How did purposeful, self-aware matter come into existence in a universe made of inanimate matter? Since Schrödinger’s powerful posing of the question “What is Life?” over 70 years ago, we are still no closer to answering it, or even understanding how such complex living things came into being in the first place. Addy Pross highlights the many mysteries still surrounding the emergence and nature of life in a material universe.
You've posited that the Darwinian paradigm, traditionally associated with biological evolution, can also be extended to inanimate matter, suggesting that abiogenesis and biological evolution are a singular process. Could you elucidate the intricacies of this theory, especially in light of critiques that emphasize a clear demarcation between life and non-life?
Since its inception evolutionary theory has been formulated as a biological theory, even though it has generally been acknowledged (even by Darwin himself) that life most likely emerged from inanimate matter. But that inanimate connection was reaffirmed in the 1960s when Sol Spiegelman discovered that certain molecules – dead matter for sure – could replicate and evolve, just like living things. The evolutionary process, it appeared, did indeed begin in chemistry. Yet, frustratingly, that transition from chemistry to biology has remained shrouded in mystery. How did simple, purposeless, molecular replicators become transformed into complex, purposeful aggregates? Does evolution have a direction, a driving force? A comprehensive theory of evolution encompassing both chemical and biological phases has still to be formulated, though an outline of such a theory may be beginning to emerge.
All living things are not just complex molecular aggregates. They exist in an energized, activated state that is maintained through the continual input of material and energetic resources.
How does this perspective reconfigure our conventional beliefs about life's origins?
Given life’s origin in chemistry, it suggests we should begin to seek out life characteristics at that simpler chemical level. Happily, progress is being made on that front. Replication is indeed a central piece in the origin of life puzzle, but it’s just one piece. The recent discovery of dynamic chemical systems, whose components continually turn over, like the water drops in a water fountain, now look to be another central piece. Thus, all living things are not just complex molecular aggregates. They exist in an energized, activated state that is maintained through the continual input of material and energetic resources, just like that water fountain. If you don’t eat you die! Remarkably, that realization may be leading us toward some understanding of how cognition and self were able to emerge from within an inanimate chemical system.
You've remarked that studying life is uniquely challenging due to our 'sample size of one.' With the growing discovery of exoplanets, how might our capacity to decipher life's traits across the universe evolve?
The challenge of identifying life deep in the universe, and at almost incomprehensible distances from us, is a monumental one. Moreover, given that life forms could in principle be constructed from different building blocks, that would make the challenge of directly identifying such distant life forms even more difficult. Identifying processes is likely to be much more difficult than identifying substances. Yet, if those distant life form were technologically advanced in a similar way to human life on earth, and able, say, to utilize electromagnetic-based technologies as we routinely do, the identification of non-random electromagnetic signals from outer space might reveal the existence of such a civilization. To date, however, the universe has been disappointingly silent. At present the only place to study life is where we know it to be ubiquitous – right here on earth.
The deepest mystery within the life enigma concerns life’s mental capability. How could matter of any kind have a sense of self, have thoughts, act in its own interest?
How could this influence or even reshape our fundamental definition of life?
A definition of life will emerge more readily once we fully understand its fundamental physical/chemical nature, but as noted, we still don’t. One cannot usefully define something that is not properly understood. A coherent definition of life would need to capture that physical/chemical essence, in particular, its energized dynamic character, and most definitions don’t go there.
In what ways do you envision artificial intelligence transforming our comprehension of, and approach to research within, the life sciences?
The deepest mystery within the life enigma concerns life’s mental capability. How could matter of any kind have a sense of self, have thoughts, act in its own interest. Artificial intelligence has none of those characteristics. Deep Blue, the IBM computer that beat Gary Kasparov in the famous chess match some years ago, had no sense of satisfaction in achieving its victory. Deep Blue didn’t even know that it was playing a game called chess! In contrast, in life’s emergence, natural selection managed to uncover a unique form of intelligence - biological intelligence - that modern technology has not even begun to comprehend. Modern physics does not even acknowledge the existence of a mental dimension, let alone offer an explanation for its material basis and its mode of operation. On that issue, we are only at the very beginning of a very long journey.
Monod's paradox ponders the existence of purpose-driven systems in an ostensibly purposeless universe. Do you believe we are nearing a resolution to this philosophical conundrum, or might it forever elude our grasp?
Yes, I believe we are nearing a resolution to this philosophical conundrum. The existence of purpose-driven material systems that were able to emerge from a seemingly purposeless universe, is empirically irrefutable. The conundrum further illustrates the difficulties with existing evolutionary theory. But think about it as follows: how is a magician seemingly able to saw a woman in half? Once you know how the trick is done, the mystery vanishes. Once a comprehensive understanding of the process by which life emerged from non-life will be achieved, it will likely resolve that long standing conundrum; the trick will have been exposed. Some thoughts on the issue have recently been proposed.
The phenomena of agency, self-awareness, consciousness, etc., all indicate that the distinction between living things and inanimate machines is stark and distinct.
As data science principles seem to closely mirror how life processes environmental information, do you see a need for a distinct framework that differentiates the foundational concepts of machines from living entities?
An intriguing question. As our concept of a machine evolves, the distinction between living entities and complex machines has narrowed. Information processing is common to both. Yet the phenomena of agency, self-awareness, consciousness, etc., all indicate that the distinction between living things and inanimate machines is stark and distinct. Life’s mental dimension continues to be a scientific enigma. If we think of life as a machine, it is a distinct and very special kind of machine.
What are you most looking forward to about the debate you are taking part in 'The Origin of Life' ?
Science is an exhilarating voyage of discovery, with the origin of life problem being one of its most exciting challenges. But hidden within that problem lies a grand underlying challenge: to facilitate the merging of the three natural sciences, physics, chemistry, and biology. The physical sciences today remain unable to accommodate many aspects of biological reality. What subject could be more exciting to discuss and debate!