Analects of the Core: Lane on the origin of life


Night followed day in swift succession. On earth at that time a day lasted for only five or six hours. The planet spun madly on its axis. The moon hung heavy and threatening in the sky, far closer, and so looking much bigger, than today. Stars rarely shone, for the atmosphere was full of smog and dust, but spectacular shooting stars regularly threaded the night sky. The sun, when it could be seen at all through the dull red smog, was watery and weak, lacking the vigour of its prime. Humans could not survive here. Our eyes would not bulge and burst, as they may on mars; but our lungs could find no breath of oxygen. We’d fight for a desperate minute, and asphyxiate.

The earth was named badly. ‘Sea’ would have been better. Even today, oceans cover two-thirds of our planet, dominating views from space. Back then, the earth was virtually all water, with a few small volcanic islands poking through the turbulent waves. In thrall to that looming moon, the tides were colossal, ranging perhaps hundreds of feet. Impacts of asteroids and comets were less common than they had been earlier, when the largest of them flung off the moon; but even in this period of relative tranquility, the oceans regularly boiled and churned. From underneath, too, they seethed. The crust was riddled with cracks, magma welled and coiled, and volcanoes made the underworld a constant presence. It was a world out of equilibrium, a world of restless activity, a feverish infant of a planet.

It was a world on which life emerged, 3,800 million years ago, perhaps animated by something of the restlessness of the planet itself. We know because a few grains of rock from that bygone age have survived the restless aeons to this very day. Inside them are trapped the tiniest specks of carbon, which bear in their atomic composition the nearly unmistakable imprint of life itself.

[from Chapter 1, pages 8-9, of Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, by Nick Lane, a book now studied in CC106: Biodiversity]

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