Above – How lipid molecules can join to form organic cell walls and non-organic capsules 

 

outdated !  Energy Flows, Membranes, Carbon-basedoutdated !   

This Essay is OUTDATED.  Please do not Show it to Readers.
Do not place it in the Table of Contents, nor present it in the Right-hand Margin.
Retain it for Author’s reference only.

(the first of the 4 NEW Essays in a series is called, “Chemical Precursors to Life on Earth 3-15-24”)

Introduction

The fundamental process of Continuing Creation is this: When a steady flow of energy encounters a receptive environment, it weaves patterns and creates systems of increasing Complexity.

Most biologists agree that all organisms living today evolved from a single primitive one-celled lifeform. 1 The consensus holds that this “First Life” emerged by natural geo-chemical processes about 3,900 million (3.9 billion) years ago. Yet many questions remain to be answered.

This Essay explains how the first living thing on Earth could emerge naturally from the processes of chemistry coupled with the favorable conditions available to it here on this planet. Our point of view is in accord with philosophical Naturalism, which holds that only natural causes are taken seriously.

Before life began there must have been a process of chemical change, a process of chemical evolution happening before the process of biological evolution. 2 This is consistent with the Book of Continuing Creation’s definition of evolution as a set of linked processes that start with the Big Bang and cosmic evolution, continue with geo-chemical evolution, then biological evolution, and include the human-agented evolution of culture and technology. 

When biblical creationists criticize biological evolution, they like to point out that placing all the parts of a watch in a vat of water and stirring them up does not make an assembled, working watch. They cite a paper by Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe which calculates that the probability of all the chemicals in a simple bacterium arising on their own by chance is 1 in 10 to the 40,000th power. They say that the odds of creating a protein molecule by chance is1 in 10 to the 45th power.  3

But this argument is an over-simplification. It ignores the fact that sophisticated life forms like current-day bacteria, or even a complex protein molecule, almost certainly did not arise spontaneously from a mix of chemicals. They arose from simpler, incremental steps that had a much higher chance of occurring. Proteins, for example, are made out of simpler amino acids. 4

The biblical creationists also ignore that fact that there are about 4×1047 molecules of water in Earth’s oceans. So, even if there was one amino-acid molecule among 1 million water molecules, that would still be 1041 amino-acid molecules that had the opportunity to interact with each other, in numerous environments, in numerous places, and in numerous trials over millions of years, to eventually produce proteins. 5

The relevant probability is not the chance of hundreds of complex chemicals coming together to form a modern-day bacterium, but the probability of 10 or 20 chemicals coming together to form the precursors of life, precursors that can then chemically evolve over time to form the simplest kind of life form, one that likely looked nothing like any evolved life form we recognize today. 6

More fundamentally, a recent well-reviewed book, The Romance of Reality, by Dr. Bobby Azarian tells us that wherever energy flows (e.g., from hot to cold) it can drive natural systems to self-organize into structures which are able to move more energy through faster. For example, when water runs out of a bathtub, it adopts the organized structure of a whirlpool to empty the tub more quickly. Quite a few inorganic chemical systems do this, and so do the structures we call living organisms. This fact has led a majority of NASA astrophysicists to conclude that the emergence of life may be widespread across the millions of Earth-like planets and moons in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. 7

The Driving Force for All Types of Evolution is Increasing Energy Efficiency

If “Natural Selection” is not the driving force behind evolution, what is?  Two well-known scientists – Professors Adrian Bejan and Jeremy England — argue that the driving force is the same in both chemo-evolution and bio-evolution. That driving force is the tendency toward increasing energy-flow efficiency in all open thermodynamic systems, whether they are living or not living. The Book of Continuing Creation agrees with them.

Professor Adrian Bejan’s “Constructal” Law

In their book Design in Nature, Bejan and co-writer J. Peder Zane argue that Earth’s process of evolution creates and then employs microorganisms because they increase the constructive efficiency of energy flow. 

  • Adrian Bejan is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University, and the author, with J. Peder Zane, of Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization (2013) and many other books. Dr. Bejan has received 16 honorary doctorates from universities in 11 countries. 8

The driving force for both chemical and biological evolution is the drive for constructive energy efficiency. The selection mechanism, for both chemo- and bio- evolution, is the environment. The “environment” can be geologic and completely inorganic, or it can be almost purely organic, or it can be a mix of the two.   It is the environment that decides which organisms will survive, and which will not.

There is evolution in both geology and chemistry. In geology, the flow of water across the land evolved to develop small tributaries that gather water into rivers, because that is the most energy- efficient way to gather and move water from high mountains to the low shore. A river delta is much like the branching bronchial tubes in our lungs. They are each the most efficient ways to exhale carbon-dioxide and dispel river water, respectively.

Many animals were selected for swimming by the existence and the nature of Earth’s oceans.  Birds, bats, and some species of dinosaur were naturally selected for flying by the existence and the nature of Earth’s atmosphere. Why? Because those modes of travel – swimming and flying – provide the most energy-efficient way for those creatures to find and eat foods that were present in those two environments.

Jeremy England’s Theory of Increasing Energy Efficiency

In 2014, Dr. Jeremy England, physics professor at MIT, showed mathematically that the driving… force for chemical evolution may be hidden in physics… “From a physics point of view, the one thing that distinguishes living things from non-living things is their ability to capture energy and convert it into a fuel which is then burned or undergoes some other chemical reaction to make heat.” 9

  • Jeremy England holds a PhD in Physics from Stanford. He was an Assistant Professor of Physics at MIT until joining the biological products firm GlaxoSmithKline in 2019 as Senior Director of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

The systems Dr. England talks about are best described as “energy flow-through systems.” 10

An energy flow-through system is a thermodynamically open system that builds a dynamic structure. 11

The structure does this by exchanging energy and matter with its environment. A tornado may be thought of as an inorganic energy flow-through system:  it takes in wind from two or more sides, makes a funnel structure by circling the wind around and around, moving the air faster and faster, and focusing it on a small area of land or sea. Energy flow-through systems stand in contrast to Energy-conservating systems.  12

Trees are organic, biological flow-through systems that raise water to the sky more efficiently than normal evaporation into the atmosphere does, thereby speeding up Earth’s water cycle.

A human being is an example of an organic, living, energy flow-through structure. A human being starts as a fertilized human egg (zygote) that exchanges energy and matter with its environment.  As it does so, it increases the size, complexity, and power of its structure (a human body, a human life), until it ultimately disintegrates (dies) and its heat and organization disperse. “From dust to dust.” (Ecclesiastes 3:20; also in The Funeral Service in the Book of Common Prayer.) 13

In the realm of chemistry, England argues that when exposed to an external source of energy, such as the sun or geothermal heat from below Earth’s surface, any group of molecules will restructure themselves to flow-through more energy more efficiently. This, he says, is the driving force for chemical evolution. Over time, this force can result in living organisms, such as those we see today – organisms that are super-efficient at flowing-through energy for constructive purposes. 14.

When oxygen became prevalent in Earth’ seas and atmosphere, many species shifted their respiration chemistry from anaerobic to aerobic processes because the latter is far more efficient at producing energy (ATM molecules) for construction, repair, motion, and communication within the cell.

The presence of atmospheric oxygen permitted the evolutionary rise of oxygen breathing animals. They arose via the processes of evolution because aerobic oxidation produces more energy (or produces the same amount of energy more efficiently) than does anerobic reduction.

