The Origin of Life

Despite the conjectures of Descartes and LeMettrie, the phenomenon of life seemed for a long time to deny the dispiriting ramifications of Newtonian determinism and reductionism. The incredible order and complexity of life seemed incompatible with the simple deterministic laws of physics: from whence this complexity? The processes of biology are so finely coordinated, so tightly coupled, that it seemed in the 17th century (and still seems to many to this day) that life must be designed and orchestrated by some superior outside intelligence. Furthermore, the growth and spontaneous movement of living beings does not in any obvious way reflect simple, mechanical laws like the conservation of momentum. We do not behave as mere masses subject to forces, but initiate action on our own. Intuition tells us that this animation, this spontaneous movement and growth, is a key feature of life. Thales recognized as much in the 7th century BCE when he said, “The lodestone has life, or soul, as it is able to move iron”, as did Aristotle in associating life with movement (“The soul creates movement”).[25] As recently as the 19th century, the Vitalists articulated the same intuition, that only some elan vital could produce life’s spontaneity in a universe of dead matter.

To make the Newtonian world view work, some explanation was necessary of how purposeful, animated, complex life forms could emerge from dead chemicals.

The original mechanical conception of life—heart as pump, lungs as bellows—was spectacularly unsuccessful in explaining much more than the circulation of the blood (and actually, not even that[26]). It was only in the 19th century, with the work of Mendel and Darwin, that there was any real progress reconciling the simplicity of physics and chemistry with the seeming animation and purpose of Nature. By the end of the 20th century the sciences of molecular biology and genetics purported to provide, if not a solution, at least the outline of a solution to all the fundamental mysteries of life, from its origin, to its evolution, to its present behavior. Not coincidentally, the Grand Synthesis of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics solved these problems in a way that reinforced the defining ideologies of our civilization: the discrete and separate self, the program to control the world, the primacy of competition as an agent of progress, and the destiny of humankind to eventually transcend nature through technology.

At present, the dominant understanding of change in nature is Neodarwinism, which Lynn Margulis has summarized as “an attempt to reconcile Mendelian genetics, which says that organisms do not change with time, with Darwinism, which claims they do.”[27] In Mendelian genetics, variation within a species comes only from recombination of existing DNA, which denies the possibility of genuinely new traits ever emerging. However, overwhelming evidence from paleontology, embryology, genetics, and other fields make it clear that life indeed evolves over time, and that genuinely new features arise repeatedly across the eons.

Neodarwinism ascribes the source of this change to random mutation, and its direction to natural selection: the competition for the resources to survive and reproduce. Biological evolution is supposed to happen through a gradual accumulation of random point mutations, frameshift errors, accidental deletions and insertions, and other chance alterations to DNA, which are then “tried out” (expressed in actual organisms) in various combinations. Most mutations are either deadly or harmless, but occasionally one of them will create some new characteristic which confers a competitive advantage, enabling the new organism and its descendants to dominate the old in its ecological niche, or to occupy a new niche altogether. Over time, the accumulation of these new characteristics comes to define a new species.[28]

The traditional view of biology is that the self is the “expression of the genes”, which comprise the blueprint for morphology and the underlying determinant of behavior. Only in humans, it is thought, does the countervailing determinant of culture (sometimes) override or at least modify genetic “programming”. This is an old idea in new garb—in an earlier age it was not “genetic programming” but rather our “bestial nature”, “original sin”, or “the temptations of the flesh”. Either way, the conclusion is the same, that we are, with the rise of culture, transcending nature. We are transcending our biology and rising to a new estate, a uniquely human realm. Aside from the human exception, it is thought, all living beings follow their genetic program, acting on the environment according to the genes’ instructions (mediated through the machinery of proteins and their products).

To engineer an organism, then, is really just a matter of engineering its genes, whose properties are fundamentally isolable from the environment. The conception of the genes as the blueprint and program for the organism therefore abets the program of control as well as identifying them as the kernel of the biological self.

The blueprint-and-program genetic paradigm dovetails nicely with Cartesian objectivity. The genes are separate from the environment which they try to manipulate, and themselves only affected by the environment accidentally, through random mutation. This view parallels the view of man separate from nature, subject to its random “whims” perhaps, but nonetheless the master, the conscious manipulator of unconscious matter. It also parallels the Cartesian conception of the soul, residing at the body’s control center and supervising its actions. Ironically enough, it parallels as well the conventional Christian conception of God, running nature from a separate vantage point outside nature. Orthodox genetics fits in very well with all our culture’s assumptions about self and world. No wonder there has been such resistance to alternative understandings of the genes that see them as instruments of environmental purpose, and not the kernel of autonomous, discrete biological selfhood.

