The Chronicle Review

From Nonlife to Life

May 13, 2013

The idea of natural teleology would be bolstered if scientists could create life from scratch, using conditions that could have existed on the early earth. Addy Pross, a chemist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel, says that while it wouldn't prove that life had, in fact, emerged in just that way, it would suggest that natural laws make its emergence either likely or inevitable. Such a scientific breakthrough would also allow a philosophical breakthrough, emboldening the search for natural laws mandating the ascent of life and mind.

In fact, scientists have been trying to create life in a test tube ever since the classic Miller-Urey experiment, in 1952, in which sparking a sealed bulb of chemicals yielded fistfuls of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

Life from nonlife is a tough problem, but Pross sounds a note of optimism in an e-mail: "Being in the thick of this problem I can say that after decades of confusion the new area of chemistry—systems chemistry—is now making significant progress."

Robert Hazen, a mineralogist and biogeologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, believes that he sees the outlines of the solution: "The real killer experiment will be to develop some kind of flow-through reactor where you keep the whole cycle going, and you actually increase the concentration of all of those components just by providing CO2 and water and hydrogen. If you can do that, it's a solved problem."

However, that would not be the end of the intelligent-design argument. ID theorists could ask, reasonably enough, "Where do the natural laws come from?"

The answer is far from clear. Cosmologists have long known that if the universe's laws were even slightly different, it would not have been possible to form molecules, let alone life. For example, the nuclear strong force has a value of .007. Were it .006, the universe would be entirely hydrogen, and were it .008 the universe would have no hydrogen at all.

Similarly, it's probably going to be easy to show that such hypothetical life-creating forces as autocatalysis, zero-force evolutionary laws, and dynamic kinetic stability could not exist in universes even slightly different from our own.

The simplest solution is to invoke the strong anthropic principle, according to which infinitely many universes exist, and we live in one that randomly got its constants and laws set just right for us. If you listen to cosmologists like Brian Greene, of Columbia University, you'll hear that this argument is close to becoming settled physics. We can't actually see these other universes, Greene concedes, but the math makes other predictions that we can confirm.

Few people find this a truly satisfying answer. It's not settled physics, say some. It's an explanation that doesn't explain, say others.

Regardless, the actual creation of life from nonlife would make it possible to produce a more scientifically grounded version of Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos. Such a book would be able to argue, from actual evidence, that there are physical laws that push the universe through profound phase changes from nonlife to life, from instinct to intellect. A Mind and Cosmos II would be an epoch-making book: the Origin of Species of the 21st century.