(What is the origin, nature and process of life? This is a fundamental question of philosophy and science which has to be re-examined constantly in the light of contemporary scientific perspectives and the spiritual insights of seers and sages, ancient and modern. This article in two parts is a review of this immemorial quest into the foundations of life)
The Nature of Life in Modern Science
Modern scientific mind is interested mainly in the material and biological sources of life and it has made extensive enquires and discoveries in this domain of life. This first part of the article examines the scientific quest for the origin of life.
The eminent physicist Michio Kaku in his book “Physics of the Impossible,” while discussing the possibility of finding intelligent life in other planets, makes a brief review of the “Scientific Search for Life”, which is not a search for the essence of life, but to find the physical or material condition under which life or living organism can emerge or evolve. Kaku talks about three factors identified by scientists as the material source of life. First is liquid water, because it is an ideal mixing bowl to create increasingly complex molecules. The second factor is carbon, because its atomic structure is very conducive for creating complex molecules. The third-factor is the self-replicating molecule, which is the famous DNA.
The next question is what is the main difference between the material and the living organism? In his well-known book “What is life”, the Nobel Laurate and a pioneer of New Physics, Erwin Schroedinger, tries to answer the question from the angle of physics. According to Schroedinger material organisms follow the law of what is called in thermodynamics as “maximum entropy” which means in simple terms, a material organism, left to itself, decays into a state of equilibrium of maximum disorder or in other words, the movement is from order to disorder. As Schroedinger explains:
“What is the characteristics of life? When is a piece of matter said to be alive? When it goes on ‘doing something’, moving, exchanging material with its environment and so forth, and that for a much longer period than we would expect of an inanimate piece of mater to ‘keep going’ under similar circumstances. When a system that is not alive is isolated or placed in a uniform environment all motion usually comes to a standstill very soon, as a result of various kinds of friction, differences of electric or chemical potential are equalised, substances which tend to form a chemical compound do so, temperature becomes uniform. After that the whole system fades away into a dead, inert lump of matter. A permanent state is reached, in which no observable events occur. The physicist call this state of thermodynamic equilibrium as ‘maximum entropy’.”
But the living organism seems to defy this process of entropy and evolve toward greater order. While the material organism degenerates from order to a simple uniform and maximum disorder, living organism seem to have the capacity to progress towards increasing order, variety, complexity and organisation like for example from atoms, molecules, DNA, cells, plants, organs and the body or the brain. Schroedinger calls this process as “negative entropy”. The living organism counteracts positive entropy towards disorder by “extracting order from the environment”, through a process of negative entropy. We must note here that living organism is not free from entropy. Every material and biological energy in Nature is subject to the law of entropy. But a living organism counteracts entropy by drawing order or negative entropy from the environment. As Schroedinger describes further.
“It is by defying the rapid decay into the inert state of equilibrium that a living organism appears to be enigmatic…. How does the living organism avoid decay. The obvious answer: By eating, drinking, breaking (in the case of plants) assimilating. The technical term is metabolism …. Every process, event, happening ….everything that is going on in Nature means an increase of entropy of that part of the world where it is going on. Thus a living organism continually increase its entropy – or as you may say produces positive entropy – and thus tends to approach the dangerous state of maximum entropy, which is death. It can only keep aloof from it i.e. alive, by continually drawing from the environment negative entropy ….or to put it paradoxically the essential thing in metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the entropy it cannot help producing while alive.”
Thus modern scientific thinking seems to associate life with openness to the environment and the ability to absorb or assimilate energy and order from the environment to counteract entropy.
Life on Earth
Another very interesting info provided by Michio Kaku in his book is on the unique position of our planet earth in fostering life. It seems that our solar system of which our earth is a part, is specially designed to engender life. Here are some interesting details:
*Computer programs show that the presence of a Jupiter-sized planet in a solar system is necessary to fling passing comets and metros into space, thereby continually cleaning out a solar system. If Jupitar did not exist in our solar system, Earth would be pelted with meteors and comets making life impossible.
* Our planet is also blessed with a large moon which helps to stabilise the earth’s spin. Without a large moon our earth’s axis probably would have become unstable and the Earth might have tumbled, making life impossible.
*A strong magnetic field; which is necessary in order to deflect cosmic rays and radiation that could destroy life on earth.
* A moderate speed of planetary motion: If the earth rotated too slowly, the side facing the sun would be blisteringly hot, while the other side would be freezingly cold for long periods of time. If Earth rotated too quickly, there would be extremely violent weather conditions like monster winds and storms.
* A location that is the right distance from the centre of the galaxy: If the earth were too close to the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, it would be hit with dangerous radiation. If it were too far from the centre, our planet would not have enough higher elements to create DNA molecules and proteins.
