Life Story

By Robert C.B. Miller

Is life rare or is it common? The search for life on Mars, elsewhere in the solar system and in the Milky Way continues apace. Planets on nearby and quite distant stars have been discovered and investigated to determine whether they are in the habitable zone where life is possible – not too far from their star so that they are not too cold and not too close so that they are not too hot. Hope is expressed that life may be found in the water beneath the ice shells of Europa, Enceladus and Titan the moons moons of jupiterrespectively of Jupiter and Saturn.

Searchers, some funded by internet billionaires, are checking the electro-magnetic spectrum for radio signals which are artefacts and the product of intelligent life. Leading public intellectuals, such as Stephen Hawking, have opined on the risk that alien intelligent life might discover us and do us harm. So far no convincing evidence of life has been found.

But there is a puzzle about life. Biologists have difficulty in explaining how abiogenesis, the emergence of living from non-living material, is possible. It is now often forgotten that one of the great triumphs of modern science was the discovery that life could only come from life. No longer could it be believed that life could just emerged from non-living material as Aristotle thought. 220px-Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575But in turn this discovery created a problem. If life did not emerge from the non-living, how is it that the world is full of living things? One apparently obvious solution to this puzzle is that it was the result of evolution. But this cannot be the case, evolution presupposes the existence of life on which the Darwinian machinery of mutation and adaptation can work.

Much energy has been used by biologists to discover how life originated and it was expected that this would be a relatively simple matter. Life, it was thought, could be shown to be the result of a chemical process that converted bare chemistry into biochemistry. But after much effort and theorising, none of the putative accounts developed have been accepted and all remain controversial. The origin of life remains an unsolved problem for chemists and biologists. In any case any the all must remain what cautious biologists call ‘Just So Stories’. The reason is that there is very clear evidence that abiogenesis occurred in the extremely distant past and consequently that almost all evidence of the process must have long disappeared.

But two related facts are clear, however life originated. First all life uses the same DNA building blocks and second all life descended from a single common ancestor. This means that the ‘tree of life’ with species branching from a common origin in a hierarchy pruned by extinction and expanded by well-known evolutionary processes is a well-established conclusion of biology.

The Two Strange Two Facts about Life

This leads us to two remarkable facts about life on earth which deserve much more attention for the extraordinary facts that they are.

First, that the appearance of life on earth took place a very long time ago – give or take a few hundred million years – between 3.8 and 4.1 billion years ago. This great age is significant as it seems that life appeared on earth very shortly about 600 million years after the planet formed 4.54 billion years ago and an even shorter period, perhaps a few hundred million years, after the earth became habitable. This distant date should be put in the perspective of the age of the universe which is estimated at about 13.8 billion years. This means that life appeared at about 70% of the age of the universe on a planet which had only just become habitable for life.dejas_first_evidence_of_life_biology_timeline_v1

Second, there is very strong evidence that life appeared on earth only once. This is guaranteed by the ‘tree of life’ and the common DNA building blocks of all life. There is evidence on earth of only one kind of life and no evidence of any others.

In one sense there is of course nothing extraordinary about these facts. If life was to appear there seems no reason for it to appear at any one time rather than another provided conditions were right. Thus if life appeared as the result of a highly unlikely series of events and conditions then it would appear reasonably for it to appear 70% through the existence of the universe rather that at the beginning. The more unlikely are life producing events and conditions then it is more likely to appear latter rather than sooner. Thus if I have six fair dice then I am more likely to have roiled six sixes by the 100,000 roll than I am at the first roll. But while this argument may appear reasonable in the perspective of the life of the universe, it seems extraordinary in the context of life of the earth. It looks as if someone rolled six sixes on the very first roll of the dice.