We can say that efficient gathering, transporting, and distributing energy for constructive purposes is pretty much a restatement of our own definition of Life, which is: Order, organization, pattern, or structure arising from natural processes (including human-agented ones) and powered by an energy flow – such as sunlight, volcanic heat, motion, and electro-chemical radiation. 

A living organism’s metabolism is all about energy flow. 15 There is an inherent tension in metabolism between these two things: homeostasis and evolution. Energy flows-through, but does not destroy the organism, at least for the span of its lifetime. Eventually, Mother Nature cashes in her chips on every living thing, and then She places bets on newly evolved plants and creatures.

Readers May Want to Start with These Outside Presentations

At the time of this writing (February 2023) there are up-to-date sources available which brilliantly present our scientific knowledge about the Origin of Life.  Listed below are four sources that readers might want to turn to before they read this Essay.

  1. The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet, by Robert M. Hazen. In chapters 6, “Living Earth,” and 7, “Red Earth,” Dr. Hazen tells general readers, in expressive language, how the chemicals and conditions on early Earth interacted to produce and assemble the components of the first single-celled organism.  16

  2. Abiogenesis – How Life Came from Inanimate Matter
    . This short 12-minute film, made and narrated by polymath Arvin Ash, lays out the basic story with clarity and superb moving illustrations. This film is available on the Arvin Ash website, arvinash.com. 17
  1. The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, written in lyrical prose by Dr. Lewis Thomas, MD, who was then President of the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. 18 
  1. The current Wikipedia article on Abiogenesis, is a detailed review of the current science in this area. It complements the other three sources with authoritative information supported by 358 footnotes citing scientific research papers. (Biogenesis means “beginning out of life;” A-biogenesis means “beginning out of not-life.”) These four recommended sources indicate that the scientific community’s intense focus on the Origin of Life will constantly update our knowledge over the next two decades. Our Essay here will be drawing on all four of the above resources, and a good number of others.

These four recommended sources indicate that the scientific community’s intense focus on the Origin of Life will constantly update our knowledge over the next two decades. Our Essay here will be drawing on all four of the above resources, and a good number of others.

Scientific study of the Origin of Life has accelerated in recent years, partly due to NASA’s interest in the possibility of life on other worlds. Evidence shows that 4.1 to 3.7 million years ago the surface environment of Mars had liquid water and may have been habitable for microorganisms. A 2018 study found that 4.5 billion-year-old meteorites found on Earth contained liquid water along with prebiotic complex organic substances that may be ingredients for life. 19

We Oppose the Biblical Creationism 

A lot remains unknown about the Origin of Life on Earth. But as more evidence comes to light, we see more evolutionary steps.  Of course, every piece of new evidence also creates more so-called “evolutionary gaps” in the minds of religious creationists.  We see more pieces of evidence; they see more “gaps” between the pieces of evidence.

Science is about discovery.  It welcomes new questions because they lead to new knowledge.  Science is openness to new knowledge.  Biblical Creationism is closed to new knowledge; they are afraid of what they do not know.

Biblical creationists charge that we have “faith” in science; that we have made a religion out of science; that we want to make “science” into a God.  No, we are not doing those things.  We don’t have faith, we have confidence in the scientific method and optimism about its ability to find answers and solve problems.  We do not reject the possibility of God-the-Creator, we simply hold that Creation is more accurately described by scientific knowledge about the Processes of The Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos than it is by the anthropomorphic verses in the Bible, the Koran, or in the Bhagavad Gita. 

People who are determined to keep their traditional faith in a supernatural God should ask themselves this: which is more powerful, more creative: a God who decrees human life into existence, or the Sum of all the Interacting Processes of Continuing Creation? Processes that include the rules of physics and chemistry such that intelligent life will emerge from them on some of the six billion Earth-like planets all across the Milky Way Galaxy? 20

Comparing This Essay to Our Processes of Evolution Essay

This Essay about life’s origin may be less important than our related Essay, The Processes of Evolution & Their Meaning, because the latter describes the evolution that is happening all around us, here and now. It explains how those processes provide us with spirituality – our sense of connectedness and meaning.

While we understand that a Deist “clockmaker-God” may have started the universe – we can’t prove it up or down.  But the universe is here, the evolutionary processes are working here on Earth, and as these processes grow, they generally become more elaborate… as they likely do on other planets when planetary conditions are adequate.  (For more on Deism, see our Essay, Forerunners to Our Spiritual Path.)

In any case, both our “Processes” Essay and this “Origin of Life” Essay are integral to the Book of Continuing Creation. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, and all the evolutionary science from then until now are forerunners to this Book of Continuing Creation.

Chemistry’s Definition of Life

Dr. Hazen maintains that “Chemistry provides a firm foundation for defining life, for all living things are organized molecular systems that undergo chemical reactions of astonishing intricacy and coordination.” 21

A panel at the Scripps Research Institute, chaired by Dr. Gerald Joyce came up with an excellent one-s[entence definition of Life, which Joyce later amended to become: “Life is a self-sustaining chemical system capable of incorporating novelty and undergoing Darwinian evolution.” [note] Hazen, Ibid., pp.129-130. [/note]

First life must have started from non-living matter – because, by definition, “First life” could only be preceded by “non-life.” 22 The earliest protocells (“pre-cells”) may not have met all the definitional requirements for life. They may have lacked one or more of the Key Processes of Life. And the chemical systems that evolved earlier than First Life foretold features of the organisms that would evolve later.  

Geochemical Evolution — Before Life Evolved

Some say that biological evolution is not the same as chemical evolution because only biological evolution is driven by “natural selection,” a weeding-out process favoring those organisms that have the best chance of survival and reproduction. 

However, the chemical compounds that appear on Earth, and their states of matter (solid, liquid, or gaseous), clearly evolved from Earth’s planetary environment.  They were selected by our planet’s distance from the sun, by its volcanic activity, gravity, temperature, pressure, and its mineral composition.

Earth evolved both its atmosphere, and its oceans.  As the result of gravity and geo-chemistry, Earth’s atmosphere is made up of 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, not 96% carbon-dioxide like Venus and Mars, or nearly all hydrogen and helium like Jupiter.  Earth’s modern atmosphere evolved to contain 20% oxygen as the result of trillions of cyanobacteria discharging their photosynthetic “waste oxygen” into the air during prehistoric eons.  (We will further discuss this transformation in a sequel Essay.)    

We tend to think of living creatures, even the most primitive of microbes, as the “heroes” of the early biological evolution story.  But bacteria and archaea organisms have no brain, make no decisions, have no consciousness with which to “struggle.”  Instead, we should view the processes of evolutionary creation as the hero, the protagonist of the story, even though they also have no central brain.  And this is true not just for biological evolution, but for geological and chemical evolution as well. 

A Review of Emergence

We are going to use the word “emergence” several times in this Essay. In fact, our main thrust is to show that First Life likely emerged out of geo-chemistry. “Emergence” is an important concept in modern science, and we discuss it at length in our Essay, Complexity and Continuing CreationReaders may want to pause and read it now.

Emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties that its parts do not have on their own; properties or behaviors which emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole.” — Wikipedia on Emergence

Emergence is the creation of a whole that is qualitatively quite different than the sum of its parts. A bicycle emerges from the union of its parts – wheels, frame, handles, seat, pedals, and so on.  None of those parts, by themselves, can enable a rider to ride down a road. A human body is composed of cells, but none of those individual cells can pump blood or see a tree.  Water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen, but neither of those gases, by themselves, have the characteristics of water. Water’s very liquidity emerges only when O and H2 combine (at one atmosphere of pressure and 33-to-211 degrees F).

