Is Life Older Than the Earth?

The second law of thermodynamics demands, and it is generally accepted, that life tends toward greater and greater complexity.  That is to say that as biological entities evolve, they generally tend to develop into more complex entities.  The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy increases over time, which means that over time, all systems will evolve toward more and more disorder (or complexity).

The easiest way to think of entropy is to picture an egg.  In its lowest entropic state, a whole egg has only one possible configuration, whole.  In its highest entropic state the egg has many possible configurations, as there are many ways that a broken egg can exist.

This is a complicated way to say that life on Earth, as time goes on, will get more and more complex, and measurably so.  And this works in reverse as well.  When you look back through the continuum of biological life on Earth, you can see a logical progression from complex life to more simple forms of life, and some have suggested that the rate of change is predictable.  Much like the formula that describes the progression of electronic transistors in computers, Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law describes the rate at which computer technology advances.  Specifically the law states that the numbers of transistors that can be installed on integrated circuits will double every two years, or 18 months.  This can be measured by looking at the progression of computing power seen in consumer computer products as the years go by.  Moore’s Law was first described by Gordon E. Moore in his 1965 paper ‘Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits[1], and one of the most interesting things about Moore’s Law is that it can be used to plot not only the future of computing, but to pin point the origins as well.  When plotted on a graph, as seen below, one can easily see the start point of the exponential growth of transistor count in the 1970’s, which corresponds with the explosion of Silicon Valley companies endeavouring to take computers into the future.

 

Well, Alexi Sharov, Staff Scientist of the National Institute of Ageing in Baltimore, and Theoretical Biologist Richard Gordon of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Florida have applied Moore’s Law to biological life, or more specifically, directly to nucleotides (DNA and RNA) and genetic material, and they came up with some interesting conclusions.

Not only does biological evolution conform to Moore’s Law of exponential growth, but it can also be traced backward to pin point the origin of life on Earth [read: time of origin, not place or method of origin], or not on Earth as the case may be.

Their essay, available through Cornell University’s online Library[2], does much of the leg work for us, and quite surprisingly states that life’s origin predates the Earth.

Mathematically Moore’s Law applies quite well to the progression of life’s building blocks, and it seems to hold up well to physical comparison as well, but Sharov and Gordon are quick to point out that this is far from a theory and more of a thought experiment, as it’s impossible to know for sure if the complexity of life increased at a steady rate over time.

Visually outlined in the following graph, it’s easy to see, according to their hypothesis, that the progression of life, which apparently arose some 9.5 billion years ago, clearly predates the birth of our beloved planet, some 4.5 billion years ago.  Sharov and Gordon stop short of making any claims for the place or method of the origin of life and simply point to the possibility that life originated elsewhere and was transplanted on Earth at some point after it formed.

 

It’s worth noting that this idea is not a new one.  What is new is the mathematical language necessary to describe the progression as exponential.  No, this is an idea known as panspermia, which dates to the 5th century BC and is often attributed to the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, and has held proponents such as Lord Kelvin and Charles Darwin over the years.  Panspermia is the theory that suggests that life, the microscopic elements of life such as DNA and RNA, originated elsewhere in our galaxy or the universe, and that this life was deposited on Earth in the distant past by way of an asteroid or meteoric impact.  Contained within that asteroid or meteor were samples of single celled extremophiles that were hearty enough to survive the impact and ultimately flourished in early Earth conditions.

Like Sharov and Gordon, the panspermia theory does not speak to the method of creation or the location of our origins, but rather describes the highly plausible and possible scenario that we are not children of the earth, but that we are, in fact, children of the galaxy.

The above graph, taken from Sharov and Gordon’s paper, is striking in that it so clearly highlights the disparity between the origin of life and the birth of our planet.  The application of Moore’s Law to biological evolution seems to satisfy the second law of thermodynamics, even if the progression of life isn’t exactly exponential.  And the apparently empirical confirmation of panspermia theory will likely be viewed as a valuable insight into the development of life on our planet.



[1] Moore, Gordon E. (1965). “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits” (PDF). Electronics Magazine. p4.

[2] Sharov, Alexi & Gordon, Richard. 28 March 2013. Life Before EartharXiv:1304.3381 [physics.gen-ph] (PDF download)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.