Thursday, September 20, 2007

Life: So Simple A Beginning?

And then . . . another breath . . . and fish were swimming in the creeks, and birds were flying in the air, and deer were walking on the hills. Skunks were sleeping in their holes. Things were growing. Flowers and trees. To each of them the Spirit gave a seed, its very own. To each it gave a name. And to all of them it gave the name of Life. (from The Story of Everything, Ch. 2)

Of these three questions--What is Matter? What is Life? What is Spirit?--the one about Life may be the easiest to answer. In the Old Story of Everything, Life was created directly by Spirit. In the New Story, it "emerges" from Matter and then "evolves." How is Life different from Matter? My rule of thumb: if you poke it and it wiggles, it's alive.

When you look into the origin of life, however, the poke-it rule doesn't quite cut it. What does? "Replication, mutation, and selection," says a scientist, probably a chemist. If molecule X makes copies of itself (replication), if a few of the copies are less than perfect (mutation), and if X's environment favors some of the copies over others (selection), X is alive. Why? Because X can evolve.

Biologists typically want more. X has to be enclosed. It has to have a membrane. It has to have a regulatory apparatus, a metabolism. Give it all that and it becomes a cell. Only then is it alive.

The earliest evidence of a living cell goes back about 3.5 billion years. (Take a look.) Earth itself goes back 4.6 billion. Whether the first cell originally came from outer space or whether it originated here, whether it was alone or had company, its appearance was a watershed event. Compare the Big Bang with whatever spark produced Life. One gave us a cosmos; one gave us a speck. One was immense beyond imagination; one miniscule. But the two were equal in stature.

So momentous was the appearance of Life that you can appreciate why the writer of Genesis would mark it by using the metaphor of God's breath (Genesis 2:7). Charles Darwin would use exactly the same metaphor to conclude The Origin of Species. (See the last sentence of Chapter 15.) It was, as Darwin wrote, "so simple a beginning."

But was it so simple? Not when you consider that the universe took over 9 billion years to produce that first cell--years of stars being formed and then blowing up, years of their debris coalescing into planets, and then--on one planet that we know of--that mysterious spark. The first cell's emergence was humble and obscure, but it wasn't simple.

Ah, but the second cell. That was the miracle of simplicity. All the first cell did was make a copy. It "remembered" 9 billion years of history and replicated it. There is a key in that to the whole story of the cosmos. At a certain moment something more complex--yes, something "higher"--comes into being. It incorporates what is "lower" and moves on. Something new begins to happen.

What is Life? Look at all the universe had to go through to produce the first cell. Look at how easily it produced the second. Life is the difference.




Anonymous said...

A couple of things here. I appreciate the immensity implicit in the notion that it took over 9 billion years for that first cell to emerge; after that replicaiton was simple. In my mind, two questions remain. Why did that cell replicate? Then, the even more puzzling dilemna--if I buy your premise that "if you poke it and it wiggles it's life" leaves me staring at my bowl of Jello and wondering it it's really alive:-)

John H said...

One phrase I liked: To each it gave a name.

The Old Testament has a wonderful story of Adam and his interactions with God. God gave Adam dominion over all of the creatures of earth and asked him to name them all. My imagination has always run away with this warm image of God and Adam reclining under a tree, and all of the animals presenting themselves one-by-one. Adam says to this one, "I name him horse" and to the next one, "I name him pig." I'd like to think that when the next animal pulls up and Adam says,"I name him giraffe" that God kind of does a spit-take or laughs milk through his nose and says, "Where the hell did that name come from!" I don't know, I just love the idea of an intimate God who--since we were made in his image--laughs at the same things we do.