The Origins of Life

I made this a separate post because I think it is a separate topic altogether. I had my own little personal revelation (for all of my intelligence, I am often times very slow to make what seem to be simple conclusions) this morning while writing my other post on evolution; the idea that some people deny evolution wholesale is that it does not currently understand EXACTLY how the first living organism came to be alive. The rest of evolution they accept to a degree, and give it the title Adaptation or Survival of the Fittest, as though those are completely separate topics.

To that end, I am willing to break out evolution into two separate topics; Adaptation being the first, and being the topic I posted about earlier today, and The Origins of Life being the second, which I will discuss in this post. I hope this is to your liking, if you are an opponent of, or undecided about, evolution as an overarching theory.

I will, in openness and fairness, admit that science does not currently know the exact mechanism by which life originated on this planet we have named Earth, and still science has not created life in a lab, meaning we have not synthetically replicated the process as yet.

Alright, now that this is out of the way, let’s talk about the origins of life.

I will be speaking exclusively about the ideas of origins of life proposed by biologists, in this case; alternate origins of life theories, such as I.D., or outright creationism, are at the very least as unlikely as what I will present here, and I will let proponents of these theories tell me why they are correct in their own time (or, as is more likely, I will offer direct rebuttals in later posts).

Let’s first discuss the chances life would have formed. They are infinitesimal, the chances that they would happen being almost so small as to make the occurrence almost laughably unlikely. I will accept this, and it has been used as opposition to the very IDEA that life could spontaneously originate. That being said, what if the chance of life beginning on a planet is 1 in 1 billion. The number of planets estimated varies (I have not looked recently, but with constantly improving techniques for locating planets outside of our solar system, estimates become more refined), but I will choose a number on the EXTREME low end, at 1 trillion. If this estimate is correct, then there would be 1000 planets in the universe with life in them, and that is with life having only a 1 in 1 billion chance of EVER getting started on a planet. That is ignoring the fact that moons could certainly have the conditions required for life. That is ignoring the fact that there could be far more planets than 1 trillion. That is ignoring the fact that, who knows, life may be more common than we think (our own view of the universe is still only comparable to knowing your neighbors in a city of millions of people. You know they’re out there, you just have no idea who they are).

Also worth noting, aside from the fact that even something highly unlikely could definitely happen when observing huge numbers, is that life only had to start once. If each year, there is a 1 in 4 billion chance that life would spontaneously start somewhere (even so much as a single bacteria forming from something that would not be considered alive), there it would still be likely that life would have started on our home planet. The Anthropomorphic Principle states that life had to start on Earth at some point, because we are here observing it. That seems obvious, of course, but it does bear stating; it is the scientific principle that relates “I think, therefore I am.”

Let’s say that Earth is the only planet to ever spawn life (something I think is unlikely, but that is a topic for another day). That means we are one unique planet among 1 trillion (or several trillion. Or a quadrillion.). That something with a very low chance happened among the entirety of the universe doesn’t feel nearly so unlikely.

Now that I’ve gotten the truly boring stuff out of the way, the stuff that doesn’t answer the question as to *how* specifically, we can move on to more speculative science. In this case, we can’t prove it, and all we have is our best guesses. Who knows, perhaps life being created is so unlikely, we will never see it in action! But that doesn’t mean we can’t guess.

Imagine a world with no life, just a bunch of rocks, a giant ocean, things floating and being pressed together. This goes on for a billion years, no life having formed… But in this time, unrelated things are being mashed together, energy from the sun is being absorbed, the atmosphere is changing… Things that, for lack of a better term, stick together better are getting more and more numerous over time; that should make sense. Things that stick together best, over a billion years, keep getting more and more numerous. Then of those things that stuck together, the sub-products stick together. We still don’t have life, but we have more complicated bunches of molecules, floating around in the giant ocean. They keep getting more and more complicated, as parts are knocked off, parts are added, things change and move, and still after more than one billion years we don’t have life.

Then something happens, something mysterious, something we don’t understand yet. A molecule changes to more effectively bind to other molecules. It still isn’t alive, but by some process in nature, it binds to other molecules better. Because of this binding feature, certain molecules in nature become rarer, as they are bound to these complicated molecules, still floating in this giant ocean, still not alive. There is now, for lack of a better word, competition; molecules that bind less well are eventually all ripped apart by the ceaseless march of the waves of the ocean, and the more suited molecules now have to compete for limited resources to bind. They can’t find them easily, but as they can’t truly “die”, as they aren’t alive, the ocean drags them around, changes them more. They change to bind to alternate things.

