The Emergence of Life – Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – Conceptual Framework of Research on the Origin of Life on Earth

The book is not what I expected, in entirety.  At first, I wasn’t sure I liked the direction it was taking.  I think I get it now.  At the end of each chapter, Luisi asks some questions.  These are meant to get us to thinking about life, abiogenesis and just what it all means.  I have a surprise for everyone regarding those questions, but I’ll save that for a few weeks.

This chapter is something akin to the philosophical underpinnings of the whole abiogenesis concept. 

The chapter opens with a discussion of creationism and how Paley invented the entire watchmaker argument which is; if we see something complex, like a watch, then there must have been a watchmaker.

This is, of course, the entire underpinning of modern creationism and the argument by analogy was dismissed well over a hundred years ago for the simple reason that watches don’t self reproduce and have changes in their manufacturing instructions with each generation.  Not to mention that there are extraordinarily complex systems that result from simple rules.

But does the admission that life is only created from molecules, atoms, and their interactions is all that life is?  Is life a ‘lucky accident’ that just happened to appear when certain chemical systems got close enough to each other or is there some intrinsic ability of life (however you want to define it) that means when you have these chemicals together, it is life? The rest of the book will discuss this issue.

Luisi also talks about determinism and contingency.  These appear to be important concepts in the book and, though I’m not a philosophical person, I’ll try to describe them here.

In terms of abiogenesis, determinism suggests that life arose from a series of chemical reactions that will happen given certain precursors.  For example, if you mix elemental iron with oxygen, you will get rust.  It is chemically and thermodynamically going to occur.  The deterministic view of abiogenesis is the same.  Life will arise because it simply is chemically and physically possible.

The one assumption of this concept is that life is thermodynamically advantageous.  What this means is that life is not a ‘target’, but a highly likely and easy to get to result of basic chemical and physical processes.  Luisi notes that this seems to be the thoughts of the majority of scientists and the theistic evolutionists (who may or may not be creationists).  That is, if there is a god (of some stripe), then he set the universe and the physical laws and walked away.  Everything that has occurred since was not toward a specific goal.

On the other hand, the majority of creationists are highly deterministic and think that humans are the end result of whatever processes and god specifically worked on those processes to result in us.

The deterministic view (not the creationist view) suggests that life is inevitable given the chemical precursors and the physical laws we all know and love.  On the other hand is the contingency view.  Contingency is not chance.  It is the interaction of many factors (which may be deterministic in and of themselves), but the end result is not predictable as it would be with pure determinism.

You can think of contingency in this way.  If you were somehow able to start over time beginning with the earliest formation of the solar system (or even galaxy), would you get exactly what we have now?  It is… unlikely.  Even though the processes involved are deterministic, the interactions are not and it might take 12 billion years to get from prokaryotes to eukaryotes instead of two billion years.

The contingency view suggests that it may be that we are alone in the universe (either as life or as sentience, take your pick).  The reason is that life isn’t automatic given specific chemical reactions (again, for various meanings of the word ‘life’).  There was some interaction, some strange thing happened.  Much like the strange thing that happened that gave rise to the age of mammals and the strange thing that happened to give rise to what we call intelligence.

Luisi brings up two very important points here.  The first is that it may be that these two extreme views (determinism and contingency) are a continuum and the actuality of the situation may lie somewhere between them on a line.  As I’ve said (and most everyone else has too) we will never actually know what happened.  However, experiments can, perhaps, show us how likely life arising is.

The other point is that this really is about science (still).  It’s not ethics or morals or whatever.  I find it amusing that creationists claim that atheism results in immorality and yet the atheists don’t.  Morality and ethics are (as I’ve said before) society based, not religion based.  But I won’t go into that now… someone remind me later.

There is something else to consider before we move on to the next chapter.  Did life arise on Earth only once or many times?

This is directly related to the contingency discussion.  If life is contingent on some highly unlikely combination of events, how unlikely are they really?

