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Life

In the early hours of the morning, I’m usually asleep. This morning however was different, I had two completely unrelated things on my mind. One was technical and is documented elsewhere and the other involved the origin of life. Yes, some of us do have deep thoughts from time to time and occasionally, they’re not rubbish. This may or may not be one of those times.

So firstly, a disclaimer, I’m not a doctor, scientist – or anything really – just someone who was brought up learning how things work and watching Attenborough, Star Trek and just about every other sci-fi movie and TV series of note, reading Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins and challenging just about everything. Still, at age 63, what you are about to read may or may not be complete bollocks but hopefully entertaining bollocks.

Where does life come from?

I think we’ve pretty much gotten to the bottom of the latter stages of evolution.. several thousand million years ago, life started off as very simple cells that replicated and over time “improved” in response to a combination of available resources and simple defects… cells that replicated imperfectly – hence allowing change to occur. When this happens before replication, there’s a better chance of “improved” cells dividing and hence passing that benefit down to the next generation. And so it has continued up to the current complex life-forms we have on earth, including us. There is no point in going into this further as it is well documented – evolution through natural selection has not been a simple theory for a long time – it is a well-explored fact.

Complexity

We balk at complexity and yet look at the world’s telephone network – look at computer chips, look at cities – we’re pretty good with complexity.

And so the complexity of life is, in the 21st century, somewhat understood (though we could do a LOT better) and people like Craig Venter have made the first steps which I believe will be completed this century (if we don’t blow ourselves up first or run out of food) that is – understanding and taking control over how life evolves to help it better suit our rapidly degenerating environment. Right now there are the usual fears about messing with nature but this will pass.

We have done very well to get this far in understanding how life works and how we might improve it in the future. The first drugs to eliminate cancer are just now appearing – it isn’t that long ago that cancer was considered too complicated to defeat. Venter and others have succeeded in editing DNA to include actual text or coding for images that are then passed on after replication – amazing stuff.

But where would all of this have started?

Where we’re on slightly less solid ground is how and where life started. We assume that over millions or billions of years, a lot of chemical compositions came about through chance, which were of no use and that somehow, at some point, the right basic materials able to replicate, came together in the right circumstances. Given enough time and given the drastic changes that have happened over time on our planet and others, this is not hard to imagine and may even be inevitable.

Options:

Scenario 1. In this scenario, the very early earth in turmoil started the “life” ball rolling – and this raises the possibility that we may be the only planet in existence with life.   Alternatively if life DID start here and also did start independently on another planet in another star system – I think they will be SO VERY different from us that communication could well be impossible. They could be the size of an ant or the size of a mountain and to assume they have eyes or ears I think is possibly a stretch in which case, we may as well be along.

Scenario 2. We know that another planet collided with our own at some point – and part of that spun off to make the moon. Could it be that some very early “extremophiles” existed then and became part of our planet and others? Or perhaps life started on Mars and ended up here – after all we do have meteorites from Mars and other planets. Perhaps life started on some distant solar system so far back we can hardly imagine… in which case if we are their relatives, there could WELL be some common ground but I think when sci-fi shows depict aliens as being a bit like us – with radios and space suits etc., they are ignoring so VERY much historical development, some of it accidental that has led us to where we are now.  Other species are unlikely to have stumbled across the same inventions.

Scenario 3. This may seem the most extreme version but could it be that (as in one of the alien movies) – a race of beings much like us but WAY more advance technically, did what we may well do in the future if endangered  – that being, to engineer an extremophile specifically to handle the harshness of space and end up developing on a distant planet – ultimately to develop into a version of themselves? Impossible? Unlikely?  Read what Venter and his team who have done with DNA.  40 years ago we didn’t even have the Internet and already we’re achieving what was once thought impossible. Where will we be in another 40 years time. If we hadn’t had the dark ages where would we be now.  No -  I don’t think this is impossible or unlikely at all.

Hard to believe that not too long ago we were still debating whether or not there were other planets outside of our tiny solar system AT ALL (some are still pretending the earth is flat and we didn’t go to the moon) and yet today the only question is how many look like earth and do they even need to do THAT to sustain life. I DO think that if life travelled from another planet to earth, there are limits on how far away it could have been to allow for practical travel. as we feel we know the age of our universe, that can’t be too hard to narrow down.

Well, there you are, that’s my two-pence-worth. Overall, it does FEEL VERY unlikely that we are the only intelligent life in the universe (or universes, another topic for another time) – but feelings don’t necessarily make facts and unless someone tells me how to travel faster than light, I don’t think we have a cat in hell’s chance of ever meeting human-like creatures from another world. It may be that there is an as-yet undiscovered way to communicate faster than light and if that is true, then maybe we could have a chat if we could ever get past the language barrier and even that makes the assumption that they have something like voice-boxes.

There are of course, still in the 21st century, millions of people who cling to a much simpler version of life – wherein some all powerful creator (there are in this scenario, several incompatible creators – mostly male and humanlike, strangely enough) made it all happen – end of story. This of course falls apart as soon as you ask who made the all powerful creator and so on, backwards forever – but the origins of the universe I think are going to take us longer to figure out – it may be that the distant past (which we can see through our telescopes) is now SO distant we may never actually know (though we can make a damned good guess)  – some day it is likely the stars will be so far away that the first generations will be born, never having seen a star and will wonder if we were all just having a laugh. If we don’t collect enough solid, indisputable information for them, then the idea that somewhere there are stars and planets and perhaps life will simply be resigned to the realm of fairy tales.

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