Olympic Conscience Wrestling »« In Which I Argue At Length With A MacArthur Genius

Genesis II (Or III, or IV, or…)

A puddle full of chemicals
Was baking in the sun
When some combined a different way
And new life was begun
It replicated, once or twice
Till now there were a bunch—
They chanced on an amoeba, though,
Which ate them all for lunch.

Some inorganic molecules
Embedded in some clay
Began a new reaction, and
They sprang to life one day
They started reproducing
Was it brand new life? Well, yup…
Till they found a paramecium
Which promptly ate them up.

It is said, abiogenesis
Is really very rare
Perhaps it happens all the time
Without observers there
The only time we’ll know for sure
That brand-new life begins…
Is when it meets established forms
But this time, new life wins.

I don’t know where this one came from, but it took all of 10 minutes to write itself. A new, successful mutation, I suppose.

Are there any biologists reading this who can tell me if my thinking is off? It seems to me that the various abiogenesis experiments (think Miller-Urey) have one fatal flaw–they are miniscule in comparison to the real world. In the real world, we have the same, or similar, experiments happening all the time. There are theories of life beginning in tidal pools, or in a clay substrate, or in geysers or mudpots, or steam vents… well, why not all of the above, and more? The world is a big place; unlikely events happen all the time, in large enough populations. Of course, any abiogenesis event that happens now has a serious disadvantage: the parking spot is already taken. And so, of course we don’t see abiogenesis happening in the world around us; something else has already snacked on it–probably a bacterium.

But (because time is patient), isn’t it possible that one of these times, Life 2.0 will disagree with that bacterium. Then eat it. And its cousins. And establish a toehold on the planet. Could already be pockets of Life 2.0 v1-vn in places we have not yet looked. (Or maybe not; this is idle speculation.) It took a staggeringly long time for our own ancestors to get beyond that stage, so there is no reason to suspect we will be alive to answer this question… but rare things do happen. Not just a mutation of a current life form, but something altogether different. Wouldn’t that be astonishing? Wouldn’t that just scare you to death?

I gotta work on the screenplay.


  1. Pliny the in Between says

    Life 2.0 taking over seems unlikely (absent some truly inclusive extinction event) in light of the fact that our current life evolved through many intermediate steps over long periods. These intermediate predicates likely only survived because of a relative advantage over what was present at the time (natural selection advantage is relative to environment and extant competition). There likely were many competing models of protolife at one time, but once one got a foothold advantage the field was culled. The likelihood of such a new intermediary having a significant advantage over processes and lifeforms that have been honed over billions of years seems improbable. It’s an interesting thought experiment though.

  2. rnilsson says

    Are you at all familiar with Peter Watts’ prose? Eh’s a pretty cool guy and dosent afraid of anything.

    Check out his blog (and very scary science fiction) at http://www.rifters.com/crawl/ and then, if you have an empty weekend to fill, click on the ROOT tab on the right and read up on the Starfish trilogy. It involves an alternative line of metabolism, stemming from a deep ocean rift. Myself, I have after a couple of years still to muster the courage to read the sequel too, called Blindsight. There is more from his ink, also.

    Peter is a big, kindly human with a background in marine biology and a soft spot for terrestrial felides. Slightly less so for North American Border patrols and the U.S. legal system. Well, can’t win them all.

  3. Robert B. says

    What busterggi said. Not that I ever thought about this before, but the easiest time for all life to go extinct would be right after life began. It’s entirely plausible (though still just idle speculation) that life began and ended several times before the more successful version that we’re descended from.

  4. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says


    Metazoa 2.0 I might buy, but I don’t know of any reason to think that the Ediacaran fauna wasn’t related to current life forms.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    That “puddle full of chemicals” rippled under breezes that had virtually zero oxygen content. All sorts of reactions can take place in such atmospheres that in our air get short-circuited by oxidation.

    We have adapted to living in a sea of other organisms’ toxic waste. Our very earliest ancestors did not have to endure such a chemically ferocious bio-pollutant – merely volcanoes, lightning, unshielded ultraviolet, meteors, quakes, and other relatively minor inconveniences.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    My # 8 should have said “zero free oxygen content” – the O2 was safely bound up with carbon, hydrogen, etc, back when molecules started replicating. Then a plume of photosynthesizers erupted, and buried the whole abiogenetic enterprise under volatile virtual lava.

  7. roxchix says

    I wouldn’t say that abiogenesis experiments are flawed in being most likely incomplete systems to recreate all the conditions necessary for new life. Most that I know of are working on specific building blocks or issues, trying to build up the models via maneagable piece by piece. If A then B. If C then D. If A and C together then G, if A and B together then D…..

  8. Jordan Kimball says

    I will show my ignorance but do have one thought. It seems to me that one of the big hurdles of creating life would be replicating. From what I’ve heard DNA was once RNA and in order to get bits to evolve into RNA seems like a very unlikely thing to happen. But maybe it could pop in and out of the earths history, many or most doomed to a very short existence. There may not have been a very strong pressure from predators but I don’t know how the environment would play a role. just some thoughts

  9. Callinectes says

    I think the raw materials for abiogenesis are always eaten by something a long time before any interesting things start to happen with them,

  10. says

    Genes and Memes
    Amoeba, paramecium,
    Bacteria and primal scum
    Are chemicals with skills of replication.
    Their physical, material form
    May have been programmed as the norm
    By electromagnetism’s duplication.

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