GENESIS

We May Never Find the Origin of Life—and That’s Not Bad

Hydrothermal vents, single-cell organisms, the Garden of Eden—the search for life's origin has always consumed us. But what if the traces of our first ancestors are forever lost to history?

03.20.16 4:00 AM ET

Every few years it seems as if the origin of life pops up in the public dialogue, like a Jack-in-the-box, in new books and the occasional news item recalibrating the presumed First Day, as if certain scientists suddenly woke from a nap shouting, "Where did we come from!"

The origin of life is a subject that traces itself back to the time before the first thought, the first ever spark of consciousness on our planet, and maybe any planet. To understate this, that is an obscure time and place, and very long ago.

How to sum this up? Easy, if you’re a Christian: God made the Universe, the Earth and Mankind. Did it in six days, could have done it in an instant but frankly was showing off a bit. But, you know, who’s going to call Him on it?

It’s a tad harder if you’re not religious. But even enlightened believers (which I hope I am) accept we are the product of an organic process.  We see the clear footprints of evolution that taper behind us into invisibility in the quiet snow of cosmic history.

So locating the first footfall of life is perhaps the hardest human undertaking of all. It is THE Holy Grail of science’s many Holy Grails. It makes finding the atom about as difficult as finding the gift in a box of Crackerjack. And it might not be possible to find it, something I doubt most scientists would accept as a possibility, except maybe as motivation. Nonetheless, it may be unfindable. The evolutionary trail has gaps we know of, it’s sure to have gaps we don’t know about yet. The trail may be broken beyond recovery. And I don’t think that is terrible.

As heroic and nourishing to human knowledge as the search for the origin of life is, failure would not diminish us one iota. Just the opposite. We would still have learned so much more than we ever knew about the planet and ourselves, and perhaps the universe, and yet we would, in a perversely counterintuitive way, be liberated by our surrender to the mystery. Mystery is an essential nourishment to the human spirit. If we had all the answers to all the questions, we’d be stilled and wither to dry dust. Mystery waters our intelligence and feeds our soul. Mystery propels us.

There is something fantastic about the arrogance of mankind. I think we are meant to rage against the unknown, our puny fists shaking at the maddening silence. Regardless of where we came from, or what we started as, we are where and who we are because we, alone among other creatures, railed against the impossible mountain of the unknown, its dark, immutable silhouette rising against the unbending sky.

Failure to know everything is no more meaningful than our failure to wipe all the stars from the heavens with the sweep of a hand.

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I’m not a scientist, but I did sleep in a Holiday Inn Express once. No, seriously, next best thing, I once owned the science magazine Discover and almost 30 years before that was part of the team that launched perhaps the best science magazine ever published, OMNI. I have an infinite curiosity about and love of science and a quasi-hero worship of most scientists. Unlike many of those scientists, I believe in God—but unlike a lot of believers, I don’t think that God, except for offering some useful behavioral advice, ever intended to lay out our lives for us like some divine carpet, nor lit a path we’re supposed to slavishly follow. I believe God created life and left us in the day care of existence to get on with it.

I think there is a physical place and process where life as we know it began, or there was—maybe it’s gone now, eroded, grown over, consumed by geological restlessness or indifference. I don’t think it matters, ironically heretical though that may sound. What matters is that everything we learn along the way invigorates us, makes us intellectually and philosophically greater, and also, valuably, humbler.

There are many wonderful and elaborate theories of how life began, all superbly reasoned, most popularly centered around our coming from hydrothermal vents, or single cells learning to metabolize. These are our real past lives. Forget about being Cleopatra (because, er, you weren't). But you were a spore, a bacteria, a fish, a primate. Somewhere in the infancy of your past lives cycle you were a stripped down, minimalist organism that merely metabolized. All that is pretty sure. Like the old ad slogan for Virginia Slims, you’ve come a long way, baby.

But did you think, back at that colorless beginning? At the first dawn, the first breath of biological existence, was there thought? What was the first biological decision—why was it taken? Was it simply a chemical response to a pivotal moment? An instinctual convulsion? An accident? Those would seem logical explanations, right? But then is it life without thought? Is not the key to knowing the origin of life first being certain what life is?

But what is life? What lives? That question is imminently answerable and infinitely unanswerable. We can declare definitions—that which replicates, lives—but we cannot answer the question: is it life if it doesn’t have a soul? Is everything that doesn’t have what we think of as a soul merely some variation of automatic replication, the biological equivalent of the artificial intelligence on our phones? You don’t need to accept the religious connotation of soul—simply apply the notion of “self”, the original meaning of the word from the ancient Hebrew, that we have come to know as “soul”. If we find the origin of life, what life is it? Is it us? Or somewhere along the evolutionary trail did some extraordinary, non-biological transformation make us who we are?

Evolutionary science says of course we became thoughtful, and human, through chemical processes that happened for us and did not happen for any other species. But, honestly, can we be sure? Dogs think. Elephants mourn. A massive spectrum of animals are also thoughtful and innovative and smart and have empathy. Other animals have morality but—and I’m not saying this is progress—only we have immorality. As Mark Twain said, we are the only animal that blushes, or has to. Only we are capable of incalculable evil—and also incalculable goodness. Why?

That is our greatest mystery. Not so much how but why do we exist? That is the horizon we eternally chase.

So on a mournful night, we bay at a slipping moon. We cry for a distant home and our original parents, wherever and whoever they may be. We beseech the mystery.