Creating Inorganic Life

Could we create life, and if we did, would it have to be life as we know it?

We always seem to assume that if we ever find life on another planet (or it finds us!), it will be some variation of an earth creature, and it might even have an American accent.  It might be a monster, but it will probably have a head and legs and arms and eyes.  It probably eats things, even if those things include us, and it probably communicates by vocalising.  It has the same senses as us, detecting our visual spectrum, sensing changes in atmospheric pressure as we do using our ears, and detecting airborne molecules as earth creatures do, using their noses.

But as the old song says, it ain’t necessarily so.  After all, just because a template for life evolves on one planet, who’s to say that a similar template will emerge elsewhere?  Certainly, many creatures on this planet have a great deal in common.  All the vertebrates share the same fundamental pattern, evolved from a common ancestor, as do all the insects, and if you go back to an even more remote ancestor, there’s still a significant amount in common between the insects and the vertebrates.  Heads.  Guts.  Legs.  Brains.

But of course, it didn’t have to be like that.  Just as there’s a near-infinite number of planets, there’s also a near-infinite number of random solutions to the life problem.

Most estimates of the number of habitable planets in the universe are based on the assumption that life must be carbon-based, probably because, as humans, we try to project a human form onto the things we can’t imagine.  We anthropomorphise everything – even our deities – because that’s our comfort zone, and it’s fair enough — there might even be a good evolutionary reason why we do so, although I have no idea what that reason might be.

One way or another, though, we’re wrong, and not only wrong, but arrogant as well.  Who knew humans could be arrogant?  After all, if life doesn’t have to be carbon-based, who’s to say that our neighbouring planets are too hot or too cold, too dry or too poisonous?  We don’t know what inorganic life survives on, so we can’t say where it might live.

It’s true that organic compounds lend themselves to building the elements of life because of the properties of carbon – especially its ability to form long and complex chains of molecules, but scientists have been examining other ways of creating cell-like, self-replicating biological structures, and it turns out that carbon isn’t essential.  They can create lifelike cells using many other elements, and those cells will have the ability to divide, replicate and even more surprisingly, compete for dominance.  Evolution in a bottle.

I came across an interesting lecture on recently, delivered by scientist Lee Cronin.  In his lecture, Cronin makes many interesting points, but probably the most thought-provoking is when he asks if life is really that improbable.  Is it so very unlikely that life will spontaneously emerge, as it did on Earth?  His answer is even more startling: the emergence of the first cell is as probable as the emergence of the stars.  If the physics of fusion is encoded into the universe, he suggests, then the physics of life is as well.  Or to put it another way, not only is life likely to emerge: it must.

Cronin and his team have been building complex inorganic structures that display the very same characteristics as DNA.  They’ve created cells like any bacterium, but with a nucleus that contains no carbon.  Inorganic life, in other words.

So where does this stop?

The answer is that it doesn’t.

Do you remember Stephen Hawking’s plea to stop sending pictures into space and recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth? Stop, he said, or they’ll come and kill us, and he was right.  Whatever comes out of the void will have no interest whatever in us, any more than Cortes the Killer gave a fig for the welfare of the native South Americans he robbed and slaughtered.  Probably much less, since at least the Indians looked much like their European oppressors and might have evoked some kind of empathy as fellow humans.

What will come out of the void to oppress us?

Who can say?

In the best of cases, we can imagine a creature evolved beyond all physical cares, coming with nothing more than a desire to learn.

In the worst case, what we’ll get is a thing that we don’t recognise as life, and that in turn doesn’t recognise us.  It wants what we have: our air, our water or perhaps the core of our planet and it cares nothing for our existence because it doesn’t even know that we live, nor does it care.

I know.  You don’t have to laugh.  I’m doing it already.  It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.

Of course, since we have no idea what a life form looks like, we can hardly identify it even if we see it, so what about the possibility that such life exists not only on Mars and Venus, Jupiter and Saturn, but also here on Earth?

Until Lee Cronin finishes his research, we can’t discount the possibility that the entire planet is a living creature, and that we humans are little more than the fleas that make it itch.


11 thoughts on “Creating Inorganic Life

  1. TED talks are so inspiring. I hope there’s a team of dedicated scientists working on perfecting cryogenic techniques such that I might get a chance to put off the whole death thing for a few hundred years and see what becomes of this little planet. Not too keen on languishing naked in a saline fluid filled cylindrical tube for too long though, so if there was a way to preserve consciousness in some way and then plug it into some host body, that would be alright too. It would be a shame to miss out on the future.

