Origin of Life: The 20th-Century Creation Myth
A TOUCHSTONE REVIEW
Marcelo Gleiser, A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision of Life in an Imperfect Universe, 2010
Lynn Margulis, Microcosmos, 1986; Symbiotic Planet, 1998
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, 2004
“Unless a ready-to-go living creature sprouted supernaturally . . . life could only have originated from nonlife. . . . The matter isn’t settled. . . .”
A Tear at the Edge of Creation, p. 189
There is the astrophysical tale of the origin of the universe, the story of the origin of familiar forces, energies, and matter. There is also a second creation story: the story of the emergence of material life. The two stories are nearly contemporaneous. Gleiser devotes a full fifth of his book to a description of the origins of material life and another fifth to questions about its existence. We might expect his explanation to follow the underlying theme of the entire volume—asymmetry in action—and we would not be disappointed.
The “spark” of life which Gleiser finds is in the excess of electrical charge that exists in one region of the universe flowing into another until a new equilibrium is reached. The principle is this: Matter interacts and grows in complexity in order to neutralize asymmetries of charge. (This principle, if his theory holds true, will explain all movements in the universe, on the scale of astrophysics as well as, say, in the space between two lovers; and its present-day recovery will vindicate Parmenides and Plato, who called this primeval attractive force “Eros.”) And according to this principle, before the stars were born, even before matter came to rule over antimatter in the primeval cosmos, the chain of life began. The Earth, and all its life, comes from stardust.
I will attempt a brief outline of Gleiser’s narrative.
Is Light the key to life?
Long before the material bodies of life appeared, matter was able to interact with polarized light. Then as now, all molecules in the universe that are optically active possess the ability to rotate the plane of polarized light, either to the right or to the left. Science calls this ability “chirality” or “handedness.” This motion, the spinning of polarized light, is a built-in asymmetry. But here is the crux: All terrestrial life—perhaps all life in the universe—rotates the plane of polarized light to the left.
Here begins Gleiser’s theory: Light may be the key to life itself.
The universe is bathed in electromagnetic waves: light. And light, it turns out, is none other than Aether, the medium scientists theorized for millennia to fill Nature’s void. Here Gleiser is speaking about both the light that is visible to us and the invisible light that has existed since the distant past—since the time when all that existed was radiation (photons) and the basic constituents of material atoms (protons, neutrons, electrons, light element nuclei, and neutrinos), the things that fueled cosmic expansion during the first trillionth second of the universe’s existence.
Initially in the universe, there were equal numbers of optically active molecules spinning to the left and spinning to the right. Then life emerged and ended this inert state of equilibrium. But before life could exist in material form, something had to happen: The concentration of left-handed (i.e., left-hand-spinning) molecules had to amplify in certain regions of the universe. And when that happened, it created a situation where more of certain compounds could be made (following the principle that when more of something is made, then even more of it can be made) until the moment when left-handed types achieved purity in those certain regions.
This small initial excess was amplified to a large excess (the same thing that occurred with the excess of matter over antimatter), and inertness in the universe was averted. Molecular reactions among left-handed molecules then led to increased complexity, and then to the complexity of living entities. Thus a kind of natural selection occurred even before living matter existed as individual entities. Biological life needed this pure, asymmetric left-handed condition initially. Without it, left-handed molecules would have tended to combine with right-handed molecules, and the result would have been inertness, as happened in the universe initially.
The question arises: How did a small excess of left-handed molecules appear in certain regions of the universe, and how did these regions become purely left-handed?
It is not known for certain how this happened, but there are many possibilities. On planet Earth, it might have been that the first biomolecules formed in the crystalline surfaces of minerals or clay, and that these surfaces acted as templates to induce in them a left-handed spatial orientation. Or the active turbulence of the young planet Earth might have sped up the amplification process, stirring mixtures of left-handed molecules toward a chirally pure solution.
Another possibility is that light radiation itself produced the initial left-handed bias. If the solar system, when it was young, had passed near a star-forming region, a region that by its nature emits strong circularly polarized ultraviolet radiation, that region could have amplified and eventually locked a left-handed bias into the biomolecules of early life. And this possibility carries with it a new dimension: If radiation produced the bias, then the whole solar system has the same left-handed bias, which means that left-handed amino acids, the building blocks of life, predominate throughout the entire solar system.
Cosmic rays (Photo: Getty Images)
There is also a more fecund and, to me, more appealing possibility: There may be a biasing mechanism that acts on material life throughout the whole of the universe and thus a left-handed chiral bias to all life everywhere in the universe, an essential bias that local environmental effects cannot alter.
