As a child, I was given two rather different accounts of the way life on Earth began. One was contained in an Anglican hymn...
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.1
Another was in the book Exploring Science by Jonathan Leonard...
In the ancient, lifeless ocean [there were] an almost infinite number of chemical combinations... One of the big molecules, formed by accident, proved to have the ability to make itself bigger by absorbing smaller molecules... When it had done this for a while... it broke into two or more parts, each with the same ability to grow and break into parts... the appearance of that particular molecule was surely the most important event that ever happened on earth. It could grow by feeding and it could reproduce its kind. Therefore it was truly alive.2
I grew up in a community where the religious and scientific narratives weren't necessarily seen as irreconcilable. Perhaps the formation of life out of chemistry was God's method of creating a living world... But is it really possible to reconcile the proposition that life was "made" and the proposition that it "formed by accident"?
I want to explore this area via three images -- the clockmaker, the casino, and the crystal. Three very different pictures of life's beginning...
The watchmaker analogy is a classic reason for affirming the existence of a divine power. It is based on comparison between human inventions, such as clocks and watches, and natural things, especially living things. The analogy is often used by Christians, though its origins are Pagan.
Expressed as follows by the Roman philosopher Cicero, in the first century BCE...
If then the products of nature are better than those of art, and if art produces nothing without reason, nature too cannot be deemed to be without reason... when you look at a sun-dial or a water-clock, you infer that it tells the time by art and not by chance... how then can it be consistent to suppose that the world... can be devoid of purpose and of reason?3
In the early nineteenth century, the British theologian William Paley made a similar argument the starting point for his book Natural Theology...
In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever... But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given... There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers...4
He goes on to say...
Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more...5
It is a simple and strong argument in favour of a creative presence. However, the argument in itself does not tell us what sort of creative presence, nor how the creation took place.
If we agree there is "reason" in the natural world, does that reason need to come from a source that is different to nature itself? If we think in terms of "an artificer or artificers", how did that artificer, or those artificers, actually work?
Did the origin of life involve a suspension of the usual laws of physics and chemistry? Or did a creative power set up a framework of natural laws, and then operate entirely within that framework -- like an artisan first setting up a workshop, then getting to work inside it?
Did the job take seven days, or several billion years?
There is one huge difference between a living organism and a clock or watch. Clocks and watches do not grow. Living things do. The largest of trees grows out of a single seed. A human being grows out of a single-celled creature called a zygote -- a fertilized egg cell.
Evolutionary biology is based on the idea that living things change and develop, not only as individuals, but also as species. That the larger and more complex forms of life, such as trees and people, have grown up out of much simpler forms.
Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) was not the first to suggest that this happened. Earlier naturalists who wrote about evolution include Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802) and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744 – 1829).
Charles Darwin is important because he developed a new theory about how evolution happened – via random mutation and natural selection. A theory which gained general acceptance from the scientific community.
The theory of evolution is about how living species have changed over time. A different, though related question, is how life got started. Charles Darwin did not discuss the very beginning of life in his books, but in a letter to a colleague, he suggested that the first step may have been formation of a protein in a "warm little pond". 6
Progress since Charles Darwin...
What remains poorly understood is the process, sometimes called "chemical evolution", that led from carbon-hydrogen chemistry to the first forms of life.
In biological evolution, as described by Darwin, chance (in the form of random mutation) creates the raw material for natural selection. If a chance mutation helps an organism to survive and reproduce, then the mutation will be passed on to a growing population. What then, was the role of chance in the chemical evolution that took place before there was a mechanism of heredity, such as DNA or RNA? Could the process be compared to a casino?
At least one eminent scientist has described it as such. According to the French biologist Jacques Monod (1910 – 1976):
The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.10
Is the creator of life not so much a watchmaker as a croupier?
Returning to the point that living things grow, whereas watches do not...
There are other things that grow -- that is, they retain their shape while increasing their size -- yet which are not usually thought of as living.
Consider for instance...
In processes such as these, some scientists see a general principle of self-organization. 11 The biologist Stuart Kauffman (born 1939) sees the self-organizing dynamic as a overlooked factor in the origin and development of life. 12
Self-organization is a creative process, yet it is inseparable from decay. In accordance with the second law of thermodynamics, it involves a using-up of free energy, that is, an overall increase in entropy (disorder). Because of this, the appearance of the first organisms has been described -- paradoxically enough -- as a "collapse to life" by biologist Harold Morowitz and physicist Eric Smith. 13
Morowitz and Smith compare life's beginning to the formation of snowflakes out of cold air rich in water vapour -- rather than a wildly improbable stroke of fortune, they see it as a natural consequence of natural laws.14
To understand the origin of life in this way is not to deny that chance events played a part; nor to insist that the exact outcome was predetermined. After all, every snowflake has an individual, distinctive shape, which cannot be predicted before it forms...
There is also a theory, developed by the organic chemist A. Graham Cairns-Smith, that mineral crystals -- specifically clay crystals -- played a direct role in the beginning of life on Earth. 15 This, however, is a different question from that of whether the emergence of life is same sort of process as a crystallization.
The origins of life on Earth is related to the question of whether we are alone in the universe. If the beginning of life was simply a chance event, like a big win at a casino, then life on other planets (or their moons) may be extremely rare, if it exists at all.
On the other hand, what if the beginning of life on Earth is more like crystallization?
No space mission so far has actually found an extraterrestrial life-form. The evidence from Titan, while intriguing, is indirect. Extraterrestrial crystals have been easier to find -- they are plentiful on Earth's Moon. One of the commonest minerals there is called ilmenite, which takes the form of "black elongated square crystals".16
If the same self-organizing dynamic gives rise to crystals and living things, and if crystals can form on different worlds, presumably life can form on different worlds too.
The idea that life is simply a chance occurrence fits with the view (held by secularists) that there is no meaning in the world, other than the meanings created by human minds. On the other hand, if life is the fruit of a self-organizing principle, then meanings created by the human mind may be grounded in something larger and older than the mind itself.
Kauffman boldly speaks of the self-organizing principle as "God":
I want God to mean the vast ceaseless creativity of the only universe we know of, ours.17
Kauffman's God is not supernatural (above nature), but is within nature... Comparable to the Tao described by Laozi and Zhuangzi in China, and to what India's Tantras say about Śakti (the Power), also known as Prakṛti and Kālī...
If Kauffman is right, there was no need for a supernatural creator to work like an artisan, fashioning the first organisms out of an inert world; because the world has never been truly inert. The role of God/dess is more the role of a gardener, or maybe the role of the garden itself.
Colin Robinson, September 2010
It's a photograph of snow crystals, taken through an electron microscope, and artificially coloured to emphasize the central flake. The photo is from the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, and is in the public domain.
1For full text and history of this hymn, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Things_Bright_and_Beautiful
2Leonard, Jonathan N.; Exploring Science; Odhams Press, London, 1961; p 25.
3 Cicero, Marcus Tullius; De Natura Deorum, II.xxxiv (87). Translated by H.Rackham, Harvard UP, 1933.
4 William Paley Natural Theology; William and Robert Chambers, Edinburgh, 1837, Chapter 1.
5 William Paley Natural Theology; William and Robert Chambers, Edinburgh, 1837, Chapter 3.
8 Shklovskii, Iosef S., and Sagan, Carl; Intelligent Life in the Universe; Picador, UK, 1977;pp 227 to 229.
© Colin Robinson 2010
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