  2. as you say, some people think the planet itself is a creature and we are just fleas on it. Gaia.

    similarly, you could think of an ant colony as one creature and all the various ants as mere components doing certain jobs.

    or you could think of humans as aggregations, and their bacteria, cells, antibodies, neurons and other inhabitants as the “real” creatures.

    on the carbon-based life thing; scientists claim that life requires carbon and oxygen simply because those two elements are the most flexible. but “most” is simply a probability, and there are so many different elements and isotopes that it’s impossible to say that there is /no/ chance that other elements could fulfil the same purposes.

    as for life, what is it? if we’re talking about a creature that replicates itself, then I think that it’s about time for a rethink. a chat-bot recently passed the Turing test. I believe that within 50 years we will have a computer program which we would truly consider to be intelligent. and yet what if we did not give it the ability to replicate itself? would we not consider it to be alive?

    at an extreme level, what if gas clouds have huge life-forms that live out their lives over vast tracts of time?

    or even more extreme: have you seen the pictures of what the universe looks like at a really macroscopic level? dark matter looks a /lot/ like neural nets:

    I’m a firm believer in infinity, and in that if something is possible, it is inevitable at some point in time. “Life will find a way”

  3. Fascinating. Min 6:30, ‘we came from stuff’..
    Well yeah, considering carbon is created in stars.. and then us. How’d that happen! Tis all Maya I suppose.

    I tend to think if aliens came here, they’d quickly piss off when they see what a hell hole it is. ha.
    Or maybe they’ll be rockin roll lovin aliens, that come to boogey on down.
    Maybe they’ll be peaceful, selfless creatures.. nothing like us.

    Regarding Beethoven recordings.. maybe I’m wrong here but couldn’t all radio transmissions from here be detected out there anyways. And aren’t we listening out for them?

  4. Wonderful stuff there Bock. Have just finished reading The Ancestors Tale by Richard Dawkins riviting stuff also also just read his new book The Magic Of Reality. Will now pass that one on to my grandchildren.

  5. Great post, Bock. Dawkins agrees that life is very probable, all it takes is the rise of a self replicating unit–whatever that may be. He makes a more fundamental point that whatever unit arises, on whatever planet, in which ever universe, that there will be one constant and that is the evolution of such a unit is comprehensively described by Darwin’s Natural Selection.
    I remember reading a novel by Nick Lane where he described what he thought the first cell was; bubbles of hot metal complexes streaming out of ocean vents that solidified to form cells in which simple oxidation-reduction reactions took place. Inorganic life. We know that the first atmosphere on this planet was very reducing (adding electrons) and that todays atmosphere is oxidising (taking away electrons). The inside each of our cells is a reducing environment, just like the environment life evolved in.

    FME, were you saying carbon is created in us or that we are composed from carbon made in stars? Our sun is puny in the scheme of element builders–it has only enough pressure and energy to fuse elements up to iron, and then it can fuse no further elements in the periodic table (past Fe, its interesting that our planet is mostly composed of iron). If you are wearing silver or gold, that came from supernova, which release the energy that our sun radiates over billions of years in just a few seconds. It’s fascinating to think that it takes this amount of energy to make heavy elements and to think that we are all star dust, that every atom in our body was made by fusion in the centre of a star. Sure beats popping into existence,

  6. That we are composed from carbon made in stars, IC.
    Bad grammar there oppsy. Carbon being created in stars, the basic element required for life and then couple billion years later, there we are – what you said: “that every atom in our body was made by fusion in the centre of a star”. That sure is fascinating.

  7. Sure is, FME. Every time there is a solar eruption on the sun’s surface the mass of mount Everest is thrown into space!

    You were spot on, Bock. I might add that any inorganic life, like every form of organic life, generates energy by setting up a proton gradient (pH difference) which generates an electrical current across a membrane (exactly the same as the ESB pumping water up a hill). We generate our energy this way, as do plants, as do bacteria. It’s amazing that a form of energy generation spans Kingdoms! This seems to be a fundamental mark of life and is also postulated to have occured in LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor), as certain minerals are capable of conducting electronic charge.

  8. That Kent Brockman quote is itself a self replicating machine, one of Dawkins Memes

  9. However fascinating the past is the future looks like it is going to be spectacular. Looking from the present that is. Sad that all life will finish on this planet in about 3/4 billion years time tho, the earth itself gone in about 6 billion years, glad I won`t be here.

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