In the beginning was the Word and the men (mostly) who could read it best ruled the world. In time, however, it turned out that the Word was not enough, or too many people read it differently. Revelation provided dogma but it turned out there was more than one version of that. Also, you either believed it without question or it had to be forced down your throat. In a way, it was flattering because it put us at the centre of the universe. Everything revolved around us, until the facts began to intrude.

When the heliocentric theory showed, to the contrary, that earth on which we stood revolved around the sun, reducing our place in nature, all hell broke loose in the firmament. But after the fuss had dissipated it also showed the improbability of Revelation, which is fixed, frozen in time, allowing neither for change nor improvement. So it cannot admit that understanding evolves as our search for it intensifies. That is the principal reason for its virtual irrelevance today as a knowledge system, except among the Bible thumpers and others of their ilk around the world.

The ascent of secular systems has transformed our view of the universe. We know today that we are not the centre of it but a fragment of rock circling a medium sized star in a corner of the Milky Way, an unremarkable spiral galaxy amid billions of others in an expanding universe. For a long time, however, we were convinced that on earth at least we were the chosen species. Now even that belief, for those who would follow the evidence, has been shown up as a delusion caused by the hubris of ignorance. We are neither more nor less than one part of a process that began more than four billion years ago as a single cell and, through a combination of evolution and climatic cataclysm, arrived at this point in history.

It is true that today we are masters of the planet, unchallenged by any other species, but that position seems about as preordained as the triumph of the dinosaurs. They were undone by a major climate disaster that made their world uninhabitable. Their extinction was our opportunity though we took 65 million years and wandered down many blind alleys before we got here. Those who see a divine hand in our ascent might pause a while to reflect that our capacity for socialisation allied to genocidal violence may also have played a part.

Secular knowledge systems, whether it is the ancient discipline of philosophy or the newer sciences, have succeeded precisely because they give us so many ways of changing things to our advantage. A water mill or a pair of spectacles makes our lives easier in ways that the Hitopadesha does not.

Secular knowledge systems, whether it is the ancient discipline of philosophy or the newer sciences, have succeeded precisely because they give us so many ways of changing things to our advantage. A water mill or a pair of spectacles makes our lives easier in ways that the Hitopadesha does not. In fact the former would make life easier for everyone everywhere, whereas the latter is more likely to be effective in places where people follow the creed. All the first two need is a simple but detailed manual while the other requires an emotional investment, which is a far harder task. Following it also requires a judgement whose benefits or disadvantages are hard to quantify. But if you’re short-sighted (or its opposite) there’s no question about the effect of spectacles.

There is more to this business than mere personal gratification, however. The Hitopadesha is a collection of fables in Sanskrit of uncertain vintage which has proverbs and worldly wisdom on everyday morality in simple language for everyone, like the Thirukkural, which is about the “everyday virtues of the individual”. It has been a definitive influence on culture across continents, from Europe to Southeast Asia. Its appeal is essentially emotional, intended to make better people of us. The title in fact stands for “Beneficial Advice”. But it resists analytical treatment and all definitions sound circular. And that is true of a whole class of words, notions, ideas. Take happiness, for one. The Greek thinker Aristotle defines it in terms of moral virtue, which he says is a disposition to behave in the right manner and as a mean between extremes of deficiency and excess, which are vices.

In psychology, happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being which can be defined by, among others, positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. But such statements virtually defy further analysis except as tautology. This is a major problem with philosophy, whether it is introspective or based on empirical evidence. At some point, the limitations of language make further investigation impossible. Fortunately, this is where the sciences take over.

For a scientist a concept such as happiness in general would be meaningless. But the tools at his disposal make further investigation entirely possible. He can, at least in principle, look at this feeling I call happiness in terms of biochemistry or neurochemistry and provide a detailed description of my state of being at this point, something that neither a priest nor a philosopher can do. He is clearing fresh ground and shining a light on a previously unknown aspect of this concept. New perspectives and new information should enrich even a philosopher’s synthesising.

If philosophers look a little distraught these days it is because theirs is a declining world. It is being taken over by scientists who are asking the Big questions and giving the answers piecemeal more often than ever before. These answers are less speculative because they hypothesise from an empirical, not introspective, background. Nothing is outside their province, not the shape of the universe, the history of creation or even the human condition. But their contribution usually breaks new ground because it has new information which often provides a fresh look at old questions.

