On the Nature and Origins of Life

G. Stolyarov II
 
Issue XXII - April 28, 2004
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This essay belongs to Mr. Stolyarov's treatise, A Rational Cosmology. See the index of all the essays in A Rational Cosmology here.

The unique nature of processes categorized as "life," their intricate complexity, their capacity for self-sustenance and self-generation, often cause many thinkers to interpret their origins as something distinct from the origins of inanimate matter, which can be said to act "deterministically," in accordance with clearly identifiable and predictable Laws of Physics.

In many qualities, these immense differences between life and non-life hold, especially with regard to life of the highest echelon, i.e., the life of entities of volitional consciousness. However, does the origin of life itself necessitate a similar distinction?

A position is put forth by such thinkers as Mr. Reginald Firehammer that, due to the evident distinctions between life and non-life, the latter could not have ever been in a state of complete monopoly over the sphere of existence or given rise to the former; the quality of life, along with the qualities of volition and consciousness, would need to have existed, according to Mr. Firehammer, for all time eternities back. Given that both I and Mr. Firehammer do not hold time per se to have had a chronological origin (such as, for example, a Big Bang), this would mean that the existent, "life" is an infinity old.

Whether or not Mr. Firehammer's proposition is valid hinges on a crucial question: "Can life in fact originate from non-life?" To answer this question, it would be enlightening to examine a field properly known as the "study of life" (biology) and then apply the results to the study of existence (metaphysics).

For the majority of the 19th and early 20th century it was held that life and non-life were mutually exclusive spheres, and no amount of chemical interaction could transform non-life into life; this belief was termed vitalism and was adhered to by the predominant scientific minds of the day.

Yet the foundations of vitalism crumbled in 1953, when Stanley Miller of the University of Chicago recreated, in a simple experiment, the atmospheric conditions which would have prevailed on the early Earth. The early atmosphere, made primarily of hydrogen gas, ammonia, methane, and water vapor, was conducive to the spontaneous formation of all twenty known amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and contributors to DNA and RNA genetic codes.

Amino acids are organic compounds that were once thought by the vitalists to be impossible to obtain by reaction of non-organic chemicals. According to post-Miller evolution theorists, natural selection acted on these molecules before life itself came to be. These findings suggest that it is indeed possible for life to arise from non-life.

Stanley Miller's 1953 experiment demonstrated the possibility of the spontaneous synthesis of amino acids from inorganic compounds. From this discovery, a logically consistent and empirically verifiable evolutionary origin for life itself has been posited.

Through favorable chemical attractions, the amino acids and miscellaneous substances formed in the early atmosphere became arranged into macromolecules, which later aggregated into protobionts, collections of molecules that possessed the peculiar quality of generating copies of themselves.

Some of these early protobionts were molecules of RNA, which, after hundreds of millions of years, became incorporated as a genetic code within the simplest cells of prokaryotic (bacterial) organisms. Hence, over a colossal amount of time, non-life was able to generate life.

These very prokaryotic forebears of higher-order life forms, however, made it difficult for further spontaneous conversion of simple molecules into organic building blocks to occur. Many of them produced oxygen as a byproduct of their photosynthesis, which altered atmosphere composition and caused it to become an oxidizing atmosphere rather than a reducing one (spontaneous reactions are more likely to occur in a reducing atmosphere).

Once life was already in existence, the barriers between it and non-life became more distinct and less prone to transgression, except by modern technology and the minds of those entities who exhibit the highest of the qualities applicable to living beings.

Some 45,000, the Cro-Magnon man, Homo sapiens sapiens, evolved another peculiar chemical adaptation, volitional consciousness, brought about by a highly expanded cerebral cortex. Just as the structural reorganization of matter facilitated the processes of life, so might an evolutionary tweaking of human ancestors' genome have brought forth the capacity on the part of these early men to deliberately manipulate the physical and chemical processes within their own organisms, thus resulting in the directed, autonomous action evident and inherent in humans today.

What may be responsible, as the manifestation of this genetic change, is not a single "central region of volitional consciousness," but rather an integrated sum, just as a machine's functionality cannot be reduced to one or two gears or levers, but would be impeded if any gear or lever were hampered.

The evolutionary interpretation of life's origins can escape determinism by claiming the following: While life as a process consists of physical existents entirely, it implies an integrated sum of wholly material existents that is capable of directing itself to whatever degree pertains to the order of life in question.

Hence, it is not necessary to claim that life had existed in perpetuity, because its complexity is impossible outside the necessary material components that facilitate it. And, while it is certainly possible that similar chemical processes leading to life's formation had occurred at some point in time in another star system, this proposition is, for the moment, unwarranted by any positive evidence. Hence, in the context of our knowledge today, the life which began on Earth some 3.5 billion years ago is the sole representation of life accessible.

The evolutionary approach to the question also avoids the dilemma of an intelligent creator of life; if life's ultimate origins had been spontaneous chemical reactions, we need not be trapped in infinite regress attempting to determine the creator of the creator of the creator and a chain of intelligent super-entities ad infinitum.

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This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA Statement of Policy.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.