But now the argument gets strange. As we have seen there is strong evidence that life emerged on earth only once. Given that life emerged on earth almost as soon as it became possible, it seems that it was the ideal environment for the appearance of life. But if life emerged rapidly in an ideal environment it is deeply puzzling why it has not emerged again in the 3.8 billion years since it first appeared. If it has emerged once, then why not twice or indeed many times? If life appeared so soon after it became possible then it suggests that the odds were not as long as was thought and that it might only be necessary to roll a single six rather than six sixes for life to appear. But if that is the case and the die was kept rolling then one would expect a regular supply of sixes after the first die roll. But as we have seen this appears not to have been the case. Why indeed are there not multiple forms of life? Why is there not a strand of life on earth based on silicon rather than carbon, or even boron? Why are there not a number of different types of carbon based life? There are none and no evidence that that any ever existed. 

The evidence leads to contradictory conclusions. Life appears to be the result of a natural process which operates rapidly (or even immediately) when conditions are right. But in that case it is puzzling that it has emerged only once on earth. But its single emergence seems to suggest that conditions and process that leads to the appearance of life are extraordinarily rare. In other words, life appeared once on earth almost as soon as it became habitable, suggesting that it a high probability event. But since it has not appeared since this implies it was a very low probability event.

What is (or was) going on?

Could the puzzle be resolved by the fact that life did not emerge on earth until about 70% of the age of the universe had elapsed. This might suggest that the odds of life appearing are very long, given both the size and the duration of the universe. It is some 92 billion light years in diameter and has perhaps 100 billion galaxies each with 100 billion stars.

But the early appearance of life in the history of earth, a few hundred years after it became possible suggests that life should emerge similarly rapidly implying that the galaxy and the universe should be teeming with life. Wherever it can be sustained life should appear rapidly. But here we run into a version of the Fermi paradox. There appears as yet to be no evidence of any kind to suggest that there is any other life outside the solar system. This may change with, for instance, the discovery of significant amounts of oxygen in an exoplanet. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that signs of life are discovered on a significant number of exoplanets within the Milky Way.exoplanets Would it dissolve the paradox that the appearance of life on earth seems both probable and improbable at the same time?

Plainly it would not solve the puzzle and it would actually exacerbate it. The appearance of life on exoplanets would shorten the odds of life appearing on earth – and indeed on all habitable planets in this and other galaxies. What it would not do is to explain why life appeared only once on earth at the very beginning of earth’s habitable period. If the odds of life appearing are so short why has it only appeared once in the (evidently) ideal conditions of earth? The paradox remains, indeed it is more puzzling than it was before. Life appears highly probable – its emergence being evidently a short odds event. But if the odds are short, why has it only appeared once in the 3.9 billion period of earth’s habitability – a period which amounts to 30% of the lifetime of the universe? As we argued above one would expect that there would be a series of new appearances of life. The evidence is clear, there have been none.

The Paradox of Life

Where does the paradox of life leave us? One remote possibility is that new versions of life might be discovered on earth – suggesting that the appearance of life was really a short odds event. But this solution does not look promising. As we have seen all life has the same DNA structure and the tree of life with descent from a common ancestor appears a very robust conclusion of biology.

What then? One possibility is that the appearance of life may not be subject to the same probabilistic causal regime as other biological events.  It may just be odd, but that is indeed an odd conclusion.

Down in dumps about Europe


…or what is NOT happening nearly frequently enough!

I had missed it, and I bet you had too! But in 2003 the European Parliament passed legislation for the collection of statistics about housing conditions in the E. U. Only they didn’t put it quite like that. They put this way… “regulation ( E.C. ) No 11772003 established a common framework for the systematic production of European statistics on income and living conditions, in order to ensure that comparable and up- to- date cross-sectional and longitudinal data on income and on the level and composition of poverty and social exclusion are available at national and Union level.”

Apparently article 15 of this regulation laid down that measures were to be adopted every year “to specify the target secondary areas and variables to be included in the cross-sectional component of EU-SILC [ i.e. the regulation concerned ] that year.”

Consequently the time has now come- so I read on the EUR-Lex web site- for “ implementing measures specifying the target secondary variables and their identifiers for the 2018 module on material deprivation, well-being and housing difficulties [ to]… be adopted.”

