How life came about and how it will kill us

Life likely began with undersea hydrothermal vent chemistry

Here I compare the internal energy and evolution systems of life, with those external energy systems of our massive global fossil fuel powered civilization, which only a long lived, evolved planetary life systems like ours could have enabled. Our dependency on all biosphere life systems will ultimately kill our species.

As our brief high-tech ultra connected civilization descends into its death throws, here is a reflection on what stories biological scientists have recently evidenced about life's beginnings. Our once young earth, going back to 4 billion years, ago,  experienced then large global ocean tides from a much closer moon, and dimly warmed by a younger sun. At the volcanic edges of our then very mobile tectonic plates, both waters and mantle minerals reacted together, heating the water and exchanging minerals. There is much water locked in the churning hot mantle.  

Deep sea vents had ideal conditions for origin of life

Worlds oldest microfossils

Large thermal vents formed from a continuous supply of minerals and dissolved gases, from volcanic mantle material, and these grew into tall shafts of new accretions of reactive minerals, and created networks of tiny mineral pores inside as which were incubators of organic molecules. Such compartmentalization seems to be an essential part of living metabolic networks. The growing chemical complexity created chemical information that tended towards thermodynamic stability. Chemical feedback systems maintained themselves and evolved complexity in the chaos conditions of these chains of flowing molecular energy.

Life discovered hydrogen proton power

Carbon dioxide, metal sulphides, hydrogen sulphide, heat, created organic molecules that followed their spontaneous paths of energy release, and releasing more chemical energy powered yet more reactions. At some stage these reactions encouraged gradients of hydrogen ions across fatty acid membranes, aided by gradients with outside alkaline flows, and membrane electrical gradients themselves managed to  become itself a powerful driver of synthesis of portable energy molecules. We know this happened because this mechanism is inside all living biochemical entities.

Life is agents of travelling bounded chemistry

Membranes become bounded as primitive cells, that maintained and used such proton gradients for biosynthesis. Natural selection in a limited environment found chemical ways to prolong their existence and reproduce the metabolic patterns, and evolution has been working on selecting the best chemical reaction reproducers ever since.

Evolution is far, far cleverer than human engineers

Nick Lane has worked hard at his research job, and now describes the evolution of the properties of life chemistry in his now growing list of several books. Most recently I was re-reading Chapter 1 of "Life Ascending : The ten great inventions of evolution".  Human civilization is just another of those inventions of evolution, but not so great, because we most certainly should never have chosen to invent anything like ourselves. The chemistry of life eventually transformed the chemical makeup of oceans and atmosphere, making a world habitable for multicellular creatures like ourselves. Now our civilization is doing its own rapid geo-engineering transformation of our planet  by  burning massive quantities of buried fossilized life.

Life has better information technology that keeps itself up to date

Chapter 2 describes what more is known about the natural origins of DNA chemistry. Current findings surprised most of our cleverest human notions expressed about how nature should have perfected its genetic code. Chapter 3 gives us photosynthesis, another problem we humans have yet to reproduce and satisfy with industrial technology. Our solar panels make electricity, but cannot make food. Chapter 4 is about the miracle of the complex cell, which seems to have broken  normal rules of evolutionary DNA inheritance in a combinatorial episode of symbiosis of different kinds of bacteria.

Life is powered by solar energy

Life exploded out of the darker depths of ocean volcanic mineral growths, and exploited new sources of chemical energy.  I was interested to discover that photosynthesis mechanisms in plants, again evolved by symbiosis, depend on light photon energy being used to split water as the first step. This is where the hydrogen, and electrons, and production of oxygen comes from, to be used in subsequent biosynthesis steps. The protein - metal enzyme cluster will then use a second photo zap to push hydrogen and electrons via carriers onto carbon dioxide.  The carbon and oxygen atoms from CO2 are linked by energy using reactions into sugar molecules.

Nature's hydrogen economy starts with water splitting

In this online description of photosynthesis, the oxidation (splitting) of water is the first step. Without this, subsequent steps do not take place. I can find online reports of how insufficient water for plants cuts down their rates of photosynthesis in plant leaves. So the greening of the warming world, promised by fossil fuel fanatics, "CO2 is a fertilizer", is demonstrably limited by heat stress for plant transpiration of water, sucking them dry. I often see some of my gardens plant leaves wilting in our summer heat.

Multicellular organisms are natures machines, much cleverer and better than those of civilization.