In Chapter Six we will examine some of these alternatives, from those of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to present-day iconoclasts like Bruce Lipton. When the blueprint-and-program model of the genes falls, much else will fall with it.

A good way to see the cultural ramifications of modern biology is to start with its account of the origin of life, and its answers to the eternal human questions of “Where did we come from?” “Why are we here?” and, “Where are we going?” Evolutionary biology has given us the outlines of a story of the origin of life—our creation myth. Like all creation myths, it encodes deep-seated cultural values as well as our sense of ourselves as a people. I will introduce it with an eye for the cultural assumptions and biases it implies. “In believing this,” I will ask, “what do we necessarily believe about ourselves?” Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Where are we going? Not only are the answers encoded within the creation story that we choose to believe in, they predispose us toward that creation story.

Richard Dawkins’ 1990 book, The Selfish Gene, lucidly presents the prevailing view of biogenesis, conceived a hundred years ago by Oparin and Haldane. Like the Neodarwinian theory of evolution, it hinges on two key features: random mutation and natural selection. The story starts with a prebiotic soup of the organic molecules that are the building blocks of life. The crucial event is the appearance, by chance, of a complex molecule with the very special property of catalyzing the formation of a new copy of itself. Admittedly, the probability of this happening randomly is exceedingly low, but it only had to happen once, because as soon as such a molecule existed, it began creating copies of itself. Dawkins calls this molecule a replicator—the precursor to the first gene.

Soon the ocean was full of such replicators. Not all of them were the same though, because random copying errors created a number of variants. Some of them varied in ways that rendered them unable to create copies of themselves. Such species quickly disappeared. Other variants were more stable or more fecund (i.e. they replicated faster), so they became more common in the “soup”. At some point, the chemical building blocks became scarce, and some replicator variants no longer could reproduce so well. Other variants did much better—for instance, those that were able to cannibalize other replicators and use their parts. Conditions changed, and as they changed, some random variants did better than others. At some point, again through random copying errors (mutations), some replicators emerged with new properties: protective protein coats, for instance, and eventually, protein-based machinery to exercise homeostasis within a lipid membrane. Innumerable failures accompanied each evolutionary jump to a higher level of complexity. For each mutation that enjoyed an advantage in survival and replication, there were thousands that were doomed to extinction.

A sponsoring assumption in the “selfish gene” biogenesis story is that there is a clear demarcation between organism and environment. There are the replicators, which are distinct from one another, and there is the substrate. The key event in the origin of life is the appearance of a molecule, presumably a strand of RNA or something like it, that can replicate itself. The separate individual is seen as primary. How naturally this fits in with the beliefs of our own culture: that human beings are separate from nature, and that each of us has a distinct, separate existence independent of other human beings. How naturally it accords with the attitude that nature is a collection of resources for us to use to our best advantage. Replicator and substrate, humanity and natural resources, self and environment. The very word “environment” assumes the viability of the inside/outside distinction, the self/non-self distinction.

So deeply are these assumptions ingrained that only with difficulty can we even recognize them as assumptions and not objective facts about reality. We can hardly conceive of an origin of life that does not start with an original living creature, discrete and separate from its environment, because that is how we conceive an organism, a “being”. Yet other cultures recognized a more fluid identity in which the defining unit was the family, the tribe, the village, the forest. The very meaning of “I” is culturally determined. The shaman Martin Prechtel speaks of a culture in which a person beseeching a medicine man to cure his ailing wife says not, “My wife is sick” but rather, “My family is sick.”[29] The sickness is as much his own as his wife’s. Or if a few individuals in the village are sick, he might say, “My village is sick.” Even if a Western doctor might judge him a magnificent specimen of bodily health, he would not agree with the statement “I am healthy” because to him, “I” means something different than it does to us. Its boundaries are more fluid. For him to say, “I am healthy but my family, village, forest, or world is sick” would be as absurd as to say, “I am healthy but my liver, kidneys, and heart are sick.” Someone immersed in such a culture might not see the appearance of a replicator as the key event in biogenesis at all.

