In The Phenomenon of Man Teilhard de Chardin lays out his theory of different levels of life, which he calls spheres. These spheres are the geosphere or pre-life, the biosphere or life, and the noosphere or thought. (Image from Ponyo, Studio Ghibli 2008)
Teilhard was a Jesuit and a philosopher, with a chief interest in geology. An interesting feature of his work is precisely the connection between the pre-life and the advent of life. Though his science (from 1945) is mostly outdated, his philosophical speculations may well find support from recent research.
Pre-life in Teilhard primarily refers to the cosmological properties of the universe: the characteristics of unity and plurality, of energy and entropy, and evolution of matter and planets.
Secondly, Teilhard believed that a new science would be able to describe both the without (physical properties) and the within (consciousness). He believed consciousness was widespread through the whole of creation and in the heart of every atom. Pre-life refers to those glimpses of love, consciousness and freedom present in the most basic building-blocks of being.
Lastly Teilhard addresses the geosphere strictly speaking. Here he is vague in scientific details, but hammers down the notion that the rise of biological organisms from macro-molecules is not just a chance-event, but an intrinsic property of matter.
Whatever the quantitative disproportion of the masses the respectively involve, inorganic and organic chemistry are only and can only be two inseparable facets of one and the same telluric operation. And the second, no less than the first, must be regarded as already under way in the infancy of the earth.
The kinship between minerals and life has for long been a fascinating mystery. Carl von Linné included minerals alongside animals and plants in his Systema Naturae. Albertus Magnus describes the earth as a woman, pregnant with metals in her belly.
The geosphere for Teilhard de Chardin is a pre-biosphere. Teilhard situates the origins of life in the ocean, in an environment that was inevitably liquid, heavy and active.
As we continue peering into the abysses of the past, we can see its colour changing.From age to age it increases in intensity. Something is going to burst out upon the early earth, and this thing is Life.
In hindsight, Teilhard’s guess was not a bad one.
In 1976 an expedition in the Galapagos islands started finding the first evidence of sea-vents. A year later the submersible Alvin was sent down to inspect these curious phenomena. Jack Corliss, a geologist in the submersible saw them directly as possible sites for the dawn of life on Earth.
In 1991, geochemist Michael Russell theorized about previously unseen geological formations: undersea hydrothermal hotspots where water rich in minerals was coughed up from underneath the crust before falling in the colder surrounding water, thereby forming “chemical gardens” of hollow rocks stretching up from the ocean-bottom.
In 2000, Deborah Kelley, a marine geologist of the University of Washington visited the ridge that runs along the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. There they found exactly the kind of rock formation Russell had talked about. It was named the Lost City.
Russell started theorizing about his chemical gardens as being one possible location for the origin of life. Instead of focusing on the chemical structure of DNA and RNA he thought of life primarily as energy.
Within modern organisms there is another clue to life’s origins, … the way cells harvest energy by shuffling around electrically charged molecules. This process goes by the mouthful ‘chemiosmosis’… Chemiosmosis lacks the coded rigour of DNA, but that primal messiness might be exactly what makes it so revealing.
Energy, Russell thinks, must have preceded anything resembling DNA or RNA, so the origin of chemiosmosis could help to reveal how the first organisms arose.
Russell thinks chemical gardens may solve this problem. The Earth’s early oceans were acidic, the article continues…
meaning it had a high concentration of protons. Water bubbling up through hydrothermal vents, in contrast, is normally alkaline, meaning it has fewer protons. This difference would have created a natural proton waterfall spilling from the ocean into the rocks, the tiny protons percolating through the mineral labyrinth.
More evidence in the past years points towards Russell’s theory:
- “A 2015 genomic study provided (…) an analysis of nearly 40 genes strongly suggested that the most ancient microbes generated methane from carbon dioxide and hydrogen. This analysis dovetails with geological work showing that methane formed by biological processes is the earliest organic compound found in ancient rocks.”
- “(S)ome of the few proteins shared by all living things, from microbes to mammals, contain tiny clusters of minerals at their core, implying that early life had an intimate relationship with rocks.”
- An ion gradient is in seawater and by the vents, and it is a vital component for life.
- “Geoscientists think that (…) a little less than 4 billion years ago, our planet endured a heavy bombardment by space rocks.” This means the surface was not a great place for life to appear at the time.
- Also the surface was very inhospitable because the Earth did not have an ozone layer and the ultraviolet radiation was much stronger.
Another insight backs up Teilhard’s ideas about cosmic development. The MIT physicist Jeremy England, also an Orthodox Jew, has devised a mathematical formula that shows how matter naturally tends to gather itself into heat-dissipating systems. In a talk at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, England praised Norse mythology for the insight that life originally came from hoarfrost.
From the stand-point of physics, living systems are systems that are good at taking in energy from the environment and dissipating that energy as heat. In an article in Quanta he said: “This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments.”
This would mean life is a natural effect of the laws of nature and its appearance “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.” But life is not the only system that organizes itself to dissipate energy, similar structures include sand dunes, whirlpools, snowflakes, turbulent vortices and clusters of silver show similar characteristics.