Mother Nature Creates Through the Process of Emergence

While there is no single generally accepted theory of the origin of life, all credible proposals show that life, under natural conditions, by a slow process of chemical and molecular evolution, could have plausibly resulted in simple forms of life over a long period of time, and that this chemical evolution was probably the biggest hill to climb for life to have occurred on Earth. 23

Once this happened, biological evolution took over and relatively quickly resulted in exceptional diversity of life forms. We see that in the fossil record of early Earth, and of course, we see that on Earth today.  Do we have proof that this is how life came about?  No… at least not yet. Is it plausible?  Absolutely.  24

So, life comes from geo-chemistry. But before we look at how chemistry transitions to become life, let’s take a large scale look at a chart covering all of life, and then take a closer look at the simplest forms of life that are still living today.

  [IMAGE] The Tree of Life — Biological Classification (Taxonomy)

We can step back and look at the Big Picture of Life by means of a schematic drawing called a Tree of Life.


Abiogenesis: From Inorganic Chemistry to Organic Chemistry

“Abiogenesis: When chemistry turned into Biology” (phrase from Krauss. Get the quote)

Chemical evolution preceded biological evolution. The transition between the two is called abiogenesis.  Note that abiogenesis is technically not part of biological evolution; because by definition, abiogenesis took place before all bio-evolution. However, if we contend that grand evolution encompasses geology, chemistry, biology, culture, and technology, as we do here in the Book of Continuing Creation, then Abiogenesis is part of grand evolution. 25

Abiogenesis (informally, the origin of life) is the natural process by which life has arisen from non-living matter, particularly from chemical precursors.  Specifically, life arose from chemical compounds that contain carbon that is bonded to hydrogen. Since these chemicals continue to be deployed within living organisms, they are called organic compounds. 26

There is no “standard model” for Abiogenesis. Instead, there are several theoretical models, each one supported by evidence from geology, chemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology. We will discuss each of these models later in this Essay.

Note: The expression, “Scientific Model” has largely replaced the older “Scientific Hypothesis.”  The word “model” is thought to better convey the fact that all chains of scientific reasoning must remain open to the discovery of new facts and/or verification by new experimental results. For a larger discussion, see “Hypothesis, Model, Theory, and Law,” ThoughtCo, at https://www.thoughtco.com/hypothesis-model-theory-and-law-2699066.

Are Viruses Alive?

What about viruses?  Aren’t they alive?  Sort of alive?

Viruses are not fully alive, because they have no mechanisms for metabolism or reproduction. Nor do they have a cell membrane, just a coating. Viruses are pieces of genetic material (RNA or DNA) that have broken away from an organism and float around in air and water. When they contact the cells of another fully alive organism, they infect them. Inside, they hijack that organism’s metabolic and reproductive systems, tricking the host organism into producing copies of virus which then escape into the world to infect the cells of other fully alive victims. Viruses are usually classified as “near living.” 27

Note:  Viruses are parasites.  But so are human beings.  Everything we eat was first a part of some other organism.  We “harvest” (often meaning “kill”) that organism before we eat it.  So, like viruses, we “parasitize” our environment.  On the other hand, the green plants we eat need us as much as we need them – we are co-dependent, each breathing in the other’s exhalations.

To Explain the Rise of “First Life,” We Start by Looking at Today’s Simplest Organisms

Evolutionary biologists overwhelmingly maintain that all life evolved from a single species, the “First Organism” or the “Original Common Ancestor.”  The strongest evidence for a single “first organism” species is that the DNA of all living things is highly similar. [Cellular] Processes as distinct as respiration, fermentation, and photosynthesis all share a common basis, a conceptual integrity, which attests to the fact that all life has descended from a single Original Common Ancestor. 28

The sciences of evolution and genetics also tell us that “First-Life” (also called the “Common Ancestor”) began with the simplest of all organisms, because that organism would have been the easiest to self-construct using the processes of geo-chemistry. By the same logic, the simplest organisms living today are likely descendants of the very simple First Organism. The simplest organisms we have today are the bacteria and the archaea, at the base of our Tree of Life Domains.

So, to find the origin of life, we need to focus on the Bacteria and the Archaea, which are the two huge Domains at the base of our Tree’s trunk. The Archaea and Bacteria still exist today; in fact, they are flourishing, and each domain contains hundreds of thousands of individual species.  Moreover, they continue to evolve. We know the bacteria evolve because we spend fortunes inventing new antibiotics to combat new strains of bacteria that are infectious. (We also spend large sums of money to combat new infectious strains of viruses and fungi.)

Bacteria and Archaea Are Today’s Simplest Organisms

All the Bacteria and Archaea are single-celled, and each cell is enclosed by a cell membrane.  (Multi-celled organisms efficiently share their cell walls with the cells on all sides of them.) They are microscopic creatures that swim around in water. Typically, only a few micrometers in length, bacteria have a number of shapes, ranging from spheres to rods and spirals. A few species of archaea have additional, unusual shapes.

Modern Archaea were first discovered in hot springs and salt lakes, and then came to be found everywhere on Earth. Archaea are important in the human gut and mouth, where they aid digestion.  Interestingly, none of the Archaea are pathogens or parasites, which is quite a contrast with many species in the Bacteria Domain.

Years ago, it was thought that the archaea were a type of bacteria, but genetic analysis has revealed their genes to be quite different. For example, some bacteria and some archaea have flagella – tiny whip-like tails that propel the creatures through the water – but the two domains differ in how the flagella are structured.

Archaea and bacteria do not have any organelles — membrane-enclosed structures inside themselves (such as a nucleus, mitochondria, or chloroplasts) which conduct specialized processes. Therefore, all archaea and bacteria are classified as prokaryotes. Cells that do have such internal enclosed organelles are classified as eukaryotes.

Note: Most prokaryotes do have an irregular, unbounded region that contains DNA, known as the nucleoid29 In the nucleoid region, most prokaryotes have a single, circular chromosome, in contrast to eukaryotes, which typically have linear chromosomes. 30

Nutritionally, prokaryote species can utilize a wide range of organic and inorganic material to power their metabolism, including sulfur, cellulose, ammonia, or nitrite. Today, prokaryotes are ubiquitous across the Earth, even in the most including extreme environments. 31

The “First Organism” or “Original Ancestor”

While the bacteria and archaea are genetically different, they are similar enough to persuade scientists that both domains are descended from a single “Last Universal Common Ancestor, LUCA.” (We will just say, “Original Ancestor,” or “First Organism,” in this Essay.) Of course, there may have been many generations of those Original Ancestors, but no fossils of them have yet been found.

The First Living Cell, the First Living Organism, must have been a prokaryote. Why? Because evolution generally proceeds from simplicity to complexity, and prokaryotes are simpler than eukaryotes. 

xAs we shall discuss in this set of three Essay, there were likely non-living chemical systems which existed and replicated even before the advent of the Original Ancestor.  These “pre-living” systems are often called protocells(Not to be confused with proteobacteria, which are entirely different. Also not to be confused with viruses, which are non-living segments of genetic material that have broken off and float around to infect the genetic material of other living organisms.)

The “First Great Divergence”

No one knows which domain evolved first – the archaea or the bacteria.  It may be that many generations of the “First Organism” preceded both of those domains.

