Research News

Academic experts across disciplines tackle questions surrounding the origins of life

by Skylar Cuevas

On June 17, the School of Medicine Basic Sciences brought together a biologist, a Christian theologist, a philosopher and an astrophysicist in a Lab-to-Table conversation to explore their views and academic perspectives on the origins of life.

Ian Macara, Ellen Armour, Lenn Goodman and Steven Taylor also provided insight into how their respective fields pursue the concept of life.

“There are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on every beach, in every country … and many of those stars, we think, have planets around them,” or exoplanets, said Macara, Louise B. McGavock Chair and chair of the department of cell and developmental biology.

With these statistics, astronomers like Taylor have a difficult time believing we are alone in this universe, even though the commonality and randomness of life have not yet been quantified.

Taylor, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, talked about looking for life by scouting for gases that are not typically produced by the atmospheres of exoplanets. To find intelligent life, they look for more advanced engineering such as Dyson spheres—which would be hypothetical proof of intelligent civilizations capturing stellar energy, he said.

Armour, who holds the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair in religion, gender and sexuality, said that Christian theology, historically, has largely overlooked the idea of life beyond Earth. She explained how the field has begun to think about the possible broadness of life to contemplate creation as being an ongoing event rather than an isolated occurrence—introducing a new way of thinking about God.

Differences present themselves among various kinds of life as organisms establish roles in the natural order, which is all part of God’s higher intelligence and the role of “the idea of divine mystery and the idea of divine transcendence,” Armour added. Differences present themselves among various kinds of life, divine or not, to establish different roles.

Those differing roles have differing purposes—a key distinguishing factor between life and non-life, said Goodman, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the humanities and professor of philosophy.

“The thing that matters most about life, is that life contains value, pursues value and is oriented toward that,” Goodman said. Although the non-living theory of evolution has no knowledge of the image or foundation of perfection, its path still leads toward perfection. Evolution migrates biological diversity on its quest for intelligence and autonomy, he said.

The origins of energy and elements often are discussed alongside the origin of life. Macara suggested that solar energy and meteorites are energy sources, and that elements form as a result of these stellar detonations and collisions. Still, these are only the building blocks of life, not life itself. So how did life come to be?

Conflicts between science and religion over the origins of life have existed for thousands of years—was it a divine being or a foundational explosion? Yet there also are movements such as panentheism that view science and religion as compatible. Armour defines panentheism as “all is in God and God is in all,” or that God is the creator of the explosions, movements and possibilities in life—but that ultimately there is utter freedom among the multitude of possibilities.

While Macara believes that advanced computer technology will allow humanity to arrive at plausible explanations for the true origins of life, he thinks the intervening billions of years make it impossible to know which explanation is THE explanation.

View the full discussion here.