Having discovered evolution through natural selection, the central theory for life on Earth, Darwin had established himself as biology’s Einstein. He had struggled and labored and like Samson he had knocked down the pillars of pagan and theological creation myths. So how do you think such a proud and accomplished scientist felt when, in order to create that initial little microbe, his final act of defiance that would send God packing, he had to turn to good old-fashioned medieval voodoo—spontaneous generation.
At the time, he had no other viable choice. The Wright Brothers crude sand dune skipping machine wouldn’t fly for a few more decades. Space travel was inconceivable. Life on other worlds was a silly parlor thought, not something for dignified scientists to consider.
It was either God, or voodoo. What a dismal prospect for a scientist: divine intervention, i.e. the existence of superior intelligence, or the principles of voodoo, life generated from muck. It was almost a choice between hope and despair. There was no kindly alien to stop by and throw a snotty Kleenex into Earth’s primordial soup.
He chose voodoo, and can you blame him? Since its birth in the days of Copernicus and Galileo, modern science had been at the barricades defending itself from the tyranny of religious doctrine. The fact that God had not left one irrefutable fingerprint did not deter his storm troopers from mercilessly persecuting heretics.
Darwin’s followers were confident that, contrary to Pasteur’s axiom, they could recreate life in a test tube if they got the right mixture of primordial soup and applied their special sauce. After all, Pasteur had only taken hay and boiled it in water, there might be another witch’s cocktail that would make a microbe happen. Furthermore, the first microbe should be a very simple thing, kind of like an egg cracked on the sidewalk except with a membrane to hold it together.
Decade after decade they tried, each time readjusting the primordial mixture as they learned more about it. Now days it’s something of a low-lying swamp, surrounded by volcanoes that spew molten rock and toxic gases while blasting the marsh with heat and lightening. They had some success imitating this in a test, even generating a simple enzyme, which they hoped wasn’t that far from a single-celled organism. However, they huffed and puffed for nearly a century but never blew Pasteur’s little brick house down. They could have saved a lot of grant money if they would have recognized that billions of organic molecules get zapped by electricity and torched at high temperatures in millions of automobile engines, yet not one has ever created a new life form.
The history of biology is littered with the scientists who have attempted to prove the matter somehow did organize itself into a living organism. But with each decade, increased knowledge about the earliest life on Earth has raised the bar for success higher and higher. We’ve learned that those first microbes were very complicated. They had DNA.
Digressing, and that’s why I like writing a blog, I can digress in any direction and none of the people that read it care. One must wonder if these attempts to create life in a test tube are all that wise. It’s a proven fact that all us organisms on Earth are genetically related. If we created a new life form, it would compete with and maybe eventually gobble up our entire biosphere. With any luck, it would be a calcium sucking organism that would enter its inventor’s bodies and turn their skeletons into liquid calcium, earth to earth, muck to muck. Shelley’s Frankenstein forewarns us of this scenario.
Modern scientists have both physical and math tools that the early pioneers didn’t. Advanced statistics is one of those tools. Today, when scientists apply probabilities to all the complex pieces that a single cell of life must have, they generally conclude that it is not possible for life to happen by accident. To sum it up, a simple cell must be able to metabolize, i.e. eat, and it must reproduce, which we know requires DNA. Neither a spark in a test tube, nor lightening from a volcano, can magically arrange a cell like that.
Starting around 1970, a third source for life on Earth was proposed, panspermia, the idea that life spores are floating throughout the galaxy and sprout wherever fertile ground is found. Yes, we’re saying our biosphere began with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” spores, and, after about a billion years or so of evolution, here we are. It took substantially longer than the spores in the movie.
On seeing the complexity of his findings, the discoverer of DNA, Dr. Crick, became one of the first proponents of panspermia. If Darwin were the Einstein of biology, then Crick was the Enrico Fermi. He is not a tin-foil hat goofball and it is not trivial that he proposed panspermia. Most scientists who disagree with panspermia still admit that the probability of life emerging on Earth is mathematically zero. Put it on the order of winning the lottery 100 times in a row. Those who disagree with panspermia accept these odds but claim those odds were beaten and by some happy accident we are here. Although math is the backbone of science, for some, it becomes an unreliable guide when it threatens their cherished believes. The math says it’s either God or the alien.
At this point I know a lot more about the emergence of life than I ever wanted to know, and I know a lot less than I probably should know if I’m going to write fiction about it. I’m curious, however, whether we can test the panspermia theory by recovering life from Mars or elsewhere in the solar system. If such life is our DNA cousin, then it would add weight to the concept of panspermia, although it would not be conclusive since there is evidence that meteors and comets splatter matter from planet to planet.
The ultimate evidence would be if an alien from another star shows up and is a DNA cousin, or if we sent a probe to another star and recovered a cousin microbe there. That might not convince an astro-biologist that panspermia is real, but it would convince me.
In posting this, I just spotted that DNA generating enzymes have been created in the lab. Therefore, I have reinserted a statement that I previously edited out of the above piece: At this point the spontaneous generation advocates have painted themselves into a corner. Their efforts to create life are highly educated and intelligent, and their equipment far too sophisticated to be called a model of “accidental spontaneous generation”. Rather it is a very accurate model of super intelligent generation of life.
Next week-Something other than spontaneous generation.