Most geologists agree on one thing: for about 500 million years following the formation of Earth, conditions were extremely hostile to Life (as we know it).  And it is interesting to note that many archaea are able to survive the coldest, hottest, most saline and most acidic environmental conditions that Earth throws their way. 32

At some point in ancient geologic time, likely between 4.2B and 3.1B billion years ago, the archaea diverged from the “common ancestor.” The bacteria perhaps diverged a bit later, at between 3.2B and 2.5B years ago. Together, these two events are sometimes called the “First Great Divergence” in evolution. 33

All other Earthly life – protists, fungi, plants, and animal — evolved out of the bacteria, out of the archaea, or directly out of the Original (or “Un-named”) Ancestor. For more detail, see the excellent and well-illustrated Wikipedia article entitled Prokaryote.

The Process of Divergence is common in all stages of evolution. Two or more species can evolve out of a common ancestor species. For example, the Human species, chimpanzee species, gorilla species and others all evolved out of, “diverged from,” a common ancestor.

We can also see the process of divergence at work in cultural and technological evolution. Today’s modern romance languages – including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian — evolved out of and diverged from the older and now extinct Latin language that was spoken by the ancient Romans. In the story of the electric light, we saw that the neon light, fluorescent light, arc light and other “species” evolved out of “Edison’s” incandescent lightbulb. (For more, see our Essay The Processes of Evolution and Their Spiritual Meaning.)

What Defines Life?  What Do All the Organisms in all the Domains have in Common?

Before we describe how Life emerged from chemistry, we need to define the word,
Life.” What are the essential features and processes that constitute life?

  • One widely accepted definition of “Life” says that living organisms are open systems that have energy flow-through, perform metabolism, maintain homeostasis, can grow, respond to stimuli, adapt to their environment, reproduce, can evolve, are composed of a single cells or multiple cells, and have a life cycle from birth to death.
  • Re-stated as a list, this definition says that something is alive, it is a living organism, if (1) it is composed of one or more cells, (2) it has a life cycle – it is born, and it eventually dies, and (3) it does all of the following things:
  • Constructs and maintains a boundary that separates it from the outside.
  • Channels a flow of energy through itself (i.e., it is a thermodynamically open system).
  • Maintains homeostasis [good description below]
  • Has a metabolism – It takes in nutrients, extracts energy, and excretes waste.
  • Moves and/or grows.
  • Adapts to its environment.
  • Responds to stimuli.
  • Evolves – it can change over time in response to change in its surroundings.

We can clearly see how interdependent all these functions are. An organism cannot move unless it has a boundary that separates it from its environment. It cannot move, self-maintain, grow, or reproduce without an energy flow. The organism can’t access energy without sensing and/or traveling to an energy source – to its food. The food cannot get into the organism (nor waste get out of it) unless the boundary is semi-permeable.

Note: The boundary must be semi-permeable.  It admits some new things and not others.  There is inherent tension between these two things: homeostasis and evolution. Things strive to stay the same, yet they evolve. Energy flows through day-to-day but does not destroy the organism… until the organism dies and makes way for newborns that may display evolved features and abilities.

The Six Key Chemical Elements of Life on Earth

From the mightiest blue whale to the most miniscule paramecium, life takes dramatically different forms. Nonetheless, all organisms are built from the same six essential elemental ingredients, known by their first letters (“CHNOPS”):

  1. carbon
  2. hydrogen
  3. nitrogen
  4. oxygen
  5. phosphorus
  6. sulfur 34

Among these six are the four elements that are both the most prevalent in the human body and the most common elements in the universe: Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen.

One thing that makes nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen so useful is that they’re abundant. They also exhibit acid-base effects, which allows them to bond with carbon to make amino-acids, fats, lipids and the nucleobases from which DNA and RNA are built. 35

Life on Earth is Carbon-based

Dr. Hazen writes, “Everyone agrees that the element carbon played a starring role.  No other element has such rich molecular designs or such diverse molecular functions. Carbon atoms possess an unmatched ability to bond to other carbon atoms as well as to myriad other elements – notably hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur – with up to four bonds at once. Carbon can form long chains of atoms, or interlocked rings, or complex branching arrangements, or almost any other imaginable shape.  It thus forms the backbone of proteins and carbohydrates, of fats and oils, of DNA and RNA. Only carbon-based molecules appear to share the twin defining characteristics of life: the ability to replicate and the ability to evolve.  Every morsel of food we eat, every medication we take, the bodies of every living thing, are loaded with carbon.”  36

Earlier, we mentioned that crystals and crystal formation have several of the same features as life and living systems. It is not surprising, then, that carbon is both the basis for life, and carbon can also form brilliant diamond crystals outside of living systems.

Carbon’s natural ability to grow by chaining its own molecules and by combining with other elements shows the tendency of pre-biologic, non-living systems to form ordered structures, grow them, and increase their complexity.

However, as Professor Hazen also writes, “Carbon cannot have undergone the remarkable progression from geochemistry to biochemistry by itself. All of Earth’s great transformative powers – water, heat, lightning, and the chemical energy of rocks – were brought to bear in life’s genesis.” 37

Other Chemical Elements Playing Important Roles in Life on Earth

Magnesium is the eleventh most abundant element by mass in the human body and is essential to all cells and some 300 enzymes. Hundreds of enzymes require magnesium to function.

Iron is a chemical element, a metal, and a naturally occurring mineral that is a critical part of hemoglobin, a protein which carries oxygen dissolved in our blood from our lungs throughout our bodies. It is the iron in our blood that makes it red. It helps our muscles store and use oxygen. Iron is also part of many other proteins and enzymes.

Sodium and Chlorine are each highly dangerous as raw elements. Sodium is explosive in the presence of water. Chlorine is a poisonous, lung-burning gas.  But with an easily added electron, chlorine becomes the far more prevalent chloride. Sodium and chloride readily combine to make common table salt, which is an important component of our blood. (Our blood is salty because we are evolved from fish in the sea.) 

Sodium-chloride is an example of the principle that when Continuing Creation combines simple things together, it often creates a new thing that is quite different from its components.  “The whole is greater than, and different from, the sum of its parts.”

Calcium is a silver-gray metal that’s the fifth-most abundant element in the human body. It plays a vital role in electrolytes, cell biochemistry, neurotransmission, the contraction of all muscles, and fertilization. Calcium is important for protein synthesis and bone formation. Seashells are made of calcium carbonate, in the mineral form of calcite or aragonite. Animals build their shells by extracting the necessary ingredients—dissolved calcium and bicarbonate—from their environment. 38

Silicon-Based Life on Other Planets or Moons?

For decades, many futurists and science-fiction writers have speculated that on other planets in other solar systems, life might be based on silicon rather than carbon. Silicon is right below carbon on the Periodic Table of Elements, and silicon has almost as many ways to combine with other elements as carbon has. On Earth, silicon has already shown its versatility as the central element in the workings of electronics and computers. When computers “wake up” and become conscious entities in an expected event dubbed the Technological Singularity, they may become a “new species of life.”  For now, however, most scientists still place their bets on carbon as being central to all life across the cosmos. (For more on the Technological Singularity, see our Essay, Cyborgs, Transhumanism, and Immortality.  See also the Wikipedia article, Hypothetical Types of Biochemistry.)

Chemical Evolution

We’ve said that before life began there must have been a process of chemical change, a process of chemical evolution that preceded the process of life’s biological evolution. 39

The prevailing scientific hypothesis is that the transition from non-living to living entities was not a single event, but an evolutionary process of increasing complexity that involved “chemical evolution.” Chemical Evolution is a new term, and while it has various definitions, it covers the chemical creation of the Three Four Monomers we discussed above – lipids, amino-acids, nucleotides, and the various food molecules.