This is not merely an enlightened understanding that no person can be truly healthy if his family, village, or ecosystem is not healthy; it is a broader definition of self that includes family, village, and ecosystem. It is an understanding written into such spiritual teachings as the hermetic principle “As above, so below,” the Taoist concept of an internal universe embodying all the relationships that exist externally, and the Buddhist teachings of karma—that anything you do to the world, you do to yourself—and the unreality of the self. It is very difficult for us moderns to understand the non-dualistic teachings of ancient religions, including Christianity, except through the lens of dualism. Thus karma is misunderstood as an outside universe somehow exacting revenge for misdeeds and rewarding good deeds. Animism is misunderstood as all things possessing a separate substance, spirit. “As above so below” is misunderstood to imply an independently existing line of demarcation (the self) between two independent realms. Christianity is misunderstood to posit a God fundamentally separate from this life and this earth. These misunderstandings all stem from our conception of the self. Similarly, our conception of the self predisposes us toward (and then draws further support from) the Neodarwinian story of biogenesis and evolution, and blinds us to competing tales of potentially greater explanatory power. Blind also are we to evidence for them in nature, which we either ignore, dismiss as an interesting curiosity or exception, or awkwardly attempt to explain away in the terms of competition and survival.[30] Nonetheless, scientifically cogent theories of biogenesis that do not start with a separate-and-discrete replicator do exist. In these, ecosystem and not organism is primary, or life is a fundamental property of the universe. I explore such theories in Chapter Six; predictably, they will have consequences far beyond biology, since they suggest a very different concept of what a “self” is.

Another key feature of Neodarwinian biogenesis and evolution is the absence of purpose or intention. No replicator planned on developing a protein coat or any other feature. Each new mutation happened by chance and survived only because this new configuration was better able to survive and replicate. Evolution is the random, undirected exploration of the space of possible replicating molecules. All the life forms we see today in their bewildering complexity are nothing more than the devices by which these replicators, now genes, survive and reproduce themselves.

Accordingly, the fundamental explanation for the behavior of living beings, including humans, is that genes program such behavior because it confers a competitive advantage on the organism, enabling it to better survive and pass on those genes. So in observing animal behavior, the Darwinian biologist asks, “What competitive advantage does such behavior serve?” and looks for an explanation in those terms. It is assumed that the genes essentially “program” the morphology and behavior of living beings; a mutant gene might program a different behavior, which may or may not aid the chances of reproduction. Those that do, survive; those that don’t, go extinct. Analogous thinking underlies the anthropological and paleontological study of human beings: Again the scientist asks, “What competitive advantage does such behavior serve?” or, “How does this adaptation (biological or technological) contribute to survival?” Implicit in Darwin is the assumption that competition and survival are the proper terms by which to understand the living world.

Now, most people I know don’t behave like ruthless maximizers of their genetic self-interest. Does that mean that, thank goodness, culture has sufficiently conditioned us into moral, ethical, socially responsible beings? Or is it the other way around? Is it instead that our true nature is love, wholeness, and creativity, and that culture drills into us a survival anxiety that thwarts the expression of our true nature? Do you sometimes truly desire to “do the right thing,” to dedicate yourself to serving other people, to doing good work, but feel you cannot “afford to”? This is an important question. Paralleling the broader technological conquest of nature, the contemporary understanding of genetics motivates a war against human nature.

Because it is based on random mutation, there is no directedness, no purpose to evolution. There is therefore, at bottom, no purpose to human existence either, except for that programmed into us by our genes. To put it in the simplest terms, the purpose of life is to survive—to survive and reproduce. That is, as Dawkins puts it, “the ultimate rationale for our existence.”

So that we do not underestimate the ramifications of that statement, let’s examine what the “ultimate rationale” for love might be. The genes program a mother to love her offspring, because the behavior that comprises love helps the offspring survive to adulthood and pass on those same genes to the next generation. Our genes code for the production of certain proteins which are the construction materials for the glandular and neurological machinery that is in turn the production site for the hormones and neurotransmitters that we experience as love. Romantic love also contributes to the replication of our genes in the most obvious way, and through similar mechanisms. These confer such a huge advantage in survival-and-replication of our genes, that it is worth having them even if they get “misapplied” sometimes: directed at other people’s children, for instance, or at humanity in general or life in general. Forget all sentimental religious or spiritual theories about love—its real essence is simply a way to maximize the survival of your genes.