If this more expansive possibility proves to be true, the cause may be found in the effect of neutrinos on life. Whenever neutrinos appear in the material universe, they interact with matter only in their left-handed form. And it may be that the left-handed bias of neutrinos triggers the molecular bias that exists in all life in the universe at the nuclear level.
Neutrinos first appeared in the universe before the first trillionth second of time. Ever since then they have been produced in profusion, for billions of years, in the interior of stars. It is supposed that neutrinos swarm around galaxies and, because they are produced also in our sun, trillions of them pass through our bodies every second.
If it is true that Nature does have this bias at the nuclear level, there is a startling consequence: All material life, everywhere in the universe, has the same universal fingerprint as neutrinos.
However left-handed chiral purity first came to be, once it was reached, chemical reactions followed the path to material life. Organic molecules first formed in dying stars: Ultraviolet rays from young stars fused the chemical elements in dying stars to make inorganic molecules. These then synthesized (somehow) into organic molecules. And these, planted in the right environment, grew in complexity until some of them began to work together with others to become living entities capable of metabolism and reproduction.
When did life take hold on Earth?
How long did it take for life to emerge on Earth? That is not the right question. Life emerged immediately. The question is: How soon in Earth’s history did material life take hold?
Earthly life is linked to cosmic history in a chain of necessary events:
(1st) a very young cosmos had to have inflated;
(2nd) matter then had to exceed antimatter;
(3rd) the universe had to be expanding at an appropriate rate for matter of all kinds—both dark (invisible) matter and the more familiar kind—to coalesce;
(4th) there had to be a cloud of hydrogen in which the Sun could be born; and
(5th) the Earth had to be at the right distance from its parent star and with the right chemicals available.
Even when this chain of events took place, vast and violent cosmic environmental disturbances—falling meteorites, volcanic eruptions, rampant earthquakes—could have erased the bias toward left-handedness many times in the course of Earth’s history, so fragile is terrestrial life. It is even possible that material life originated on Earth several times and was destroyed several times, leaving no detectable trace, until some of it survived the chaos and finally took hold around 3.5 billion years ago. But once life did take hold on Earth, its history became one with the Earth’s.
Between 4.3 and 4.1 billion years ago, the Earth was bombarded with meteors, which left traces of heavy metals in the Earth’s crust. (Photo:Shuttershock)
For the building blocks of life to appear on Earth, a great number of complex chemical syntheses had to have taken place in advance. Ultraviolet rays, which were abundant on Earth long before life took hold here, may have sped up the process.
(No one knows for certain what promoted the big jump into early life. Two competing views have arisen. Alexander Oparin in his 1924 book Origin of Life claimed metabolism came before genetics. The English scientist John Haldane, the first to use the term primordial or prebiotic “soup” to describe the accumulation of organic material and water on the early Earth, independently arrived at a similar conclusion and published it in 1929 in his own book titled Origin of Life. Both claimed that chemical reactions led to early life before self-replication occurred.
In 1952 a classic experiment conducted by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey simulated the conditions on the early Earth and to test the metabolism-first hypothesis of Oparin and Haldane and showed that complex organic molecules could be synthesised from inorganic precursors. A later and presently more popular view, the “RNA world” hypothesis, claims the opposite, that self-replication preceded metabolism. Gleiser does not promote one view over the other.)
At some point, protocells with a primitive metabolism either accidentally absorbed or else were invaded by the precursors of genetic replicators, just as parasites invade a host. On our planet, these bundles of matter, asymmetric and electric, connected with each other in the medium of water. Later, membranes grew around these groups of reacting material components. Isolated behind these semipermeable membranes, reactions among them thrived. After aeons, a symbiotic fusion of these components eventually developed; and that fusion created the first cells with an optimized capability to replicate. In this manner the first single-celled organisms were born.
Fantastic as it may seem, the urge of matter to bond, on Earth and elsewhere in the universe, is the attempt to decrease imbalances in the distribution of electric charge. Material life is no exception. It is simply a more complex manifestation of that same urge. Life differs from all other manifestations of this urge in one distinct regard: Material life is the imbalance that recreates itself.
On Earth, just as in the rest of the cosmos, there is an asymmetry of time. This asymmetry is intimately related to the asymmetry of the larger material forms that populate the cosmos: the luxuriant garden of galaxies that sprouted from seeds planted during primordial inflation. And the garden grew by means of an exotic nuclear process of transmutation, the alchemy that stars practice, to turn one element into another in order to generate energy. Without this asymmetry, this imperfection, material life could not have been generated in the universe.