The complex cell toolkit has enabled the somatic cell organ specializations of multicellular organisms, the high rates of metabolism of oxygen for active animals,  sexual reproduction, and engendered efficient natural selection for the genes found in all of the most visible parts of the great tree of life, and the greening and flowering of our earth. Chapter 10 is about death, for the penalty of having a specialized germ cell line that carries our genetic immortality, is that our somatic cells are all disposable, and natural selection cares much less for them after reproduction.

Nature regenerates all the time, civilization destroys to build short term

Like somatic cells of an organism, the people units, and biological resources of a civilization treated as being entirely disposable. Human elites and elders regard themselves as "guardians" of their nations and culture. Others are instruments for manipulation in their goals. The welfare of the whole, and of other nations, is about short term political pragmatic gain. Civilizations and culture age rapidly because it is soon too voracious for ecosystem stability. The capacity for all civilizations to regenerate diminishes entirely after a few generations of peak growth and expansion efforts at "colonization".

Nature mastered the hydrogen economy. We haven't

All living biological beings make use of evolved internal cell technology of a chemical energy maintained, proton gradient, across a significant areas of membranes or internal chamber walls, to enable the creation small units of chemical energy currency.The energy production has to be coordinated with the cells metabolic requirements to maintain its structure.

This is now characteristic of every living biological entity. How and way it developed like this is a puzzle.  Nick Lane's chapters have some explanations of what metabolism gains from this.  Only viruses don't have this, as they are life-maintained packets of hijack information in transit.

Humans are not yet battery powered

The power systems of living beings surely beats the dead hell of  our still puny human engineering efforts at making hydrogen fuel cells, and batteries, as we try to manipulate fundamental properties of matter elements and energy. Life evolution allowed these properties to work themselves out. Our technologic efforts at imagining a hydrogen economy pale in comparison to the ongoing efficient metabolisms of all the things that have lived from the past to today. Life started by abiotic combination of hydrogen with carbon dioxide over 3 billion years ago. Todays hydrothermal vents are today not numerous nor powerful enough, even if we could exploit and ruin them to power a civilization hydrogen economy. Evolution is about working at the smallest of scales, with the most compact information.

Evolution's chemical reactions are exact calculations. Douglas Adams illustrated this with his serious joke about the Earth being the ultimate computer for life and meaning in the Universe.

Nature uses energy molecules as valid internal currency. Civilization has debt system, called biosphere pays later.

Some spontaneous small products of hydrothermal vent chemistry, more reactive free radicals, are on the critical path of getting carbon dioxide to react with hydrogen, and make organic molecules.  Pyruvate is formed spontaneously here, and has a key role in the roundabout of all important metabolic cycles. Acetyl thioester can react with dissolved phosphate, to make acetyl phosphate, an energy carrier similar to ATP, and that acetyl phosphate carrier is still used alongside ATP by some bacteria today. Reactive phosphate molecules are every cells internal energy currency, a kind of energy tag, that travels all over a cell looking for reactions to energize. 

Human thinking is animal predator thinking ruled by appetite.

The reasons for fossil fueled civilizations approaching global demise are exactly the same as what drives all processes in our universe and drives our universal computation time forwards. Energy is always seeking its own release. It is both creative and destructive, but never in the same place at the same time. Its physics is computational and exact, our bodies run by the same, but our evolved and transient states of consciousness are an information passenger that is recording memory traces as we are being taken for a ride. We are driven to compete for resources, mates and territorial security. The history and workings of the internal and external complex systems that drive us are obscure to nearly all of us.

Human understanding comes last and late

Our privileged place of observation and reactive volition, is the result of about 3.5 billion years of Evolution of intricate chemical reactions and their embodied information gathering. The knowledge is in the complexity and existence of the system itself. Our social build-up of sciences of knowledge is only very recent, and is having a very hard time making an impression on the evolved mechanisms, instincts and prejudices of our tribal brains and political social behavior.  Human consciousness and understanding is always after the fact.  Natures biologic system are the facts, only some of which we are getting to learn.

Evolution produces civilized lucky idiots to run things as long as they can reproduce

Self knowledge is such a difficult process, because our instincts have been geared purely to our germ line survival. After reaching reproduction age, our genomes gradually lose their powers given by survival selection. After early adulthood, our cultural learning is hard-bound to the mistakes and assumptions of our formative years. We are enslaved by our locked in complexity.

Our national institutions , constitutions, and hierarchies of power, and industrial systems of resource processing, consumption, and waste, are bound to the capital machines, built-up infrastructure, rules and regulations, and religious indoctrination, that evolved in escalating explosions of change over the last millennia, powered by ever increasing knowledge and technology of applied exploitation. We sometimes call it capitalism, but it is an out of control chemical reaction with a mind of its own, even as it benefits our population growth.