This is “natural selection”—the struggle to survive. Darwinism sees the world of life as essentially a vast competition for survival, in which the life forms that survive are those that outcompete the others for scarce resources. How like the society of Darwin’s time! In the age of Laissez-Faire economics, described as a dog-eat-dog world, the theory of evolution by natural selection must have seemed intuitively obvious. And not only is life a competition, but competition is good, the engine of progress—not just biological progress (evolution) but technological and economic progress as well. This view helps motivate the Technological Program, because it enables us to dominate (that is, outcompete) the rest of nature. It is explicit in liberal economic theory, whose models draw out positive consequences of competition. The parallel in economic discourse to Darwinian evolution is nearly exact: the fittest firms survive, the less fit go extinct, and the competitive environment pushes all of them to continually improve through efficiency and innovation.[31] Without competition, what would push firms ever to improve on last year’s model? Images of the “dinosaur” firms of the old Soviet Union come to mind.

In fact, the competition that we see as the driving force of life and evolution is very much a projection of our own cultural beliefs. Just as we project our own anxiety onto primitive peoples, so also do we project the relentless competitiveness of modern human life onto nature. Competition is an important part of nature, of course, but I do not believe that it is the prime mover, the defining feature, nor the engine of progress. In Chapter Six I will lay out another paradigm, based on cooperation and symbiotic merger, that invites a very different set of cultural values and which might inform a very different system of economics and technology.

The competition-based Darwinist paradigm not only drew support from its cultural milieu, but reinforced it as well. It seemed to offer a justification for the terrible social inequalities that existed between rich and poor, as well as for the relationship between the various “races of man”. The rich and powerful were more “fit” and therefore deserved to thrive, while the poor, bless their souls, were less fit and their demise nothing more than the course of nature. Liberals and conservatives agreed on this fundamental premise even as they disagreed on what to do about it. Liberals lamented the plight of these inferior people and races and sought to soften the blow, arguing that man could rise above nature, red in tooth and claw; conservatives, on the other hand, believed this genetic triage to be a good thing. Some even went so far as to oppose any sort of government intervention to bring better conditions to the poor on the grounds that it would weaken the gene pool, allowing the less fit to survive. Such thinking taken to a further extreme led to the movement in the United States, coordinated in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, to purposefully strengthen the gene pool through the forced sterilization of “inferior” people such as mental patients and prisoners. In Germany, of course, this “science of eugenics” helped motivate the Holocaust.

This is one way the principle of reductionism can lead to the program of engineering and control and, quite literally, “reduces” life. For the eugenicists of Cold Spring Harbor and Nazi Germany, here finally was a “scientific” basis for the ultimate engineering project: the improvement of the human race. The rationalistic garb of the Nazi program was more than just a cloak for barbarism; it was basic to the whole enterprise of eugenics. Moreover, the distancing of the researcher from the object of study that defines objective scientific inquiry also contributed to the dehumanization of their victims. Naturally, then, bland technocrats such as Adolf Eichmann played key roles in orchestrating the logistics of the Holocaust, which, when reduced to the language of the factory—inputs, outputs, job specializations, and budgets—is cognitively no different from any other engineering problem.

I do not mean to lay the blame for social Darwinism, and certainly not for ethnic cleansing, at the feet of humble, humane Charles Darwin (although hints of these ideas may be found in his writing[32]), but rather to illustrate that scientific theories do not exist in isolation from their social environment. Darwinism was born in an environment conducive to its acceptance, and its concepts, in turn, reinforced and accelerated preexisting trends. Darwinism was both a cause and an effect of ideas like “Competition is good,” “Competition is the way of nature,” and “Competition is the engine of progress.” Equally, and on a deeper level, Darwinism was a consequence of the millennia of separation that preceded it, as well as a major impetus accelerating that separation to its present climax. Darwinism constitutes a necessary scientific apparatus for the projection of our defining ideology—the discrete and separate self—onto biology.

The primacy of competition in nature (and human nature) dovetails closely with the ideology of the discrete self living in an objective universe. Life as a competition for resources necessitates that there be competitors, discrete subjects whose conflicting interests drive the constant struggle for survival. It also implies a distinction between life and resources, that translates in our perceptions to a distinction between self and world.