As Dr. Nick Lane has written, “…The distinction between a ‘living planet – one that is geologically active – and a living cell is only a matter of definition. There is no hard and fast dividing line. Geochemistry gives rise seamlessly to biochemistry.” 40

Professor Robert Hazen expressed a similar viewpoint when he wrote: “Molecular evolution, not intelligent design, is by far the fastest and most reliable path to achieving function. (That’s why we say that if God created life, she’s smart enough to have used evolution.)” 41 This premise is consistent with the Book of Continuing Creation’s definition of evolution as a set of linked processes that start with the evolution of stars and planets (if not earlier) and go all the way through the “human-agented” evolution of culture and technology.

Inorganic Chemistry, by Itself, Often Behaves a Lot Like Life

The modern term “chemical evolution” has to do with the inorganic (non-carbon-based) molecules that are the precursors of life. We will talk about them shortly.

However, simple observation of Nature, plus some high school chemistry and geology, reveal instances of non-biologic growth and pattern formation that seem very much like the growth and patterns found in biological organisms. Many of us have observed that the branching patterns of river tributaries and the branching patterns of river deltas are highly similar to what trees do with roots and branches, and to the branching patterns of veins and arteries in human bodies. (See our Essay, Information Patterns – How Continuing Creation Works.)

The mathematical series known as the Fibonacci Sequence (where, starting with “1, 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8…” each new integer is the sum of the previous two integers) produces the decidedly inorganic spirals of countless great rotating galaxies. And this same number sequence also produces the organic spiral arrangement of the seeds in sunflowers, and the spiral shape of a snail’s shell. (See our Essay, Mathematics and Continuing Creation.)

High School chemistry taught us that the 92 natural chemical elements have combined to produce thousands of inorganic chemical compounds. Then, a subset of those same elements, working with geology, evolve organic chemistry with its even larger cornucopia of organic compounds and millions of different living species, each occupying a different niche in the environments of Earth.

Amazingly, the human body is up to 60% water (H2O) by weight, and all four of the “Key Monomers” discussed in this Essay– lipids, amino-acids, nucleotides, and (for aerobic organisms) monosaccharides — are mostly composed of the same chemical elements: argon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and sometimes potassium.  But those elements are arranged in different patterns that make the cornucopia of organic compounds found in living things. 42

What is “Chemical Evolution”? 

As we mentioned, the term “chemical evolution” has not been clearly defined. 43

  • Some scientists adopt a narrow definition and say that chemical evolution is mostly about the following three types of processes seen in the life-like chemistry that can be found among inorganic molecules: 1) molecular self-replication, 2) self-assembly, and 3) autocatalysis. Some of these people elect to include the formation of lipid spheres (e.g., sea foam) in this definition.
  • Other scientists take a broader view. They say that Chemical evolution is the formation of complex organic molecules from simpler inorganic molecules through chemical reactions in the oceans during the early history of the Earth. “It was the first step in the development of life on this planet. The period of chemical evolution lasted less than a billion years.” (Dictionary.com)

This second definition is almost the same as the definition of Abiogenesis, which we talked about earlier. But this definition of chemical evolution has organic molecules as its endpoint, whereas Abiogenesis has an actual First Living Organism as its endpoint.  44

How Does the Book of Continuing Creation Define Chemical Evolution? 

The theme of our Book is that Evolution is the grand construction of complexity from the Big Bang all the way through the on-going evolution of cultures and technology. 

Yes, this grand construction can be divided into stages for ease of discussion, but in fact all the stages, steps, and processes are highly interrelated.  Moreover, there are many principles and processes of evolution that are common to all its steps and stages.  A key example is the principle that the combination of things that are identical (or at least similar) can result in the creation of something amazingly new and different.  (For more on this principle and others, see our Essay, The Processes of Evolution — and Their Spiritual Meaning.)

Chemical Catalysis

Catalysis is the process of increasing the rate of a chemical reaction by adding a substance known as a catalyst. Catalysts are not consumed in the catalyzed reaction but can act repeatedly. Often, only very small amounts of catalyst are required to achieve a quick and/or massive result. 45

Chemical Catalysts are often used to speed up commercial chemical processes. The global demand for commercial chemical catalysts in 2010 was estimated at approximately US$29.5 billion. 46

Three Examples of Catalysis in Inorganic Chemistry:

  1. The “Contact Process” speeds up the manufacture of sulfuric acid: When sulfur-dioxide gas is passed, together with air, over a solid vanadium-oxide catalyst, its conversion into sulfur trioxide is speeded up.
  2. The Haber Process uses iron as a catalyst to speed the reaction of hydrogen and nitrogen to make ammonia.
  3. The exhaust gases of cars are passed over transition-metal catalysts inside catalytic convertors. The catalysts increase the rate of chemical reactions that turn exhaust pollutants such as carbon monoxide and unburnt fuel into gases and vapors that are less toxic.

When catalysts play a role in the processes of living cells, they are performing biochemistry — chemistry and biology at the same time. In the biochemistry of living organisms, enzymes are protein-based catalysts that act in the processes of cell metabolism. Most biocatalysts are enzymes, but other non-protein-based classes of biomolecules also exhibit catalytic properties. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalysis#Illustration.)

The many instances of chemical catalysis demonstrates that inorganic non-living systems can self-organize, and can self-reproduce, in a way that is a harbinger of the ways that living organisms self-organize and reproduce.

An Example of a Catalyst in All Living Cells — The Citric Acid Cycle

The Citric Acid cycle, also called the Krebs Cycle, is a complex series of catalytic chemical reactions used by all aerobic organisms to release stored energy through the oxidation of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. The net result of these reactions is the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is used to drive actions such as muscle contraction, nerve impulse propagation, and chemical synthesis. 47

Autocatalysis — Same Definition for Both Inorganic and Organic Chemistry

A single chemical reaction is said to be autocatalytic if one of the reaction products is also a catalyst for the same or a coupled reaction that happens later. This definition holds for both inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry happening inside living organisms.

A set of chemical reactions can be said to be “collectively autocatalytic” if a number of those reactions produce, as reaction products, catalysts for enough of the other reactions that the entire set of chemical reactions is self-sustaining given an input of energy and food molecules (For more, see autocatalytic set).

Catalysts act as scaffolds and templates for new constructions of themselves. In this way, they are like crystals.

Autocatalytic Networks and RAFs

In a 2019 paper abstracted for the Proceedings of Biological Sciences entitled “Autocatalytic Chemical Networks at the Origin of Metabolism,” Bioengineer and Science writer Joana C. Xavier writes:

“Modern cells embody metabolic networks containing thousands of elements and form autocatalytic sets of molecules that produce copies of themselves. How the first self-sustaining metabolic networks arose at life’s origin is a major open question. Autocatalytic sets smaller than metabolic networks were proposed as transitory intermediates at the origin of life, but evidence for their role in prebiotic evolution is so far lacking. [In this paper] we identify “Reflexively Autocatalytic Food-generated Networks (RAFs)” — self-sustaining networks that collectively catalyze all their reactions embedded within microbial metabolism…. [RAFs] indicate that autocatalytic chemical networks preceded proteins and RNA in evolution. RAFs uncover intermediate stages in the emergence of metabolic networks, narrowing the gaps between early Earth chemistry and life.” 48

Progressive Evolution

Some readers may accuse the Book of Continuing Creation of being another argument for orthogenesis the biological hypothesis that organisms have an innate tendency to evolve in a definite direction towards some goal (teleology) due to some internal mechanism or “driving force.” According to this theory, the largest-scale trends in evolution demonstrate an absolute goal such as increasing biological complexity. A more modern term for orthogenesis is Progressive Evolution. 49

In the modern day, Professors Adrian Bejan and Jeremy England independently argue that there is a driving (but not inevitable) force behind increasing complexity, and that is the force of energy trying to find more, larger, and more efficient paths of energy flow.  