In Nature, disequilibrium leads to change and things change in order not to change. This is the imperfect cycle of creation in Nature: imbalance leads to change that leads to form that leads to balance. For biological life, equilibrium means death.
Every cell that lives is a self-sustaining complex whose main function is to absorb high-grade usable energy from the environment and to excrete it in a low-grade, useless form. And the more cells there are, the more they reproduce and the more efficiently they perform their downgrading function. This is the clear purpose of reproduction for all material life: to make more of itself so as to keep on downgrading energy.
On Earth, material life is primarily a mechanism to decrease imbalances in the distribution of the energy radiated by the Sun. The Earth absorbs solar photons and then emits infrared photons into space at a rate of twenty infrared photons for every solar photon. The energy difference in the downgrade feeds the organized structures on Earth, from hurricanes to bacteria to human bodies.
In this way Gleiser’s narrative of the essential sequence of events necessary for life to take hold on Earth comes to a certain conclusion. It is the same conclusion reached by the authors of the ancient scriptures known as the Vedas: Everything is food (Taittiriya Brahmana 2. 8. 8).
How did life on Earth emerge?
Gleiser’s colleague, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in his book Origins, has compounded a somewhat more dramatic but less intuitive account of the progress of the events that led to the emergence of material life in our familiar world. The adaptation of Tyson’s story for television employs the efficient metaphor of the 24-hour day to simplify the description of the 4.5-billion-year growth and development of our planet and its terrestrial life forms. I will employ the same chronological metaphor to illustrate this development.
At the beginning of this singular day, many epochs removed from the immeasurable origin of the universe in primordial light, the first titanic stars were dying violent deaths, exploding into clouds of stardust. When one of these gas clouds collapsed under the force of gravity into an enormous rotating disk, the temperatures rose at the cloud’s center and a new star was born: our Sun. In a short time, more matter condenses and accretes out of the parent cloud and circles the dim young star to form its planets.
At midnight on this metaphorical day, our Sun gives birth to planet Earth.
For several hundred million years, persistent attacks of high velocity comets and debris render the surface of the Earth molten. By 12:08 a.m. (25 million years elapsed), the entire globe has melted and reformed again into a magma ocean. On its surface, lighter elements float like algae. At its center, molten iron swirls and flows, generating electromagnetic currents that turn Earth into a giant magnet, its magnetic field shielding the planet from the flaring streams of the solar wind.
At 12:48 a.m. (150 million years elapsed), volcanos belch out an atmosphere of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and steam. It is then that our Moon, the daughter of Earth, is born from an exchange of matter in a violent chance encounter between Earth and an unknown assailant. Two minutes later (4.3 billion years ago), water begins to collect on Earth’s surface in a steaming primeval ocean, olive green beneath a red sky.
Artist’s concept of an other-worldly ocean under the light of a red sun (via CfA)
For 600 million years, or until 3:35 a.m., meteors continue to pound the planet. By 4:00 a.m. (3.8 million years ago) the meteor assault has slowed and weakened, and a biosphere of bacteria has emerged. Growing in acid, these first bacteria make their food and generate their energy from air—just as fire does.
An hour later, the bombardment of asteroids and comets ceases. By 5:45 a.m. some strains of the sulfur-based bacteria—desperate to continue living as their store of hydrogen sulfide dwindles—mutate and evolve into blue-green alchemists, cyanobacteria that use light as energy and extract hydrogen from water, releasing prodigious amounts of oxygen as waste. By 1:00 p.m. the spreading bacteria have excreted enough oxygen to make a new atmosphere.
River bottom cyanobacteria bloom
At this point in the tale, and perhaps unknown to Tyson, the astounding theory of microbiologist Lynn Margulis comes into play with wonderful emotion and exquisite imagery. In her books Microcosmos and Symbiotic Planet, she has conceived of the first beings that came to populate this newly oxygenated world: complex and startling beings that respond to the environmental insult of oxygen by becoming cells with nuclei formed from the merger of swimming anaerobes that have acquired oxygen breathers. And these new cells generate clouds of offspring.
Over the next eight hours of this metaphorical day, these new bacteria excrete even more oxygen, enough to create a layer of ozone that screens the planet from the more lethal rays of the sun. Now teams of bacteria of different kinds come to live together. Their life cycles interlocked, the waste products of one become the food sources of the next. And these teaming bacteria become to the planet what our internal organs are to us—a complete regulatory system.