Keep in mind that we’re talking about molecules interacting here.  Keep in mind that in 160 grams of rust (about 1/3 of a pound), there are 602,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of rust.  When you think about the entire planet and all the chemical interactions that are going on daily, we get into some epic numbers.  Even if there’s only 1 in one hundred billion trillion chance, well we’ve got a couple of billion years and the volume of the surface of the entire planet to play with.  Even something that unlikely can happen several times.*

The views on this topic range from one starting of life to every single individual on the planet was separately created.

Luisi closes this chapter with a short discussion of the anthropic principle, SETI and creationists.

The anthropic principle is a notion that the details of the universe (or the planet or physics) are in place to give rise to human life.  The thinking is that if one piece (say the gravitational constant) were even a little bit different (life 1 part in billion different**) then life could not have arisen.  The thinking is that, since there are many of these factors that have to be in the Goldilocks Zone (i.e. just right), that something, somehow made these parameters work in just such a way to create humans.

Personally, I find this argument both stupid and arrogant.  It is stupid because we’re dealing with a sample size of one.  We only know of one universe and one kind of life.  Drawing conclusions from this miniscule sample size is improper to say the least.  It is arrogant because we assume that, somehow, we are important in grand scheme of the universe.

Or universe also allows black holes.  What if the black holes are really the ‘purpose’ of the universe and it just happens that a universe that can have black holes can also have us?  Assuming that we are the reason for the entire universe is unbelievable hubris.

SETI is the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence.  If the contingency model is correct, then how likely is there to be any intelligent life to find?  It is extremely unlikely and many believe that the SETI is a waste of time and effort.  I tend to agree.  I still wish there was a universe filled with life, but I do find it unlikely that we will even be able to hear them if they exist.

On the other hand, this goes directly to the case between contingency and determinism.  If life is deterministic, then our universe should be full of it.  If life is more contingent, then it is likely that the universe is mostly empty and we may very well be the only intelligent species in the universe.

As a personal aside, the reading that I have done (click on peer-review or abiogenesis in the right hand column) suggests that life is more deterministic than contingent.  I am curious as to how Luisi responds to this research.

Link to the future rest of the articles.


* Please keep in mind that probability is just that a measure of probable.  A hundred year flood doesn’t happen every 100 years.  You might go several hundred years without one or have two hundred year floods in the same year and two more the next year.

** This is equivalent to the difference between 1.000001 and 1.000002.

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8 Responses to The Emergence of Life – Chapter 1

  1. Pingback: The Emergence of Life – A Chapter by Chapter Review | Cassandra's Tears

  2. Eugen says:

    Good start.Just a few points.

    1. In case of fractals, resulting complex patterns don’t create the rules by themselves. We have to ask where do rules come from?

    2. I understand that the anthropic principle can make some people uncomfortable but it is based on latest scientific findings and that is undeniable.

    3. Humans are too curious to pass project like SETI. It wasn’t waste of time, now we know who’s the boss in the neighborhood.

  3. OgreMkV says:

    1) The rules are math. They are fundamental to the universe. There isn’t a ‘designer’ writing the rules for fractals. That’s just it. The wikipedia page describes the math pretty well.

    I will say that humans have described the mathematical properties of the universe. But if you have 1 thing and 1 thing, then you have 2 things (or 10 things depending on how you count). That’s just the basic nature.

    The complexity is emergent from these simple rules. You can keep adding one thing until you get to a fascinating number like 2^43,112,609 − 1 (which is just human short hand for the currently largest known prime number.

    The rules are in place. We’re just finding them and interpreting them.

    2) The findings are valid scientifically (up to a point, some of the values can actually alter by more than 30% and still result in the properties that would allow life to form). However, the conclusion cannot not be supported by the data.

    Data: If the value of the gravitational constant were altered by more than 0.00000000001%, then stars could not form.

    Conclusion: The universe was designed.

    You may claim I’m simplifying things too much, but that is exactly what anthropic principle people are arguing. You simply cannot make a claim like that based on one example. Furthermore, then I would challenge you to produce any evidence that a designer exists and how it could create a universe with certain properties. Even if you did that, it would be trivial to argue that you can’t tell the difference between a designed universe, a universe with random properties, and a universe that may be an offshoot of another universe with very similar properties.