We agree with Professors Bejan and England. We do not see increasing complexity as a goal.  Or as an inevitability. We see it as a tendency when environments are right, but never a certainty. A set of viruses could conceivably wipe out all of today’s humans, or even all mammals. It is also true that today’s “simple” microbes continue to evolve, and do so quite rapidly, although none of them come close to evolving the complexity of a human being, crow, or octopus. (For more, see the Wikipedia article on Orthogenesis.)

History and biology also show that the tendency toward greater complexity can be thwarted. For example. in the period known as The Great Dying (the “Permian-Triassic Extinction Event”), an estimated 81% of all marine species, 70% of all terrestrial vertebrate species, and a huge but uncalculated percentage of insect species all went extinct, likely due to changes in the atmosphere and the seas. 50 Nevertheless, as we all know, life did recover, and it continued to evolve.

Key Molecule #1 in Creating Life — Lipids: 

Every living thing is either a single cell or a group of cells (rose bushes and humans are huge, organized groups of cells). Every one of these cells is enclosed by a cell membrane. Inside each cell membrane, interacting molecules carry out the chemical processes of life, such as the oxidation (“burning”) of food sugars to generate energy, or the assembly of protein molecules to build muscle tissue. 51.

How did these cell membranes arise from non-living chemical molecules?

Before life arose, picture the four chemicals essential for abiogenesis as floating in water, because life started in water. (The human body is itself 70% water.) Pre-life chemicals would not have been able to perform their functions unless they were protected from outside intrusion from other “foreign” chemicals and intrusions. 52

Life cannot exist unless it is able to separate itself from the world around it. There must be a boundary that separates the living creature from the non-living environment around it.  Without a boundary – an outer cell membrane — the outside world would contaminate and disrupt the delicate molecular chemistry within the cell. Compartmentalization was also necessary for the right interior chemical molecules to get close enough to each other to carry out their interactions.

In the language of physics, without such a boundary, the law of entropy (the Second Law of Thermodynamics) says that the cell’s organization and energy would dissipate out into the wider world and disappear. Similarly, in the realm of technology, every machine that successfully generates useful energy – a car’s motion, steam used to heat a building, electric current — has one or more boundaries that serve the same purpose. The boundary controls the energy, forcing it along a mechanical path, a controlled exit, that accomplishes work. An example is the steam boiler driving a piston in a locomotive.

If there are no boundaries, there are no differences.  Without differences, there is no information, no variation… and therefore, no Creation.  In essence, all Creation is the production of a difference that did not exist before. For more on this fundamental concept of our entire Practice and Path, see our Essay, Information Patterns — How Creating Works.

The hollow lipid spheres that occur naturally in chemistry are the same as the hollow lipid spheres that are critical to the existence of all cellular life. This clear continuation of chemistry into biology demonstrates that the creation of First Life was not done by a sudden command from a mythical, anthropomorphic God, but rather from the self-assembling, evolutionary Processes of Continuing Creation: The Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos.        

Cell membranes are formed by a layer of lipid molecules. 53 A lipid is any of various chemical compounds that are insoluble in water. They include fats, greases, waxes, and oils. Lipids are mostly composed of Oxygen and Hydrogen. Sometimes a Nitrogen group is present. Cholesterol is a well-known lipid.

Lipid molecules have a bulbous head on one end and a “tail” of acids on the other end. The bulbous end is “water-loving” (aquaphilic), while the trailing end is “water-hating” (aquaphobic).

Lipids like to coagulate, head next to head and tail next to tail, forming a uniform layer. Since the bulbous heads are wider than the acid tails, a lipid layer will naturally curve in on itself to form a sphere. The bulbous heads face outward, and the acid tails dangle on the inside.

The formation of these layers and spheres is an automatic process of self-assembly – no outside direction or manipulation is required. 

Because of their simplicity and ability to self-assemble in water, it is likely that these simple lipid membranes predated other forms of early biological molecules. 54

Lipids naturally encapsulate small volumes of water.  If that water contains the other monomers of life we listed above, the amino-acids and the nucleotides, then the sphere could be called a protocell, which is a non-living pre-cursor to the first living cell(s). This possibility is in fact one of the main models (theories) about how Life began. And as we have said, the cell membranes of all organisms living today are still composed of lipid layers.

When there is water both outside and inside the sphere, the lipids can form a double-layered (bi-layered) sphere: One layer has its bulbous heads facing outside to the world, and a second layer has its heads facing inward toward the interior. Between those two layers, all the trailing chains of the molecules end up facing toward each other. The whole assembly is like a peanut butter sandwich rolled into a hollow ball. Some “bread” faces outward and some inward, while the “peanut butter” is sandwiched in between the two spheres of bread.  In biology, these spheres are called micelles, and if they are bi-layered they called vesicles. A vesicle man-made in the laboratory, e.g., for use in the intravenous delivery of drugs, is called a liposome.

Lipids Can Form Naturally Outside of Living Things

Where did the lipids come from?  It had been thought that lipids could only be made by living organisms.  But recent experiments show that when CO, carbon-monoxide (simulating an ancient atmosphere) and H2O, water (simulating a little warm pool) are heated up with minerals currently found in Earth’s crust, lipids can form… on their own.  55

When lipids are placed in water, the hydrophobic (water fearing) tails aggregate to form micelles and vesicles, with the hydrophilic (water loving) ends facing outwards. 56

Primitive cells likely used self-assembling fatty-acid vesicles to separate chemical reactions and the environment. Because of their simplicity and ability to self-assemble in water, it is likely that these simple membranes predated other forms of early biological molecules. 57 As a result, some biologists tend to equate the words “micelle” and “vesicle” with the term protocell.

The “Salt Problem”

Until recently, however, scientists discounted the idea that lipid spheres in water could have been the first protocell membranes, because the water we are talking about was most certainly seawater, and the salt in seawater tends to destroy lipid structures. Science concluded that lipid spheres could not exist in the oceans. 58

But in 2019, researchers at the University of Washington showed that [even in saltwater] lipid spheres do not disassemble if they are in the presence of amino-acids. As Arvin Ash says, “So, there is a synergy, almost a symbiosis, between the lipids and the amino-acids – they help each other survive in salty oceans. The cell membrane, now stable, allows the amino acids to concentrate and join to form proteins.” 59

Later, in multicellular organisms, encapsulation of each cell protects each cell from its neighbors, which could be ill, aging, or just functionally different. As we’ve said, for both unicellular and multicellular organisms the cell membranes must be semi-permeable so that food can get in and waste can be excreted out. Semi-permeability also permits inter-cellular transportation and communication – critical for the health of the larger organism.

Lipid layers also encapsulate enclosed bodies called vesicles that eukaryotic cells have inside them. The larger and more important of the vesicles – e.g., nucleus, mitochondria, and chloroplasts – are called organelles. We will discuss their functions and their surprising probable origins in our Next Essay.