Over the final three hours, from 9:00 p.m. to 12:00 midnight, all other life forms in this new atmosphere come to exist. They all are generated novelties that bring together unlike individuals to make larger, more complex entities that coevolve—chimeras, fantastic mergers of organisms formerly independent and diverse. Some are living corporations that began as hostile takeovers and have continued ever since, the invaded victims and tamed ruthless attackers living together in dynamic alliances that follow the same law as the ancient human tribes that once inhabited the Eurasian steppe: vicious attack, concordat, and ultimate partnership of victor and vanquished.
At 9:06 p.m., the first multicellular beings appear. At 9:27, fish. At 9:40, insects. At 10:10, reptiles. At 10:50, dinosaurs. At 11:40, the first primates. And at thirty seconds before midnight, humans.
The tree of life as seen by Haeckel in The Evolution of Man (1879)
The bodies of these latest beings, the humans, are massive colonies of microorganisms eloquently orchestrated with fancy tissues and organs that contain a veritable history of life on Earth. Their hungry young lick secretions from the mutated sweat glands of their mothers’ breasts. Their infant helplessness creates the conditions for the development of their families and civilizations. Their adult wars are unceasing, and their warriors become kings. Their vast cities grow in the same patterns as colonies of microbes. And they, in time, will become something else.
How will human life evolve?
This “something else,” Margulis suggests, may be a photosynthetic “green man,” an evolved physical being something like the mysterious human mythologem of the same name that has been secreted among Freemasons for centuries.
But how will it be possible for contemporary Man to accomplish this surprising transformation to photosynthetic Man?
Gleiser has already suggested an answer without realizing it. When he notes that interaction with polarized light may be the key to life itself, he follows this thought through: Many adaptive mutations, even though they take place at the level of DNA replication, are prompted by external sources, such as the invisible light of ultraviolet and higher wavelengths. These adaptive mutations, he adds, have been and are the main source of genetic variation. It is through a similar process that a kind of microbial speciation first occurred. In fact, the entire tree of material life, branching out from the last universal common ancestor, has grown out of such mutations.
What can Gleiser tell us about the mutations of the photosynthetic Man of the future? Gleiser’s statement of the basic principle of evolution provides a generic answer: “Even if transformations in a population were merely gradual, these gradual transformations would accumulate and reach a point beyond which it would no longer be possible for changed members of a population to breed with their unchanged peers, and a new species would be born.”
And Gleiser reminds us: The conventional Darwinian Theory of Natural Selection alone does not prescribe that the species that would develop would be intelligent, even if given time. So he surmises: Either we ascribe the existence of intelligent species to supernatural powers or we accept that life is fragile.
I suggest we do both.
What is the final stage of human life?
To complete our projection into the future, we here leave the imagery of contemporary biology and astrophysics and turn to another imagery, one that originates in a science and technology of photobiology that was known and applied by spiritual Orders of solar adepts secreted throughout the world for centuries before and into the beginning of our era.
These highly cultured ancients understood the importance of taking in energy that originated outside the human organism. They were the first to discover that elliptically polarized light, in combination with the Earth’s magnetic field, can create a left-handed rotation of light that is favorable to a transformation of being. The sun priests of the Americas and elsewhere used the surfaces of gold parabolic mirrors, crystals, and other minerals to alter the effects of sunlight in the performance of their sacred rites and ceremonies. They employed this technology to take in light and utilize the supranatural information carried by it with an interest in elevating Man above matter.
Man, as a species, changes, or is able to change, according to environmental conditions. By using left-handed polarized light, human beings become capable of bringing additional amounts of positive energy into their energy fields, brains, and nervous systems. This extra energy alters the molecular structure of their living tissue as their material organisms grow more akin to light.
These Light beings or persons are “optically active” — similar to crystals, if we may be permitted to make such a comparison. They possess an additional energy that sets them apart from ordinary men and women and endows them with a knowledge of the universe. They become ultradimensional beings. Such beings, it would seem, represent the first stage in the transformation of our species to photosynthetic physical Man, the Man of the future proposed by Margulis.
This first stage in the development of the new species of Man has been disrupted countless times by the chaos of natural and historical events. But now, in our own time, we have a chance to take this stage further into the future. The development of human cultures of solar adepts, and the transformation of these solar adepts into photosynthetic Man, may be only one of the stages along the way of an evolutionary path that returns us to our origins as primordial Beings of Light.
The process of this final transformation of Man to light is already underway. And while it is, I suggest that we each take responsible individual action to promote it. There is a personal path that can be taken now — by every individual human being who lives — for their own spiritual regeneration. It is available, as always, through a Living Community of Light on Earth. Such is the Community of Cosolargy.