purpose. And if you’re brave enough to stick your neck out this far, it’s a very small additional stretch to calling that entity God, or Hilda, or whoever. Ergo God apparently exists. It all depends on your mindset – whether you dismiss the question, or are willing to commit to a hypothesis, even if not a position, on the question of “why.”


Scientists routinely make up hypotheses all the time, some really loony, and proudly put their names on them in public – but not this particular hypothesis, which takes courage. Courageous churchmen don’t need hypotheses, they already know all the answers.


Scientists do, and constantly do, ask the “why” question on multitudes of intriguing other topics every day. It is the driving motivation of scientific inquiry. It’s only in a certain few areas that they claim the why question is not their bailiwick. And – mark this – an open mindset on this particular Big Question is in no way subservient to the dogmatic beliefs and doctrines or closed mindsets of any established religion. As I have just demonstrated, anyone can provisionally hypothesize that God probably exists, or at least might exist, on the basis of reason alone. And reason, as I have noted before, can be seen as an image of God.

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…to be continued in one week…


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