Lipid Spheres Often Form Outside Living Organisms

Our aim in this Essay is to show how the chemistry of Life can arise from non-living, inorganic chemistry. Evidence of this is seen in the fact that lipid spheres are often found in non-living locations of the natural world.

Sea Foam and Soap Bubbles

Spherical Lipid enclosures frequently stack together to form sea foam and soap bubbles. Their spherical shape, and their tendency to self-assemble in layers are natural. There is no outside manipulation, no outside intelligence giving them directions to do this. 60

Sea foam and soap bubbles are made of lipids that had an organic origin as animal fats and algae, including disintegrating seaweeds.

Sea foam, or spume, is created by the agitation of seawater, when it contains concentrations of dissolved organic matter. Due to its low density and persistence, foam can be blown by strong winds blowing from the sea and reaching tidal pools on the beach. 61

In ancient Babylon and Sumer, people made soap by mixing ashes with water and fat and boiling them.  Their soap was actually a soap solution, or soapy water. A froth of small soap bubbles looks a lot like a slice of living tissue looks under a microscope.  62

Just like the lipid membranes we discussed above, “A soap molecule consists of a polar ionic hydrophilic (water “loving”) end, and a non-polar hydrophobic (water “hating”) end. When dissolved in water, the soap molecules arrange themselves in the form of roughly spherical aggregates of 60 or so molecules, called surfactant micelles.

The Walls of Geodes Enclose Crystals

Geodes are another example of inorganic chemicals – rock minerals, in this case – that form enclosures permitting ordered structures to grow inside them. Beautiful crystals can grow from slow precipitation on the inside of the hollow rocks, creating geodes. While it is forming, every geode is completely enclosed by a protecting rock barrier-wall which acts a lot like the cell membrane that surrounds every living cell.

Amethyst crystals inside a geode

While sea foam and soap bubbles are still made of lipids, which usually have had their origin in some sort of formerly living organism, rock geode crystals are clearly not by-products of living things. Yet geology is able to form enclosures that permit ad protect ordered structures to grow inside them, just like living cells do. Later in the Third Essay of this series, we will describe the Silicate-clay Crystals Model (Hypothesis) for the Origin of Life.

The crystals inside geodes form by the partial filling of geological vesicles (hollow cavities) in volcanic and sub-volcanic rocks with minerals deposited from hydrothermal fluids such as mineral-rich water.

Note: Forts and castles and ancient cities and kingdoms also have surrounding walls. So do wasps’ nests, and insect cocoons. The “keep,” the inner fort inside a medieval castle wall, is like the nucleus in a eukaryotic cell.

Many crystals in geodes are shaped like hexagonal columns that point inward toward the center of the geode. Often, such a six-sided column will begin to taper to a faceted point. How is that “decided”? How does each of the six faces “know” to start doing that at the same time, so that the point is reached at the center of the column? The crystal has no brain with which to decide or to know; but the behavior is clearly life-like.

Crystals in General Are Like Living Organisms

The same lifelike growth, symmetry, and apparent coordination can be seen in crystals that form outside geode enclosures. In many ways, all crystals behave like living things.  Later in this Essay, we will discuss how inorganic crystal faces may have been the templates on which organic molecules were first able to form.

A crystalline structure is any structure of molecules or atoms that are held together in an ordered, three-dimensional arrangement. (Non-Crystalline structures are called amorphous.) 63

Like living things, we know that crystals grow over time. They often grow out of a slow flow of mineral-rich dripping water in underground caves. Water flow and/or evaporation provide the energy flow. Crystals often take place when the water is supersaturated with dissolved minerals.

A sudden trigger – like a landing speck of dust, can trigger a cascade of crystallization. (For more about triggering systems, See our Essay, Complexity and Continuing Creation.)

Crystal growth in minerals is a non-organic, but structured, emergence.  It is a kind of “chemical evolution,” involving lattices, templates, and the repetitive reproduction of layers. (See the articles on Crystal Structure and Crystallization in Wikipedia.)

Crystals Are Not Alive, But They Are Able to Form a Structure and Grow

Crystals consist of a regular, geometric lattice of atoms.  Each crystal lattice can grow if it is placed in water laced with the same chemical components. The adjacent free-floating atoms bump into and automatically attach themselves to the crystal edge, enlarging the crystalline form.

Even outside of geode enclosures, mineral crystals are one type of lifelike geo-chemical systems. We will discuss crystals more in our sections on aminos-acids and on ribonucleic acid (RNA).

Crystals may have irregularities where the regular atomic structure is broken, and when crystals grow, these irregularities may propagate, creating a form of self-replication of crystal irregularities. 64

This quick description of crystals, both inside and outside of geodes, shows us that there are natural systems in geology and inorganic chemistry that, while clearly not alive, not even biological, have features that are analogous to the features of living organisms.  We might call them “Lifelike” geo-chemical systems.

There Are Crystals Inside Living Things

Not only do crystals act like living things, key molecules of living things — amino-acids, proteins, nucleic-acids, RNA and DNA – can all adopt important crystalline structures.  65

Diatoms Make Silica Cell Walls that Are Similar to Crystals.

Since quartz crystals and many other mineral crystals are primarily made of silica (i.e., of silicon-dioxide) it worth noting that tiny single-celled living creatures called diatoms form their outer cells walls using silica. In other words, diatoms make their outer walls out of a mineral that also makes up rocks. 

Diatoms are a type of micro-algae found in oceans, waterways, and soils worldwide. Like green plants and green algae, diatoms convert light energy to chemical energy by photosynthesis, although this shared capability evolved independently in both lineages.

Diatoms generate about 20 to 50 percent of the oxygen produced on the planet each year, 66 Diatoms take in over 6.7 billion metric tons of silicon each year from the waters in which they live and constitute nearly half of the organic material found in the oceans. The shells of dead diatoms can reach as much as a half-mile (800 m) deep on the ocean floor. 67

The silica cell walls of diatoms are called frustules. These frustules have structural coloration due to their photonic nanostructure, prompting them to be described as “jewels of the sea” and “living opals.” The frustule is both hard and porous and is coated with a layer of organic substance composed of several types of polysaccharides. 68

The frustule’s structure is usually composed of two overlapping sections that allow for some internal expansion room and is essential during the reproduction process. The frustule also contains many pores and slits that provide the diatom access to the external environment for processes such as waste removal and mucilage secretion.

Seashells Are Mineral Structures Made by Living Organisms

Analogous to the outer walls of diatoms, seashells are also mineral. Thus, while we usually think of minerals as something that organic processes use to make living things, seashells are the opposite – they are minerals made by living organisms. Seashells, however, are not crystalline.

The Evolution of Beauty

Diatoms, like mineral crystals, seashells, and flowers, display many geometric shapes and/or colors. These shapes and patterns show that evolution, when conditions are right, is quite capable of producing geometrical beauty.

Humans also find beauty in the plumage of birds, the fur of animals, and the coloration of tropical fish and coral reefs. Some biologists argue that there is a tendency in evolution toward beauty, primarily because it influences the selection of mates. It is also possible that the evolution of flower-beauty to attract birds, co-evolves with the evolution of bird-beauty to attract mates. The two evolutionary mechanisms reinforce each other. Working together, both trends would produce more flowers and more birds.  If so, this co-evolution is very much like catalysis in chemistry, because the mutual reinforcement stimulates the speed of production. We talk about in the next Essay, i.e., Essay #2 in this trio of Essays.