Even at the cosmic level, the universal constants of Nature related to the fundamental forces of nature – electromagnetic, nuclear and gravitational-seem to be fine-tuned to support life. As Michio Kaku explains:
“When we analyse the constants of Nature, we find they are tuned very precisely to allow for life. If we increase the strength of the nuclear force, then the stars burn out too quickly to give rise to life. If we decrease the strength of the nuclear force, then the stars never ignite at all and life cannot exist. If we increase the force of gravity then our universe dies quickly in Big Crunch. If we decrease the strength of gravity, then the universe will rapidly collapse into Big Freeze.
In fact there are scores of ‘accidents’ involving the constants of nature that allow for life. Apparently our universe lives in a ‘Gold lock Zone’ of many parameters all of which are ‘fine-tuned’ to allow for life. So we are left with the conclusion that there is God of some sort who has chosen our universe to be ‘just right’ to allow for life or there are billions of parallel universes, many of them dead”.
Life in Nature
All the perspectives we have discussed so far is from physics, We can get a wider perspective of life in Nature in the new science of ecology. With the advent of the environmental movement there is rapid progress in the science of ecology and in understanding how Nature works in her larger systems like Forests and Oceans.
In an article on sustainability by Fritjof Capra and Gunter Pauli, the authors discuss seven principles of ecology which drive the large-scale systems in Nature.
- Interdependence : All member of an eco-system are interconnected in a web of relationship, in which all the process depend on one another. They derive their essential properties and their very existence from their relationship to other things. The success of the whole system depends on the success of its individual members, while the success of each member depends upon the success of the system as a whole.
- The Cyclic Process: The interdependence among the members of an ecosystem involves the exchange of energy and resources in continual cycles – the water cycle, CO2 cycles and the various nutrient cycles. Communities of organisms have evolved over billions of years, continually using and recycling the same molecules of minerals, water and air.
- The Energy Flow: Solar energy drives all ecological cycles and green plants play a vital role in this flow of energy. In the marvellous process of photosynthesis solar energy is converted into chemical energy and bound in organic substances while oxygen is released to renew the air.
- Partnership : All the organism of Nature are engaged in various forms of cooperation. In nature there is some form of competition but it happens within a broader context of cooperation involving countless forms of partnership. The tendencies to associate, establish links, live inside one another and cooperate are the essential characteristics of a living organism.
- Flexibility : All ecological cycles are feedback loops that have the tendency to maintain themselves in a flexible state characterized by continual fluctuation of their variables. When changing environmental conditions disturb one link in an ecological cycle, the entire cycle acts as a self-regulating feedback loop and soon brings the situation back into balance. And since these disturbances happen all the time, the variables in an ecological cycle fluctuate constantly.
- Diversity : The stability of an ecosystem depends on the degree of its network of relationship or in other words diversity of the system. The more complex the network and greater the diversity of its interconnection, the more resilient it will be.
- Co-evolution: Most species in a system co-evolve through an interplay of creation and mutual adaptation. In an ecosystem evolution is not limited to the gradual adaptation of organism to the environment because the environment is itself a network of living system capable of adaptation and creativity. Organism and environment adapt to one another. All forms of life on Earth have co-evolved in this way as integral components of ecosystems for billions of years.
A Brief Summary
We are now in a position to arrive at a brief summary of the scientific perspectives on the question we are exploring. Carbon and water provides the material of life for the evolution of complex molecules culminating in the DNA which is the biological foundation of life. The scientific exploration of our physical cosmos point towards the interesting discovery that our solar system and the universe are fine tuned to support life on earth indicating the possibility of a cosmic intelligence behind the creation of our universe.
The main difference between a material and a living organism lies in openness to the environment. The material organism is a closed system where energy and matter disintegrates with time towards an equilibrium of death. A living organism seem to have the capacity to defy this entropy and evolve towards greater order, complexity and organisation by drawing energy and “negative entropy”, which means something very positive, a positive force of order from the environment. There is no clear answer from modern science to the question what is precisely the nature of this positive force in the environment which gives the living organism the ability to not only counteract entropy but also evolve towards greater and more complex order.
This positive force of “negative entropy” in the living organism reaches its climax in the ecology of the larger systems of Nature like the forest. In the intricate ecology of Nature all the living organisms are linked together in a dynamic, interdependent network, the web of life,….flexibly adopting to the changing environmental condition….evolving together by mutually adopting to each other….where the survival of each organism depends on the survival of other organism and the larger whole.
- ‘What is Life’ Erwin Shroedinger.
- ‘Physics of the Impossible’ by Michio Kaku.
- ‘Web of Life’ by Fritjof Capra.