Why is life the way it is; a question that the philosopher has been asking for generations and answering in partial generalities that are in equal parts moral and ontological. The biochemist Nick Lane asks the same question in The Vital Question but it is a scientific inquiry. If or when his thesis is validated it is possible that his inquiries will have profound implications for our essential natures; for now such questions are irrelevant. Lane is not talking about us at all, he is more interested in the facts of cellular organisation. That is the irreducible minimum of what we know as a living organism and his primary interest is in discovering why the cell is the way it is in shape, structure, function and complexity. These are questions that can be answered because they can be expressed in quantities and we have the tools for this investigation. It takes time and patience and there is much stumbling and fumbling in between but the end is conceivable.

It is worth noting that he does not worry about definitions of living organisms. He starts with the collegial consensus in his discipline, that cells are living organisms. This is one of the positions of science; exact definitions can wait, exact descriptions are more important. The reason for asking the question is simplicity itself. “There is a black hole in the heart of biology. Bluntly put, we do not know why life is the way it is. All complex life shares a common ancestor, a cell that arose from simple bacteriological progenitors on just one occasion 4 billion years ago. Was it a freak accident…? We don’t know.”                  

The approach to the problem is riddled with uncertainties. He is looking at a time that is almost a blank slate. No one is sure what kind of atmosphere earth had four billion years ago, or if it had one at all. We can’t say there was any land or if it was all water. On the composition of water we are on more solid ground but here too we cannot claim ironclad certainty. For that reason he approaches the solution in probabilities. Given what we know from the consensus, what was the probable path of cellular genesis? In this way he lays out a probable map from non-living planet to complex cells and beyond. He could even be entirely wrong but this is an occupational hazard for those breaking new ground. 

Darwin’s theory of evolution was reviled by the church but even other scientists challenged it on various grounds. Its major shortcoming was the lack of a mechanism for inheritance, that is, for an organism to pass on its distinctive characteristics. Gregor Mendel’s “particulate theory of inheritance” was unknown in Darwin’s lifetime and DNA of course unheard of until the 1950s. So in his lifetime Darwin was unable to refute the simple arithmetic of a Scottish engineer, Henry Jenkin, who demonstrated that every new variation would be halved in every succeeding generation and cease to have any effect within half a dozen generations. It was not until stable units of heredity were identified that Darwinism became synonymous with evolution.

If an exobiologist was looking for life outside the solar system how would he start his search? What would he look for? One answer could be chemical complexity and a state that is not in equilibrium. Earth, for instance, is in a state that is far from equilibrium, chemical, thermal, or mechanical. The chemical and electromagnetic signals it sends into space would show a constant state of flux in contrast with Venus, which is near-equilibrium. An alien intelligence observing the solar system would find the difference striking. It is thus possible that any planet that signals continuing chemical complexity and a constant energy flux is, like earth, a living system. No matter how far away, no matter how unpromising (from our point of view) its chemistry, if a planet emits these two types of signals we can assume it is “alive”. If we can confirm these observations a sufficient number of times we could elevate these two attributes to Universal Axioms for Proof of Life.

A century’s worth of astronomy has confirmed to us that the laws of physics hold at every level throughout the known universe. The most spectacular recent example of that is in the detection of gravitational waves, theoretically predicted by General Relativity in 1917. Lane’s ultimate goal seems to be to produce a few simple statements that will stand as laws of biology and lay out the conditions for life across the universe. In his own words, “One day it may be possible to predict the properties of life anywhere in the universe from the chemical composition of the cosmos.”

For this reason The Vital Question has no interest in talking about evolution in the Darwinian sense. His focus is trained on the cellular level, the foundation of life. The quest begins with an examination of the conditions that favoured the emergence of simple unicellular organisms such as bacteria and then complex cells, from which the rest of creation such as plants, insects, animals and the great apes rose.

“What does it take to make a cell? Six basic properties are shared by all living cells on earth. All need:

A continuous supply of reactive carbon for synthesising new organics;

A supply of free energy to drive metabolic chemistry—the formation of new proteins, DNA and so on; Catalysts to speed up and channel these reactions;

Excretion of waste, to pay the debt to the second law of thermodynamics and drive chemical reactions in the correct direction;

Compartmentalisation—a cell-like structure that separates the inside from the outside;

Hereditary material—RNA, DNA or an equivalent to specify detailed form and function.”

Note that Lane’s list includes items particular to earth as well. We are all carbon-based organisms; it is central to our structure. The reason is quite simple. “Each carbon atom can form four strong bonds, much stronger than the bonds formed by silicon. These bonds allow an extraordinary variety of long-chain molecules, lipids, sugars, proteins and DNA.” Carbon is, in short, the most suitable, most efficient material for these products indispensable to life. The other five are more general in nature and all lead to continuous chemical complexity as well as a constant flow of energy.