This process of unlife changing and binding to other unlife continues to untold years, hundreds of millions more, before a molecule, now as complicated as life itself, but still not alive, *moves*. Unsure of how it happened, this one complicated molecule shudders, and moves, and *seeks* to bind to other molecules. It is the very first thing that could be considered close to life, but even moving of its own accord, it still does not eat or breathe or excrete like we would assume life would. But it is close; like a virus may not be considered alive, it still shows signs that might be associated with life.

Well, this molecule that is semi-alive begins to replicate innumerably; as it binds better, it is natural that there are *more* of them. And since they actively move to bind, there are other molecules that form to *escape* this binding. We have now, before even the first true life form, seen the beginnings of the arms race that is survival of the fittest.

Well, now the moving molecule has to adjust its tactics; its “food” is running, so it has to get faster, or learn how to find other food. Maybe it finds a complex molecule that has the elements that make up its food, but configured in an unfriendly way. Eventually, our first semi-life form has created the first digestive tract; it takes a bunch of elements, some it wants and some it doesn’t, separates them out, excretes what it doesn’t need, and keeps what it does.

This replicates, because now it can get what it *wants*, so it makes copies. We now have our very first life form. With the first splitting of the first cell, when our still not-alive molecule was complicated enough to build another like itself based on ingesting molecules that were not like itself, we have the first thing that we would call alive.

I won’t say this guess is scientifically binding, but it is plausible.

Perhaps someday we will create life in a lab, prove that it can be done, prove how it can happen. Until then, biologists are confident that they are closing in on the answer, and because they spend entire lifetimes, because the theory of evolution is hundreds of years old, and because my study is at best casual, I am happy to defer judgment to them. Because people whose life work is proving what I have said above still think it is plausible, what could I say to prove it wrong?

If I buckled down and studied biology very seriously, perhaps I could find a major flaw in my theory, or perhaps I could enhance it, make it fit the evidence better. At this point, though, others are doing that for me, and I await their findings with the avid curiosity one expects of a four year old. Each tantalizing new piece of evidence that points us closer to the origins of life, I pick it up with wide eyes and giddy feelings.

And each piece of evidence that stands against a finding, that makes us rethink everything? That is ok, too, because we are still learning.

Even though I may not like the man, I have to admit this is a great quote applicable to almost all parts of life:

“I have not failed 100 times, I have found 100 ways to not make a light bulb.”

The Mechanism of Wonder (The Greatest Show on Earth)

It has always confused me, and I am talking back into my high school days when I was really introduced to Biology (it came up earlier, but I don’t know that I really understood it well enough to form an informed opinion), and its cornerstone, evolution, why people find it so hard to believe. I mean, I’ve talked about evolution at some length, even on this blog, but I was just rehashing common talking points with my own personal flair, but I doubt I was converting anyone. I’d like to expand on at least one point here, and see where it takes me.

It doesn’t necessarily require religious dogma to find evolution hard to swallow (though they do like to layer on very heavily the reasons why evolution is a faulty theory, in their eyes), and I do understand that. It is difficult to grasp the idea of small changes over hundreds of millions of years, especially if you grow up around people telling you that the world is much younger, and also that evolution is bogus. I feel bad for children who grow up in areas of even the most affluent first world countries that are told, in the science classroom, that evolution is a “controversial” theory; it is anything but.

One particularly odd argument against evolution is that there is no such thing, there is merely adaptation (which is undeniable; Darwin’s finches adapted before the venerable scientist’s very eyes. Hell, even scientists at Liberty University have seen adaptation at work in bacteria. Also, Liberty University is a leading Liberty University science of bacteria Liberty University.). It is odd to deny the overarching theory when accepting that things adapt to change over time; almost mind boggling, actually.

I think I have to approach adaptation at this point, as I think there is some confusion. First, there is no practical difference between adaptation and evolution, and to deny this is to misunderstand the point. What we see, in our limited scope of study, is the sum total of a process running longer than our minds can possibly conceive of, possibly imagine. “We have never seen a duck become a dog,” and other similarly vacuous arguments, wildly misinterpret the scope of adaptation and evolution. There is no scientist in their right mind that would ever argue that from a duck’s egg would hatch anything but a duck, so let’s forget that line of reasoning altogether.