The statistical variables involved are set out in an annex to implementing regulation in the form of the questions that a representative sample of the Union’s population are to be asked. The annex states that “the mode of collection is [a] personal interview with the household respondent.” (So be warned, your privacy may be about to be invaded!)

Some of the questions are merely designed to elicit the sort of information about living conditions that government statisticians have always loved collecting. Do you have a washing machine? Do you have a colour T.V? Do you have a telephone? The only oddity here being that there is apparently no reference to internet access which I should have thought was important. But no doubt it will be included next year!

The longer section of the proposed survey concerns well-being. Here the questions become broader, much broader…far too broad.

“…overall life satisfaction, from 0 (Not at all satisfied ) to 10 ( Completely satisfied )”

and goes in much the same vein…

“ Perceived social exclusion?”

“Satisfaction with financial situation?”

Satisfaction with amount of leisure time?

“Trust in others?”

“Feeling lonely?”

“Feeling calm and peaceful?”

“Feeling downhearted or depressed?”

“Feeling down in the dumps?”

….and so forth, and so forth..

Me? I’m feeling down in the dumps about Europe. I’m feeling down in the dumps about a bureaucracy which can produce such nonsense with apparent equanimitye u parliament 2 and even pride. I am feeling depressed about a system which apparently has no understanding of the proper role of the state in a free society. And, above all, I am angry that the European Parliament is incapable of stopping this idiocy.


Oswald Spengler… on London?

I am not a fan of meta historians, like Toynbee, Marx, and the rest. Their work is too vague for my taste.oswald-spengler More especially I am no supporter of Spengler’s “The Decline of the West” and certainly  not of its very metaphysical first volume- which I have found quite impossible to read, despite several attempts. But I was browsing in the second volume of that massive work when I found this in his discussion of cities. Spengler may have been trying to read far too much into the data of history. However as this passage proves, he could insightful. He may not have been thinking of London when he wrote. But he captured its spirit.

decline of west lates

( New York, 1932 ) Vol. 2, p.354

“Now supervened the city with its own soul, first emancipating itself from the soul of the countryside, then setting up as an equal to it, and finally seeking to suppress and extinguish it. But this evolution accomplishes itself in kinds of life, and it also, therefore, is part of the history of the estates. The city-life of life, as such emerges- through the inhabitants of these small settlements acquiring a common soul, and becoming conscious that the life within is something different from the life outside- and once the spell of personal freedom begins to operate and to attract within the walls life-streams of more and more new kinds. There sets in a sort of passion for becoming urban and for propagating urban life. It is this, and not material considerations, that produced the fever of the colonization period in the classical world, which is still recognizable to us in the last of its last offshoots, and which it is not quite exact to speak of as colonization at all. For it was a creative enthusiasm in the man of the city that from the tenth century B.C ( and “contemporaneously” in other Cultures )  drew generation after generation under the spell of a new life, with which there emerges for the first time in human history the idea of freedom. This idea is not of political ( still less abstract ) origin, but is something bringing to expression the fact that within the city walls plantlike attachment to a soil has ceased, and that the threads that run through the whole life of the countryside have been snapped. And consequently the freedom-idea ever contains a negative; it looses, redeems, defends, always frees a man from something. Of this freedom the city is the expression; the city-spirit is understanding become free, and everything in the way of intellectual, social, and national movements that burst forth in Late periods under name of Freedom leads back to an origin in this one prime fact of detachment from the land.”

WELL, which ever way you cook it hat is a thought provoking paragraph!

On liberty and virtue

Liberty is by no means an invitation to indifference or to irresponsible power; nor is it the promise of unlimited well being without a counterpart of toil and effort. It supposes application, perpetual effort, strict  government of self, sacrifice in contingencies, civic and private virtues. It is therefore more difficult to live as a free man than to live as a slave, and that is why men so often renounce their freedom; for freedom is in its way an invitation to a life of courage, and sometimes of heroism, as the freedom of the Christian is an invitation to a life of sainthood.

The concluding lines of Georges Lefebvre’s “The Coming of the French Revolution” translated from the French by R.R. Palmer ( Princeton, 1947 )