Biologists have written best-selling books around this topic, including Professor Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful. 69 and Professor Richard O. Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us.  70

Liquid Crystals

Liquid crystals” (LCs) are a state of matter which has properties between those of conventional liquids and those of solid crystals. For instance, a liquid crystal may flow like a liquid, but its molecules may be oriented in a crystal-like way… Examples of liquid crystals can be found both in the natural world and in technological applications. Widespread Liquid-crystal displays use liquid crystals. Many proteins and cell membranes are liquid crystals. Other well-known examples of liquid crystals are solutions of soap and various related detergents, as well as the tobacco mosaic virus, and some clays.” (From the Wikipedia article on Liquid Crystal.)

Liquid Crystals

In 2007, a team led by the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Milan discovered some unexpected forms of liquid crystals of ultrashort DNA molecules immersed in water, providing a new scenario for a key step in the emergence of life on Earth. 71

CU-Boulder Physics Professor Noel Clark said the team found that “surprisingly short segments of DNA, life’s molecular carrier of genetic information, could assemble into several distinct liquid crystal phases that “self-orient” parallel to one another and stack into columns when placed in a water solution. Life is widely believed to have emerged as segments of DNA-like or RNA-like molecules in a prebiotic ‘soup’” solution of ancient organic molecules. 72

Supramolecular Assemblies

We can generalize even further. Liquid crystals and soap bubbles are both examples of Supramolecular assemblies. So are biological membranes, liposomes, colloids, biomolecular condensates, lattices, micelles, and even helical liquid crystals such as RNA and DNA. 73 In such ensembles, their chemical composition is not solely responsible for their unique properties. Rather, their unique properties also depend heavily on their specific ordered spatial structures. For more on this topic, see our Essay, Complexity and Continuing Creation.

All these structures are held together by loose (noncovalent) chemical bonds, which are weaker than the bonds that hold atoms together to construct a molecule. There are so many structures and systems today that are alive, or at least act like they are alive, that a modern interdisciplinary branch of science, Supramolecular Chemistry, studies all of them together. 74

Supramolecular Chemistry is the branch of chemistry that specializes in non-covalent interactions. These weak and reversible forces—such as hydrogen bonds, hydrophobic forces, van der Waals forces, and metal–ligand coordination—are key to understanding biological processes and self-assembling systems. 75

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Footnotes to this Essay:

 

 

  1. Emily Singer, “Mongrel Microbe Tests Story of Complex Life,” 11-30-2015, Quanta Magazine, re-reported in Scientific American https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mongrel-microbe-tests-story-of-complex-life/.
  2. Guenther Witzany, “Crucial Steps to Life: From Chemical Reactions to Code Using Agents,” 2006, BioSystems. 140: 49–57. doi:10.1016/j.biosystems.2015.12.007. PMID 26723230.
  3. Arvin Ash, Abiogenesis – How Life Came from Inanimate Matter, a video film, 9-6-2019, www.arvinash.com
  4. Arvin Ash, Abiogenesis How Life Came from Inanimate Matter, 9-6-2019, a video film, www.arvinash.com
  5. Arvin Ash, Abiogenesis How Life Came from Inanimate Matter, 9-6-2019, a video film, www.arvinash.com
  6. Arvin Ash, Abiogenesis – How Life Came from Inanimate Matter, 9-6-2019, a video film, www.arvinash.com.
  7. Bobby Azarian, The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity, 2022, BenBella Books.
  8. A. Bejan and J. P. Zane, Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization, 2013, First Anchor Books, flyleaf.
  9. Arvin Ash, “Abiogenesis,” Ibid. See also, Jeremy England, “Statistical physics of self-replication,” 2013, The Journal of Chemical Physics (AIP), http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4818538.
  10. Natalie Wolchover, “A New Physics Theory of Life,” 1-28-2014, Scientific American.
  11. Arvin Ash, “Abiogenesis,” Ibid.
  12. Arvin Ash, “Abiogenesis,” Ibid.
  13. Arvin Ash, “Abiogenesis,” Ibid.
  14. Natalie Wolchover, “A New Physics Theory of Life,” Scientific American, 1-28-2014. See also, Santi Tafarella, “Dissipation-Driven Adaptive Organization: Is Jeremy England the Next Charles Darwin?,” 1-28-2014, Prometheus Unbound. See also, Arvin Ash, “Abiogenesis,” Ibid.
  15. Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, 2015, W.W. Norton pp. See Lane, 58-62.
  16. Robert. M. Hazen, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet, 2012, Penguin Books.
  17. Arvin Ash, Abiogenesis – How Life Came from Inanimate Matter, 9-6-2019, a video film, www.arvinash.com
  18. 1974, Bantam Books. From Essays that originally appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine between 1971 and 1973.
  19. Arjun Berera, “Space Dust Collisions as a Planetary Escape Mechanism,” 11-6-2015, Astrobiology.7 (12): 1274–1282. arXiv:1711.01895. Bibcode:2017AsBio..17.1274B. doi:10.1089/ast.2017.1662. PMID 29148823. S2CID 126012488. See also, Wikipedia, Earliest Known Life Forms. See also Wikipedia, “Life on Mars. 
  20. Science Daily, June 16, 2020, from Univ of British Colombia. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200616100831.htm.
  21. Hazen, Ibid., p. 128.
  22. Arvin Ash, Ibid.
  23. Arvin Ash, Abiogenesis – How Life Came from Inanimate Matter, 9-6-2019, a video film, www.arvinash.com
  24. Arvin Ash, Abiogenesis – How Life Came from Inanimate Matter, 9-6-2019, a video film, www.arvinash.com
  25. Arvin Ash, “Abiogenesis – How Life Came from Inanimate Matter,” a video film, 9-6-2019, www.arvinash.com
  26. Juli Peretó, “Controversies on the Origin of Life,” 2005, International Microbiology. 8 (1): 23–31. PMID 15906258. See also, David Warmflash and Benjamin Warmflash, “Did Life Come from Another World?” Scientific American, November 2005, 293 (5): 64–71. Bibcode:2005SciAm.293e..64W. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1105-64. PMID 16318028.
  27. Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, 2015, W.W. Norton & Co., pp. 1 and 4-5.
  28. Nick Lane, The Vital Question, Ibid., p. 53-4.) 
  29. Nancy Kleckner, J.K. Fisher, Mathieu Stouf, et al“The bacterial nucleoid: nature, dynamics and sister segregation” 12-01-2014, Current Opinion in Microbiology Growth and development, 127.137.137. doi:10.1016/j.mib.2014.10.001PMC 4359759PMID 25460806.
  30. “Eukaryotic Chromosome Structure,” | Science Primer”. scienceprimer.com.
  31. Wikipedia article on Unicellular Organism.
  32. Robert M. Hazen, Ibid., p. 134.
  33. https://opentextbc.ca/biology2eopenstax/chapter/structure-of-prokaryotes-bacteria-and-archaea/#:~:text=The%20timelines%20of%20divergence%20suggest,diverged%20from%20the%20archaean%20line.
  34. https://www.livescience.com/32983-what-are-ingredients-life.html.
  35. https://www.livescience.com/32983-what-are-ingredients-life.html#:~:text=Nonetheless%2C%20all%20organisms%20are%20built,phosphorus%20and%20sulfur%20(CHNOPS)
  36. Robert. M. Hazen, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet, 2012, Penguin Books, p. 131.
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