Is Life Inevitable?

The origin of life is one of the most fascinating and controversial of scientific topics. The event occurred so long ago, and left so little clues, that we have struggled in our understanding of it. The basic building blocks of life turn up in meteors, cosmic dust and the gas clouds surrounding stars, as well as being manufactured on Earth in almost every conceivable environment. But how we get from these simple building blocks to metabolism, genes and organisms is not entirely clear, despite several promising lines of attack.

How probable is the origin of life? Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates alike claim that it is highly improbable. Most scientists think we are still at too immature a stage of knowledge to even speculate. However, a recent paper (free PDF here) by Harold Morowitz and Eric Smith in the Sante Fe Institute working papers series , suggests that life might be inevitable on thermodynamic grounds.

… the continuous generation of sources of free energy by abiotic processes may have forced life into existence as a means to alleviate the buildup of free energy stresses.

There is a good over view at Nature News (free online), and you might like to drop in on the Nature NewsBlog on this subject. Myself, I’m not convinced. While they make a good case for a simple autotrophic core of reactions forming the start of life chemistry, there are a range of details missing in their treatment of the thermodynamic aspects. However, this is a promising start from which more formal treatments can be derived. Anyway, read the paper and the Nature commentary, and see what you think. Check out some of the other working papers on the origin of life as well.

Update: Astronomy Now has a very interesting article on new experimental approaches to prebiotic chemistry.