Unofficial SJG Archive

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

Unofficial SJG Archive

Will We Figure Out How Life Began?

We may determine what started it all—but that might not tell us whether life was inevitable or just a lucky accident.

by Stephen Jay Gould

 deep problem—philosophical rather than factual—stymies all our attempts to define the nature of life. Scientific generalizations require replication, the demonstration that a given set of forces and substances will yield the same result when brought together under the same conditions. Ideally, we test for replication with time-honored procedures that scientists call controlled experiments—artificially simplified situations manipulated by human observers to guarantee (within the best of our ability) an exact repetition of all timings, forces and substances. If we achieve the same result in each of several replications, we then gain confidence that we may be witnessing a predictable generality based upon a law of nature. This search for replicates underlies the efforts—and partial successes—of scientists to synthesize living matter from the presumed chemical constituents in the "primordial soup" of the earth's original oceans. Can we create some rudimentary forms of life by exposing these constituents to known sources of energy (lightning from electrical storms, heat from oceanic vents, for example) under the presumed conditions of the earth's early atmosphere and surface?

In this context of accepted scientific procedures, single occurrences present a knotty problem. Their "truth" cannot be denied, but how can we use their existence to assert any generality rather than an explanation for a singular circumstance? For specific events of history—the rise, domination and extinction of dinosaurs, for example—we seek no such generality, and specific narrations for bounded events supply the explanations we seek. Thus a particular asteroid, striking the earth 65 million years ago and leaving evidence of its impact off the Yucatan Peninsula, probably triggered a global extinction that sealed the fate of dinosaurs and many other creatures. In developing such evidence, we have explained a unique historical event, but we have not discovered a general law of nature.

But when we ask questions about the nature of life—when we wonder, for example, how common life may be in the universe or inquire whether any potential life on other worlds will look like the life we already know on Earth—then we are seeking to understand general principles about the essential character of the natural universe and not simply to explicate a particular set of historical events. To formulate such general principles, as I argued above, we need replicates, either made in our laboratories or found elsewhere in the universe.

The life that we know, however wondrous in extent and variety, all proceeds—or so our best inferences tell us—from one single experiment. The biochemical features underlying this amazing variety and the coherent fossil record of 3.5 billion years (implying a single branching tree of earthly life with a common trunk) indicate that every living thing on Earth, from the tiniest bacterium on the ocean floor to the highest albatross that ever flew in the sky, arose as the magnificently diversified evolutionary outcome of one single experiment performed by nature, one origin of life in the early history of one particular planet.

Thus we can define the life we know by specifying its common features and properties. But if we wish to move from this knowledge to statements about the general nature of any potential life in the universe, we remain stymied in two key ways.

First, we can make no reasoned conjecture about the frequency, or even the existence, of life elsewhere in the universe. As an optimist by temperament and as a betting man, I allow that certain features of the natural world would lead me to place my chips on yes if someone forced me to wager. But I also know the difference between a pure flutter based on hope and a smart play based on genuine probabilities.

The fact that fossilized life of the simplest bacterial grade appears in some of the most ancient rocks on Earth suggests that an origin of life in these conditions may be nearly inevitable, since incredibly improbable events should not occur so quickly. But my skeptical side retorts that good luck in one try proves nothing. I may win the lottery the first time I buy a ticket, and I might flip 10 heads in a row on my first sequence of tosses.

I might also argue that since our immense universe contains gazillions of galaxies filled with appropriate stars and planets, and since life did emerge on the one and only planet we really know, how can we deny that a sizable proportion of these other planets must also contain life? Yet a logical fallacy dooms this common argument because either alternative can be reconciled with the positive result that I must obtain for the only place I can sample—our Earth. For if all appropriate planets generate some form of life, then I should not be surprised that I have found living things on my own world. But if life really exists on my planet alone, then I must still record a positive result from this only possible sample. After all, I knew the answer for the earth before I ever formulated my scheme for sampling.

Unfortunately, we are stymied by the fact that our knowledge about life must, at least for now, be limited to studies of a single experiment on Earth. All earthly life shares a remarkably complex set of biochemical features, but does this commonality record the only conceivable building blocks for any entity that we would call "alive"? Or do all earthly creatures share these features only because we have inherited these properties from a common ancestor that used one configuration among a million alternatives unknown to us but quite conceivable and workable? Indeed, would we, in our carbon-based parochialism, even recognize otherworldly forms of life—pulsating sheets of silica, perhaps—well beyond our ken?

The architect of this conceptual prison built only two doors leading to a solution, with the path to each door marked by the same sign: FIND A REPLICATE! On one path, we make the replicates ourselves by gaining such an improved understanding of the nature of things that we can define the set of all conceivable living forms and then test their properties by chemical synthesis in our laboratory.

As a natural historian at heart, however, I confess my strong preference for the second path of exploration: a search for possible natural occurrences elsewhere. This Columbian path has served us so well before, and nature's products do tend to outshine our own poor workmanship by manifesting things undreamed of in all our philosophy. So let us seek nature's own replicate—on Mars or a few other potential places in our solar system, if we really luck out (and are willing to content ourselves with simple things at bacterial grade and unfit for mutual conversation); or elsewhere, despite daunting distances (beyond any possibility for two-way conversation during human lifetimes) but promising—in the most exciting and improbable long shot in all human history—a potential insight soaring well beyond our meager powers of imagination.

[ Stephen Jay Gould, "Will We Figure Out How Life Began?" April 10, 2000; Time magazine, 155 (14): 92-93. ]

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