Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Origins of Life in the Multiverse

Eugene V. Koonin is a Senior Investigator at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). He has just published a paper in Biology Direct (Open Access), which is highly speculative, greatly entertaining, and, "vastly metaphysical". The latter comment is from one of the reviewers, Eric Bapteste, who also wrote, heh, "I might be strange but I often like to read Eugene Koonin's papers." I know this because the paper is Open Peer Review which makes for an especially engrossing read since the reader is allowed access to a seldom opened window in scientific publishing (On the other hand, I've never personally seen a review like this one; it reads somewhat like a debate. The reviewers no doubt wrote their reviews with their audience in mind. Alternatively, it could just be due to the nature of the paper itself.).

Anyway the paper is about cosmology and evolutionary biology. Koonin considers the origin of life to be the central problem of biology. More controversially Koonin considers the current RNA world hypothesis for the origin of life unlikely given the traditional laws of physics in a single, finite universe. Koonin proposes that the RNA world is not only likely, but instead probable, if we embrace the cosmological model of eternal inflation. Eternal inflation suggests that all macroscopic histories permitted by laws of physics are repeated an infinite number of times in the infinite multiverse. In other words, Koonin invokes the anthropic selection principle to explain the origin of life itself! The reason why we see life evolve in this universe is because, if there are an infinite number of universes, then chances are at least some of them will evolve life able to reason about the evolution of life. In fact, according to Koonin, the odds of life evolving are so small that an infinite multiverse is needed to explain it. Yes, I realize this sounds like something the 70's Show gang thought up during a circle "session", but I assure you these are some serious scientists considering a serious question.

One last point, Koonin addresses intelligent design and creationism in the final paragraph. "A final comment on 'irreducible complexity' and 'intelligent design'. By showing that highly complex systems, actually, can emerge by chance and, moreover, are inevitable, if extremely rare, in the universe, the present model sidesteps the issue of irreducibility and leaves no room whatsoever for any form of intelligent design." While this comment is well intentioned, I seriously doubt that any creationist is going to be persuaded by the argument that all life derived from an RNA world regardless of how many universes are posited to exist. Creationists possess exceptionally strong self-imposed cognitive barriers preventing such considerations.

Photo credit: JPL.


  1. The problem here, really, is that the origin of life is thought of as some big thing. Taint nuttin' of the sort.

    It's really very simple, after a long enough period of chemical evolution you'll get a mass of chemical processes that engages in certain behaviors indicative of life. At that point you get biological evolution taking over and the rest is history.

    Life aint no big deal. Indeed, in any universe where chemical processes can proceed to the point where truly complex self-repairing, self-duplicating structures are possible you're going to have life. There's really no need to invoke some mystical malarky to explain things.

    We came about because it was possible for something like us to do so, not because we were supposed to.

  2. OMG Koonin is so awesome! I know his Viral World ideas, but I havent seen this! Thanks!!!