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FEATURE ARTICLE

The Beginnings of Life on Earth

Christian de Duve

A Cosmic Imperative

I have tried here to review some of the facts and ideas that are being considered to account for the early stages in the spontaneous emergence of life on earth. How much of the hypothetical mechanisms considered will stand the test of time is not known. But one affirmation can safely be made, regardless of the actual nature of the processes that generated life. These processes must have been highly deterministic. In other words, these processes were inevitable under the conditions that existed on the prebiotic earth. Furthermore, these processes are bound to occur similarly wherever and whenever similar conditions obtain. This must be so because the processes are chemical and are therefore ruled by the deterministic laws that govern chemical reactions and make them reproducible.

It also seems likely that life would arise anywhere similar conditions are found because many successive steps are involved. A single, freak, highly improbable event can conceivably happen. Many highly improbable events—drawing a winning lottery number or the distribution of playing cards in a hand of bridge—happen all the time. But a string of improbable events—the same lottery number being drawn twice, or the same bridge hand being dealt twice in a row—does not happen naturally.

All of which leads me to conclude that life is an obligatory manifestation of matter, bound to arise where conditions are appropriate. Unfortunately, available technology does not allow us to find out how many sites offer appropriate conditions in our galaxy, let alone in the universe. According to most experts who have considered the problem—notably, in relation with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project—there should be plenty of such sites, perhaps as many as one million per galaxy. If these experts are right, and if I am correct, there must be about as many foci of life in the universe. Life is a cosmic imperative. The universe is awash with life.

Bibliography

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