    To make any claim of a designer, then the only acceptable evidence is going to be a designer.

    3) I know. SETI is pretty cool and it’s given us some neat signal processing software. Being the boss of the local neighborhood is kind of like a tiny frail kitten being the boss of its neighborhood. Of course, it only went outside once, and that was just barely past the door until it ran back inside and hasn’t ventured out since.

  4. Eugen says:

    @ 1. “The rules are in place. We’re just finding them and interpreting them.”

    It seems that way to me,too.

    2. Thanks for reply. Maybe we continue after you finish the book.

    3.Yes.Distances are mind bending. I tried this with my kids:
    Absolutely shocking.

  5. OgreMkV says:

    Eugene, thanks for that link. It’s a good idea. In Herman Park in Houston they have a small scale model like this.

    It’s surprising that you walk up to Pluto on the sidewalk. Most might not even realize what it is.

  6. Pingback: Determinism, Cotingency, and the Accident of Mankind | Scientopia Guests' Blog

  7. Torbjorn Larsson, OM says:

    Right. I thought this was to be about abiogenesis (which is why I landed here) but it is reviewing philosophy and apparently a creationist theology variant. You can’t discuss philosophy since it is “fractally wrong” being untestable just so stories and all (but theology is of course testabely wrong: all there is is phsyicalism).

    But to dismiss some egregious errors:

    The anthropic principle is a notion that the details of the universe (or the planet or physics) are in place to give rise to human life.

    No – that is the religious “anthropic argument”, as I call it. It is absolutely the converse of the anthropic principle, since it mistakes a priori probabilities (life improbable) for a posteriori likelihoods (life likely). Creationists like to imply it is the same thing.

    The anthropic principle is that life picks the details of the universes where we have observers. I.e. universes that have parameters consistent with life are more likely to have life. This is predictive and currently the most predictive physics theory. (As Eugen notes.) This means that most universes are devoid of life.

    Naturally the anthropic principle invalidates “the anthropic argument”, that a universe is created for life.

    If life is more contingent, then it is likely that the universe is mostly empty

    Not exactly.

    Deterministic systems are contingent on boundary values. For example, classical Newton gravity is deterministic, a stone falls on a deterministic trajectory, but where it falls is contingent on where you dropped it (pathway contingency).

    Contingency opens up for variation, in the same way that the anthropic principle does.

  8. OgreMkV says:

    No, you are right. It is about abiogenesis. Read the other chapter reviews.

    However, to restrict one’s self from a possibility without having evidence… that’s just not how we are supposed to think.

    As far the anthropic principle, I think Luisi must be using Carter and you must be thinking of Barrow and Tipler. The difference is subtle. However, I do agree with your statements and I may have stated it poorly here.

    Carter’s Strong anthropic principle is: “the Universe (and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage.

    On the other hand, you have the weak anthropic principle (also Carter): we must be prepared to take account of the fact that our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers.

    I’m not sure about your statement on contingency. Yes, the stone falling is deterministic, but I don’t think that where you dropped it (unless it was accidental) was contingent. I also think that the rock falling, except in a vacuum is perfectly deterministic. There are effects of wind that cannot be totally predicted. You can state where (with some margin of error) that the rock will land, but (and here’s the important bit), if you drop the rock from exactly the same spot again, will it land in EXACTLY the same spot again?

    If you drop it from six inches above the ground, probably (assuming you don’t give it a litle bump when you release it). If you drop it from 20 feet, then no, it won’t.

    That’s the difference between determinism and contingency (as explained by Luisi). If we reset the universe, will everything in the universe happen exactly as it has this time? I don’t think so.

    That’s why I’m more in the contingent camp right now. I’m not saying that the universe won’t be teeming with life, even if contingency is correct. But the deterministic notion requires it. Maybe there’s no real way to test the difference. I don’t know right now.

    Does that help?

    BTW: Neither of these views are creationist. Luisi promises that chapter 4 and on will cover specific chemical reactions and the like. I’ll get there.

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