Will We Figure Out How Life Began?

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Unfortunately, we are stymied by the fact that our knowledge about life must, at least for now, be limited to studies of a single experiment on Earth. All earthly life shares a remarkably complex set of biochemical features, but does this commonality record the only conceivable building blocks for any entity that we would call "alive"? Or do all earthly creatures share these features only because we have inherited these properties from a common ancestor that used one configuration among a million alternatives unknown to us but quite conceivable and workable? Indeed, would we, in our carbon-based parochialism, even recognize otherworldly forms of life--pulsating sheets of silica, perhaps--well beyond our ken?

The architect of this conceptual prison built only two doors leading to a solution, with the path to each door marked by the same sign: FIND A REPLICATE! On one path, we make the replicates ourselves by gaining such an improved understanding of the nature of things that we can define the set of all conceivable living forms and then test their properties by chemical synthesis in our laboratory.

As a natural historian at heart, however, I confess my strong preference for the second path of exploration: a search for possible natural occurrences elsewhere. This Columbian path has served us so well before, and nature's products do tend to outshine our own poor workmanship by manifesting things undreamed of in all our philosophy. So let us seek nature's own replicate--on Mars or a few other potential places in our solar system, if we really luck out (and are willing to content ourselves with simple things at bacterial grade and unfit for mutual conversation); or elsewhere, despite daunting distances (beyond any possibility for two-way conversation during human lifetimes) but promising--in the most exciting and improbable long shot in all human history--a potential insight soaring well beyond our meager powers of imagination.

Stephen Jay Gould is a professor at Harvard and New York University and author of numerous books, including Rocks of Ages

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