Actual reproduction of humans is said to be slowing down, as hormone disrupting, long lived chemicals that we made now circulate through the biosphere and our food webs. This is a much needed environmental feedback to damp down our own reproductive activity. Only population and consumption degrowth can save us, while civilization must collapse, or at least slow down its energy burning to the slowest of crawls.

The facts of life are very hard facts of life.

Everything is evolving context. Our new context is that using fossil fuel energy is ecocidal, and supplies of coal, oil and gas, are still being used up at our still exponential rates of growth. As still promoted by the reproducing jackboots in the mass media. The last big oil fields that form the bulk of global oil supply are declining in net output at an inflation inducing rate of about 6% year.

Net fossil fuel energy quantity and energy density is falling.

Energy companies publish misleading figures of total gross production, making it seem we are sustaining global oil supply.

We still produce  near peak volumes of hydocarbon liquids with which to feed and power civilization. Desperate applications are being made for the lessor quality and more energy costly gas and coal sources. Such projects will also be locally and globally harmful. At the same time dubious carbon offsets are invented by governments interested in dodgy greenhouse gas accounting.

Food production will fall, with food price inflation

The fundamental weakness of civilization, after losing our fossil energy sources, is maintaining water irrigation, and fertilizer/chemical inputs, to keep up food production.
Food production will decline.  Modern industrial agriculture, requires irrigation which uses a lot of electricity and an expensive electric grid. Many of our water systems are failing in multiple ways.

The net energy content per unit volume of what is delivered after subtracting energy used to get it, is also in decline. Cheap clean crude oil that needed little processing a generation or so ago,  is being replaced by lighter and less energy dense natural gas liquids. There is no sustainable industrial path, based on mining non-renewable high quality mineral deposits.

As not what ecology can do for you, but what you can do for ecology

We are, as beings living and evolving on a biological planet, as biological beings, forced to retake the path of regenerating and nurturing all life, if we want to keep a place for ourselves in it.

Natural selection awaits for our mass deaths on the wings of collapse

So our future to follow in our species meets a very cumbersome and costly winnowing of the unsuccessful and harmful uses of our new-found gross powers of energy and its enabled techology. This will fail to support us in the near future.

Natural selection will continue its culture and biological cleansing operations now on a planetary scale, as it sometimes has done before, in mass extinctions  of long ago.

Civilization keeps making the same mistakes.

So far our political leaders have not realized that the evolved technology present in the distributed powers and capabilities of all living creatures is far superior to anything so far that fossil fuel powered industrial civilization has ever managed come up with. Sure we have found ways to crudely exploit the biosphere at global scale.  We have managed some crude manipulations of breeding and shot gun approaches to genetic engineering of other life forms. Our ecological mismanagement is highly destructive.

Civilization destroys sustainable cultures

In Australia, like so many indigenous peoples around the world, became much better biological caretakers than western industrial civilization. They were and are still much more human, as better apes, than modern man. The clue here, is being subject to natural selection of multiple generations in the same local environments as the results of selective culture-learned manipulations. Industrial empire globalism of civilization, requires destructive exploitation of every local environment on the planet, by invasion, theft and murder. Rich people and their children think they don't have to live in the places they have made unlivable. No humans will migrate off these planet. There isn't anything for us that is reachable elsewhere in the Universe. Such good luck for the rest of the universe.

Civilization is a deadly dying megamachine.

Real life, excluding civilized citified humans, has nothing to do with fossil fuel powered external technology. The poisons, drawbacks, and lack of sustainability of industrial civilization is a historical, global and universal fact. Our technical ape achievements since leaving Eden with the first bite of dangerous knowledge, are puny compared to the works of the harsh and patient god of biological evolution. Our survivors, after the next bottle-neck of evolution that we now create, if any, will need to fall back on the blessings of a biological world, and learn again their restricted place in creation. Evolution of biological life will outlast our temporary civilization, with or without our species continuation.

Michael Rynn
As our high-tech ultra connected civilization descends into its death throws, a reflection on what biological scientists learn about life's beginnings.
Hydrothermal vents, chemical thermodynamic cycles, abiotic genesis of life. Evolution of biological life will outlast civilization
How life came about and how it will kill us

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Michael Rynnsays...

I typed this up for the most part of a day, while updating and testing the software mechanics of this website. I also updated the comments system, from "Commentix" because I have no trust in the remote comment management systems of corporations. Comments logged here will live and die on the server hosting this site. I don't expect many comments.