February 18, 2019

How Did Life Emerge?

“How did life begin? Two common answers come to mind. One is that, at some point, a deity decided to suspend the laws of physics and will a slew of slimy creatures into being. A second is that a one-in-a-trillion collision of just the right atoms billions of years ago happened to produce a molecular blob with the unprecedented capacity to reproduce itself.

If the first answer fails to convince atheists and agnostics, the second answer feels a like a bit of a letdown. Life on earth was dumb luck, or—depending on how you look at it—a cruel accident. Life might not exist on any other planet, but even if it does—even if there is, say, some creature vaguely resembling a paramecium swimming in a pond on some moon halfway across the galaxy—then there, too, it’s just a freak accident. Or as the great molecular biologist Jacques Monod dourly noted in 1971, “The universe was not pregnant with life, nor the biosphere with man.”

But there is a third possibility. In his new book Universe in Creation: A New Understanding of the Big Bang and the Emergence of Life, Roy Gould, an education researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, argues that life is neither a miracle nor an aberration, but an inevitability whose emergence is dictated by the laws of nature. He frames his book around a question posed by the physicist John Archibald Wheeler in 1983. “Is the machinery of the universe so set up, and from the very beginning,” Wheeler asked, “that it is guaranteed to produce intelligent life at some long-distant point in its history-to-be?””

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