“If I could rerun the tape of life from the origin of unicellular organisms… would terrestrial life originate at all? Would we get mobile creatures that we could call animals?”
–Stephen Jay Gould, “Fungal Forgery” in Natural History, 1993
“Are there universal laws of life, much like the fundamental laws of physics, which govern or limit the characteristics that make it–in any form–possible?”
–Blurb for “Looking for the Laws of Life” panel discussion at the World Science Festival
* * * * *
Back in the tail end of the 20th century, evolutionary theory went through a dirty, pugnacious little period sometimes known as the Darwin Wars. There were a few different fronts, but they mainly centered around one Big Question: Is history governed by a series of accidents, or is it pulled along by powerful, perhaps fundamental, forces that will override the little blips that are chance occurences? Stephen Jay Gould was the strongest proponent (or at least the most visible) for the first group: He said that evolution generated “spandrels,” happenstance structures that had nothing to do with survival; that many special aspects of the human mind were incidental to natural selection; that many mental qualities attributed to evolutionary psychology were instead the product of arbitrary human cultural history; and that the evolution of life as we know it was not inevitable—was not even likely—and that if we created the Earth again and “reran the tape of life,” we probably wouldn’t end up with complex organisms—least of all, us intelligent, (self-)conscious humans.With the search for life on other planets having gained so much steam recently, researchers are asking another iteration of that Big Question: Are there fundamental laws of life that apply to every planet, or is the evolution of life vastly different on every planet, determined mainly by the local conditions and chance twists of fate?
Yesterday John Hockenberry moderated a World Science Festival panel where he posed this question to astrobiologists Steven Benner, Maggie Turnbull, and Paul Davies. Davies said there are some earthly biological facts that certainly seem to be stochastic, or incidental (he calls the five-fingered hand a “frozen accident”) but that we really have no idea yet whether some aspects of life here are more universal—whether there are fundamentals in biology like there are in math, physics, and chemistry. He says it’s conceivable that we’d find ribosomes—the protein-manufacturing part of cells—in alien organisms.
Davies mentions three ways we could get the kind of cross-comparison data we’d need to find out if there are biological fundamentals:
- Build something like Magrathea, the planet-constructing planet from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (He did really suggest this. But I think he was kidding.) That way we could build new planets, “rerun the tape of life,” and take notes on it all. Kind of like The Truman Show.
- Develop computers and software powerful enough to model life accurately. Then press go and take notes.
- Find some friggin’ aliens, already! Add “finding biological fundamentals” to the long, long list of reasons that we need to locate ET and his buddies.