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Is there other Life in the Universe?

In recent years astronomers and biologists have discovered that many of the molecules essential for life - purines, amino acids, etc. - seem to be widely distributed in the universe, and hence might gain a foothold on other suitable planets. Some maintain that these seeds of life, “transpermia,” wafting through the universe are the most likely reason for the origin of life on earth. But whether life on this planet began by a unique, fortuitous combination of elements in Darwin’s “warm little pond” or was jump-started by transpermia from afar, bear in mind that there is no evidence of any form of life during earth’s first billion years. Only at about 3.8 billion years ago have we found evidence for the first life forms, prokaryotes - simple cells without an organized nucleus. The phrase “from amoeba to man” is commonly invoked to suggest the great span of evolutionary history, but biologists know that the development of organized, self-replicating organisms from unorganized lifelike beginnings was an even more momentous step in evolution. What emerged from the original “blue-green algae stage”? Bacteria and their kin, the eukaryotes, and they have thrived!

Stephen Jay Gould has famously remarked that, if we were honest, we would call this epoch not “the age of mammals,” but “the age of bacteria.” It is sobering to realize that each of our bodies contains more bacteria than the total number of all humans and proto-human hominids throughout all history. Today we devote enormous energy to cultivating the bacteria we like, and developing antibiotics against those we don’t like. Because of selection the latter strategy is clearly beginning to fail. One could argue that the bacteria have expertly manipulated us toward their goals, not ours, and that an objective observer would not only declare bacteria “winners in the evolutionary race,” but might also add that they are also the kind of organisms most likely to survive after a human-induced Armageddon. From one point of view we are minor actors in a scheme of which we are largely unaware. From another point of view bacteria illustrate how very simple organisms can become spectacularly successful - aided immensely, of course, by invading complex organisms, and bending these hosts to their own purposes.

Contributed by: Dr. Irven DeVore

Cosmic Questions

Are We Alone? Topic Index
Not Likely

Is there other Life in the Universe?

Could E.T. Call Home?
Chance, Competition, and Catastrophe
The Rise and Near Extinction of Early Primates
The Improbable Path to Advanced Intelligence
The Origins of Human Intelligence
The Hominid Lineage


Irven DeVore

Related Media:

Is There Intelligent Life Elsewhere in the Universe?
Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
Was the Universe Designed?
Are We Alone?
Interview Index
Hubble Deep Field Animation
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