It was Richard Dawkins who mentioned, far too casually, a point that really revolutionized my own understanding of evolution, and I would like to make that the cornerstone of this small essay. In “The Greatest Show on Earth”, he mentions in passing that evolution is so slow that, looking from generation to generation, each child will look so much like its parents that you won’t even see the difference. It is only when you step back and look over 100,000 generations, or 1,000,000 generations, or more, that you are even to tell the difference between two species to the point that they would even be marked in different columns in a paper by a biologist.

Evolution is so slow that if you were to speed up time and watch it in action, there would only ever be one species, because each animal looks so much like its parents. If you were to look at a picture of the adult form of each child, it would seem like a time lapse photo of a single organism slowly transforming into myriad shapes, sizes, colors, forms, it would grow and lose hair, it would form antlers and drop them, but each iteration so closely resembles its parents that it would, in all of these forms, still seem to be that of a single species.

How is this possible? If that’s the case, how do we have species at all? The answer to that lies both in the advanced stage of evolution (and time) in which we currently find ourselves, and the convenience of the fossil record. I say convenience, and that word will be held against me in a court of debate, but the fossil record has truly made the study of biology not only possible, but wonderful, awe-inspiring. Fossils form only rarely, so we get snapshots. This is not the time lapse photo from above, this is one photo between thousands, and if you look at these snapshots in time, you can clearly see the differences in this species; you can see that one had certain features in its skeleton, certain bone structures, certain horns, tell-tale eye sockets, or any one of a thousand signals that it was different from its cousins, because you only see it as a single piece of a large puzzle rather than a single frame of a long movie.

Let’s give some small examples, then, as I don’t think my above analogy was very clear (though I am struggling to come up with anything better). We go back 15,000 years, when there are only very few species of canine. In this case, our subject will be a pack of wolves that, through careful coaxing and bribery, are more or less domesticated (or at the least captured and bred). These wolf pups are raised, and only the most docile are further bred (for the purposes of this example, I will be using highly accelerated selective breeding). Each shares so much in common with its parents that it is difficult to tell that there are changes at all, but the selective breeding continues. As these wolf cubs are selectively bred for docility, they also gain floppier ears. Other small changes occur over the years, and there are cubs bred (now that they have been domesticated) for different tasks; larger cubs are taken by hunters and bred for aggression and discipline, smarter cubs are taken and bred to think on their feet and assist with rounding up cattle or sheep, smaller cubs, or the most docile cubs, are bred for loyalty and friendliness. Each cub, bred in captivity, down an unbroken line of succession, appeared (for all intents and purposes) to share the traits of its parents so closely that they don’t appear to be a different species.

It is at this point that I would like to present a visual aid to our study of evolution.

Click Here, and you will see a small assortment of dog breeds.

Click Here, and you will see the parent from which ALL (that is, 100%, 1/1, each of, all of, and any of) these breeds came.

This is in less than 15,000 years, mind you. Given the amazing amount of differences we can see cropping up, is it really so hard to see that maybe this and the above link to wolves may have shared an ancestor some time in the past? Given that the primary living diversity we see is about a half a billion years old, we can take 15000 to be about 0.003% of the current age of complex life (it is even less than that, but I am using the simplest math I can because math is hard). I mean, each of the presented species (canine and feline) share a staggering amount of similar traits; the tail to body length ratio is similar, they are both quadrupeds, they share similar coloration, many species of canine and feline share the same triangle shaped ears, they both share similar dental characteristics, their skeletons (when viewed completely free of tissue) are almost identical aside from differences in the skull.

So why is it so hard to believe that canines and felines shared an ancestor in the distant past?

And, if you accept that, what happens when you go further back even than that? Rats are similar but smaller, horses are similar but larger. Well, if you take horses to be similar, now we look at cattle, buffalo, bison, as they share characteristics with horses, such as hooves, body shape, bone structure. Well, now that we have accepted that, let’s go back further. You’ve seen a hairless gerbil, yeah? Imagine that with scales, change the dental work, and we’ve got ourselves a reptile. This isn’t all as easy as I have made it sound, I understand that, but the further you break it down, the easier it is to see the patterns and the relationships inherent in the animal kingdom. You can make a simple chain of “w is similar to x, x is similar to y, and y is similar to z, but w is NOT similar to z… However, I have proven, through a series of events, that w and z are related.”

Cats are similar to dogs, dogs are similar to horses, horses are similar to certain breeds of cattle, and by this short chain, I have shown a relationship between cats and cattle. They may not appear related, but that is the glory of the masterwork that is evolution. And each child of the above could appear so similar to its parent that we would never notice it changing… But what will cats look like in 100,000 years?