These interdependencies ensure that as long as the Age of Separation holds sway over our thoughts, the Neodarwinian synthesis will reign as orthodoxy no matter what practical difficulties it encounters. Indeed, current attempts to explain the emergence of the first replicator have run into severe, probably insuperable difficulties, which theorists explain away along the lines of, “Something like this must have happened, there is no other way.” Analogues to these difficulties plague the entire story of evolution-based-on-random-mutation-and-natural-selection. The principle difficulty is what various writers have termed the “bootstrap problem” or “irreducible complexity”. I will examine irreducible complexity in detail in Chapter Six, because the nature of the problem points, conspicuously, to the different conception of self that I have hinted at throughout this book. Whether in Darwin’s time or today, the standard theory of life’s origin and evolution owes its acceptance more to its integration into our overall conception of self and world than to its scientific merits.

Note to the scientific reader: If you still suspect I have an agenda of “Intelligent Design”, you haven’t been reading very carefully. From my perspective, mechanism and Intelligent Design are opposed only superficially. Both imply that any spirit must come from the outside; they disagree only on whether such an outside spirit, intelligence, or organizing principle exists. The alternative I offer builds on substantial groundwork that I develop in Chapter Six, but here is a preview:

I offer the reader not a mundane universe in which nothing is sacred because there is no God, nor a split universe in which some things are holy, of God, and others just matter, but rather a universe that is fully sacred, pregnant with meaning, immanent with God, in which order, pattern, and beauty arise spontaneously from the ground up, neither imposed from above by a designer nor projected from within by the observer, and of which God is an inseparable property. The marvelous complexity and beauty of nature is not some consolation prize for science’s denial of the sacred, but evidence that the universe is itself sacred.

Such a shift in world view, of course, carries profound implications for the way we live. Conventionally, technology has been seen as a logical extension of natural evolution, an acceleration of the biological imperative to outcompete other life forms and extract more energy from the environment. The history of technology seems to bear this out, as it has allowed us to usurp enough of the earth’s solar income and biomass to support six billion humans today, as compared to a few million in the Stone Age. It is, however, becoming increasingly apparent that our present way of life and relationship to the planet is not sustainable. As we saw in Chapter One, the Technological Program is failing. Perhaps a new understanding of life’s evolution based on symbiosis, interconnectedness, and emergent order will inspire a new mode of technology as well, that does not put us into opposition to the rest of life, that does not separate us from nature, and that does not consign us to the misery, alienation, loneliness, and powerlessness that have resulted from the specialization and mass scale of life that technology has brought.


[25] Acknowledgement for tracing Vitalism through Aristotle back to Thales goes to Johnjoe McFadden (Quantum Evolution, p. 7-9).


[26] Contrary to what is taught in medical school, the mechanical pump model does not successfully explain the circulation of the blood at all. I refer the reader to Craig Holdrege’s The Dynamic Heart and Circulation, or Tom Cowan’s The Fourfold Path of Healing. Notice that the traditional heart-driven model of circulation, in which the blood vessels are passive carriers of blood, is more at home in a dualistic worldview than the alternative hydraulic ram model in which circulation is an organic property of the whole system.


[27] Lynn Margulis, [interviewed in] The Third Culture by John Brockman, Simon and Schuster, 1995. p 133. Cited by Brig Klyce


[28] The foregoing is actually an account of gradualism, the classical form of neo-Darwinism still espoused by many biologists such as Ernst Mayr (see his recent book, What Evolution Is, for a pure exposition of this now-crumbling orthodoxy). However, the tide seems to have turned toward Stephan Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, which argues that the fossil record shows not gradual evolution but sudden, dramatic jumps followed by long periods of relative stasis. While some evolutionary biologists try to explain these jumps as statistical artifacts arising from the fossil record’s incompleteness, most accept at least some version of punctuated equilibrium. Their attempts to reconcile it with the gradual accretion of mutations usually involve some way of accumulated mutations resting unexpressed in the genome until triggered by a mutation in a coordinating gene. These attempts are highly problematic, but necessary in order to preserve the non-purposefulness of evolution.


[29] Talk to the Green Gathering conference, September 2003.


[30] To be sure, game theoretic models of cooperation demonstrate that it is consistent with self-interest, but they are subject to the same “bootstrap problem” that plagues every step of evolution that requires a significant jump in complexity. See Chapter Six for more on the bootstrap problem.


[31] The flip side of the coin is the prevalence of economic terminology in talking about ecosystems: the “profits” and “costs” of various adaptations.


[32] For example, in The Descent of Man (p. 201) we read regarding the future progress of humanity, “the break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the Negro or Australian and the Gorilla