Evolution’s Place? 3

Chapters 2-5 of Simon Conway Morris’s book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe ramble through a description of the rather tight constraints required for the formation of life and the lack of current understanding as to how life appeared.There are many interesting ideas, but the general point or direction is a little obscure.

First (Ch. 2-4) – we don’t really have a clue how life developed on this planet.  The synthesis of organic goo – from simple hydrocarbons to larger polyaromatic hydrocarbons and even amino acids is  straightforward. Such compounds are common in the universe. But this alone does not equal life. Scholars, scientists are working on the problem – but the progress to date is less than spectacular. It is an incredibly complex  and multifaceted problem.

Second (Ch. 5) – the planet on which we exist appears by most criteria to be “odd.” The band of conditions required for conditions amenable to the stability of the diverse and interconnected set of structures and reactions that support “life” are stringent and potentially (Conway Morris suggests likely) rare.

What thoughts cross your mind when contemplating the remarkable intricacy and complexity of life and the vastness of the universe? Awe, despair, curiosity, reverence, wonder?

Conway Morris is not pointing to either the lack of understanding of the creation of life or the oddity of our planet as proof for the existence of God; the absence of natural mechanism pointing to the existence of a creator. Rather the key point is the complexity of the problem and the constraint on the conditions.

It is common in much of the popular literature and even some of the scientific literature to look at the universe and see a potential for life that abounds. Conway Morris notes:

In a previous chapter I mentioned Christian de Duve and perhaps he best of all encapsulates this wider and more optimistic view that the universe is not a howling wilderness, but part of our home. Thus he writes, the ‘Universe is a hotbead of organic synthesis leading among others, to amino acids and other typical building blocks of life. This ‘vital dust’ permeates the entire Universe and most likely represents the chemical seeds from which life arose.’ Nor is de Duve the only exponent of life as a cosmic principle. Cyril Ponnamperuma, for example, has stated that ‘You look at the interstellar molecules and you see cyanide and formaldehyde. These two can provide a pathway for everything else. There is a simplicity in the whole scheme – so much that you practically feel the whole universe is trying to make life.’ (p. 32)

Conway Morris begs to differ.

Here I shall take a contrary view and shall argue on the basis of several different approaches that ‘Life may be a universal principle, but we can still be alone.’ (p. 32)

First – there are a few elements that appear to be necessary for the formation of life.

Carbon and water. Science fiction aside there are strong reasons to suppose that life of any sort will be based on carbon and water.

The principle elements required for life, at least as we know it, are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorous.  These are all readily available, and carbon certainly has an almost uncanny knack of arranging itself in configurations that are both flexible and robust. Not that we should fail to consider alternatives. (p. 24)

Consideration of alternatives however for carbon, water, phosphorous – the conclusion quickly reached is that all are substantially less fit for the purpose.

RNA/DNA Life requires a material system to transmit and use information. The nucleic acids carry the information and are uniquely well suited for their role.  While alternatives can be envisioned these are tweaks on the structure of the originals, not revolutionary new concepts.

Second – organic compounds alone are not enough. While organic compounds are common in space cosmic goo and vats of tar are not well suited for the formation of life. Many experiments have tested possible mechanisms for the formation of the building blocks of life, adenosine, ribose, amino acids, carbon chains. The most famous of these is the classic Miller-Urey which is used to suggest that the “ease” of synthesis of amino acids in conditions resembling the early earth should make the formation of life inevitable.

Experiments have demonstrated that building blocks for life may be synthesized in a variety of conditions, some similar, perhaps, to conditions on the ancient earth.  Yet never in quantity, never with much purity, not with selectivity, and requiring wildly disparate conditions for different pieces of the problem. Some need extreme heat, other compounds degrade almost immediately unless cooled.  Some require basic conditions – some acidic. There is no “one-pot” approach.

It is not my intention to suggest that the origin of life is a scientifically intractable problem, but at this stage of the proceedings simply to register mild surprise at the relative lack of experimental success. … The real problem is getting past this first stage, from the early organic ‘soup’ [however envisaged] to the metabolic and biochemical highway, with a functioning cell as its destination. (p. 47)

Third – it appears that the earth is as Conway Morris puts it “Uniquely Lucky.” In Ch. 5 he lays out many of the features that provide us with a planet capable of developing and supporting life. His conclusion is that we are probably alone in our galaxy and likely alone in the Universe as well.

What does this mean? It suggests that Life is neither inevitable nor abundant in the Universe. It also points to a fatal flaw in the modern optimism that science has all the answers and we are only dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.  In fact large and significant questions remain unanswered as of yet. This makes science both frustrating and exhilarating at the same time.

But what about evolution? What happens after life appears? Here things take a different turn, and this is the question we will begin to explore next week.

I return to the question I posed above – What thoughts cross your mind when contemplating the remarkable intricacy and complexity of life and the vastness of the universe?

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