Science Fact: Let’s talk about the origin of life. Not the Sunday School version. Nor the Archaeology version, which is being called Abiogenesis these days. Let’s try the Space Age version.
Several recent technical studies posit that life on Earth may have depended on ingredients, or even life itself, from outer space. The people who say this are not E.T.s with big heads and eerie eyes, and not Area 51 fans. These are bona fide scientists speaking up.
Consider this BBC story: “Earth life ‘may have come from Mars’”. Prof. Steven Benner, a media-savvy scientist, has been studying how life could have assembled itself from chemicals present in early Earth. At a conference in Italy he reported that RNA, DNA and proteins could have formed using crystalline minerals as catalysts. The particular minerals needed — boron compounds and oxidized molybdenum — would have been much more prevalent on Mars than on Earth. Since scientists believe that meteorites from Mars have been arriving on Earth since “forever”, presto — Benner would say that perhaps we are all Martians at heart! (Except women, who as we know are from Venus.)
Is this a little tough to swallow? Perhaps you’d rather hail from Outer Space — really, really Outer. Researchers in London propose that we may have come from comets hitting Earth. They have been firing steel projectiles at 15,000 miles per hour into mixtures of ice similar to those found in comets. The shock waves from the collision produce amino acids, building blocks of life as we understand it. Still other research shows that some useful organic molecules already exist in comets, without the need for a big impact.
Science Speculation: Creation stories are fundamental and often sacred narratives in many societies. Obviously, we humans are made to wonder where we came from: if not why, at least how.
If you’re hoping for life to be created from the random collision of chemicals, it helps to have some Nature-made scaffolds on which to build, such as crystals. And it helps to have violent amounts of energy such as are released when comets and meteors hit our planet.
But it’s also worth considering the Mediocrity Principle, a philosophical idea that, basically, says that we aren’t necessarily so special. For example, if there are many possible universes, some with life and some without life, the fact that we live in a universe with life suggests that it’s more probable that life is a likely phenomenon rather than a rare one.
The origin of life as a common event might fly in the face of those who consider human beings “exceptional”. However, I say that the day will come when we have artificial intelligences who look at the human species around them and say, hey, you folks aren’t that special. (You will meet one of these A.I.s when and if you read Death By Probability; it is not yet at your bookseller, but I hope to get it there by the end of the year.)