On the origin of an interstellar species

By | August 15, 2020

Caleb Scharf writes:

Once upon a time there was a molecule. That molecule, when it reacted with other molecules, set in motion a story that would result in the universe making another molecule almost exactly like that first one. Then that new molecule, when it reacted with other molecules, set in motion a story that would result in another molecule almost exactly like it. And all across the galaxy there were molecules setting stories in motion.

A fundamental property of the phenomenon we call life, as it exists here on Earth, is the propagation of stories—of algorithmic information, or process—into the future. Indeed, you might call it the central quality of life, or even the underlying reason for life which, in our case, just happens to be manifested in complex organic molecular structures. The precise history of these self-propagating stories here on Earth is excruciatingly hard to decode because what we see are the successes. We don’t witness the quadrillions of experiments that were absolute duds along the 4 billion year pathway to now. We also miss many of the lesser duds, the somewhat duds, and the turned-out-to-be-duds-in-the-end, all of which would be informative but are now lost.

But we do get to witness the mechanisms that have emerged to perform these experiments and, presumably, help to increase the odds of the success of life. A critical set of these mechanisms involve genetic exchange. For example, sexual reproduction is the most familiar to us and involves a genetic mix and match. It is an unparalleled way for a species to enhance their evolutionary experimentation—their search engine—by using functional gene variants, just re-mixed into different genomes. [Continue reading…]

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