The Universality of Life

Some citations from Christian De Duve, Vital Dust 1995. Chapter 13, The Universality of Life

In the introduction to this  book, I argued on theoretical grounds – remember the thirteen spades – that the ermergance of life must have involved a very large number of steps, most of which had a high probability of occuring under the prevailing conditions. But left open the possibility that there might be more than one pathway compatible with this exigency.  My conclusion, after a consideration of the underlying chemistry, is that, given the opportunity, the development of life is very to take the course it actually took, at least in all essential steps.

The figure of about one million “habitable” planets per galaxy is considered not unreasonable. Even if this value were overestimated by several orders of magnitude, it would still add up to trillions of potential cradles for life. If my reading of the evidence is correct, this means that trillions of planets exist that have borne, bear or will bear life. The universe is awash with life.

But the term “artificial life”, applied by analogy with “artificial intelligence”, could be misleading. Life is a chemical process. If it is ever to be created artificially, it will be by a chemist, not by a computer.

The chapter The Future of Life (p. 271)

“We have reached a crucial state in the history of life. The face of the Earth has changed dramatically in the last few thousand years, a mere instant in evolution time, and it is changing ever faster. What would have taken one thousands generations in the past may now happen in a single generation. Biological evolution is on a runaway course toward severe instability.

In a way, our time recalls one of those major breaks in evolution signaled by massive extinctions. But there is a difference. The cause of instability is not the impact of a large asteroid or some other uncontrollable event. The perturbation is from life itself acting through a species of its own creation, an immensely successful species filling every corner of the planet with continually growing throngs, increasingly subjugating and exploiting the world. For the first time, also, in the history of life, natural selection has been replaced, be it only partly, by willful intervention on the part of a member of the bioshperic community. The facts are before us clear and unmistakable. Everybody can read the message and draw the obvious conclusions.”