Sunday, April 01, 2007

Life evolves but is not evolution

I came across a piece by Brain May who played guitar with Queen and has gone back to finish his PhD in astrophysics and for some reason post opinions in the NYTimes Life is Evolution (behind the wall).

To determine what life is, it must be reduced to its most basic form. We are a complex system based on a simple unit, the cell. However, the single cell is still a complex system even unto itself. Even in a single cell, we must find the simplest to get a grasp on what life is.

Life is chemistry: a chemical reaction. While chemical reactions have occurred since electrons formed after the Big Bang and matter cooled enough that the potential difference between elements cause them to combine to form molecules, life’s chemical reaction is different. This chemistry has a purpose, and that purpose is to continue the chemical reaction and reproduce it.

While the physical world and the whole universe seem to be a chaotic system with planets, solar systems, and galaxies the strange attractors in a chaos theory, the strangest of all strange attractors is life. Life is chemistry with an attitude. To be alive is to exploit the immediately surrounding environment. Life is the capability of a group of molecules to utilize the potential difference between elements and other molecules in the immediate environment and either reproduce the capability, enhance it, or protect it.

The article did point out one glaring problem in modern biology: how did it all start. Once the DNA molecule is present on earth or its precursor, evolution takes care of everything else. Perhaps this is where the confusion arises between what is life and what is evolution.

The idea that life started in some idealistic muddy pond begs the question. Until we find out differently, the precursor molecules to life should be forming all the time. The problem is that we have not looked in the right place or in the right way, or these molecules came from outer space. Since higher life forms eat lower life forms, even Darwin thought that the precursors to life are quickly devoured.

Not until the 1970’s did we come to know the complexity of life around deep ocean thermal vents based on chemosynthesis. Perhaps clays laid down in sedimentary layers or accumulating in smokers where exposed cross-sectioned by earthquakes and fissuring to produce life’s precursor molecules, and then again perhaps not.

While we’ve yet to find life anywhere else but earth, everywhere we look on and in the earth, we find it. So far as I know, we haven’t found it in molten lava or fires – extremely hot and caustic fluids, yes, but the hottest on earth, no.

Live does not violate the second law of thermodynamics. After all chemical reactions occur that are needed to maintain life, all energies and matter are at a lower state. It is the concept of life that appears to violate the law. Life is organization in the midst of universal chaos.

Given that life co-ops its surroundings and evolves in doing so, eventually the whole earth will one day become alive.
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