The first simple cells are believed to have emerged 4 billion years ago, about 750 million years after the formation of earth. There are many theories for how they came to be, including extraterrestrial arrival by asteroid. He rules this out as a decisive influence as any organic molecules that arrived on earth would be merely augmenting earth’s existing stock rather than bringing something new. The arrival of whole cells from the stars, he argues, is no help because he has set himself to discover the principles that must govern cell evolution, on earth or anywhere else. Panspermia as an answer is worse than useless for this project; it is irrelevant.

Then he approaches primordial soup, everyone’s favourite theory of genesis. The objections are two-fold: “While our early planet [4 billion years ago] lacked oxygen it was not rich in gases conducive to organic chemistry—hydrogen, methane and ammonia. This rules out tired old ideas of primordial soup…”. The evidence for this confident statement comes from zircons, crystals of zirconium silicate that contain traces of the environment in which they were formed.

The second objection has to do with the energy requirements. For soup to produce amino acids, the building blocks of life, they must be enormous. He calculates that to sustain the production of organic molecules even in a small biosphere before photosynthesis became a reality would require lightning strikes at the rate of four bolts a second for every square kilometre of ocean. That means millions of volts of energy every second for prolonged periods of time, perhaps millennia. How likely is that and how much evidence that it happened? In Lane’s view invoking extreme environments to explain the formation of stable organic molecules is a mug’s game.

The keyword is “stable”. A few random lightning strikes might create the precursors of life but these conditions must be sustained reliably for long periods if greater complexity is the goal. Lightning just doesn’t cut it in these circumstances. Lane finds his ideal environment for the production of both organic molecules and the first cells in the deep ocean alkaline hydrothermal vents, such as exist in the Atlantic.

The reason he chooses this environment rather than any other is that it provides stable conditions. “Alkaline hydrothermal vents provide exactly the right conditions required for the origin of life: a high flux of carbon and energy that is physically channelled over inorganic catalysts,... And vents persist for millennia, at least 100,000 years in the case of Lost City [in the Atlantic].” He provides a systematic explanation for his choice of the most probable of all theatres for the advent of life. Every part of this argument is ultimately testable and provides a benchmark in our search for the origins of life. For that reason it is an argument worth considering even if it is only to tear it apart. And if 100,000 years seems a long time, consider that we took 4 billion to arrive.

The outstanding feature of The Vital Question is an account of the prodigious energies that are required at every stage by living organisms, whether at the cellular level or the gross body. The ability of any entity to metabolise energy and maintain a stable biochemical profile is one of signatures of life. Lane at one point says “Life is a side reaction to a main energy-releasing reaction.”

“Under normal circumstances it costs energy to make amino acids and other building blocks from simple molecules such as CO2 and O2. It costs energy to join them up into long chains, polymers such as proteins and DNA…that’s what living is all about—making new components, joining them all together, growing, reproducing, transporting material in and out of the cell.” 

The outstanding feature of The Vital Question is an account of the prodigious energies that are required at every stage by living organisms, whether at the cellular level or the gross body. The ability of any entity to metabolise energy and maintain a stable biochemical profile is one of signatures of life.

Energy transactions at a stable, constant rate are thus the central fact of a living system. We would not be wrong in defining it as an orderly complex whose improbability makes it stand out. A perfectly folded protein is less probable than a broth of amino acids and a living, breathing human being even less so, but all three metabolise energy. All three are a complex of identical chemicals but to a sensor that is tuned finely enough each complex sends distinctive signals. It is possible in principle to build a machine that detects an ascending order of metabolic signatures that would inform the observer of an ecosystem of energy-using carboniferous forms that seems to show purpose. What the observer would do with that would of course depend on whether they metabolise carbon directly or need to turn it into energy before that.

Reduced to the simplest elements Lane’s project has three basic requirements—rock, water and energy, in whatever form, heat, light, electricity or radioactivity. If our exobiologist can say from observing the interaction of these three that there is an orderly biochemical and energy flux then we can all hope that there is life beyond, among the stars. But what if only two of the conditions are fulfilled, rock and energy or water and energy and so forth? We can say nothing except that in time (geological) the third condition will also present itself and then be worthy of our interest.

It is also possible that life is not everywhere the same, that intelligences that can manipulate physical reality can also be bodiless or in other ways beyond our perceptive range but we are getting ahead of ourselves. The programme outlined in The Vital Question is not so different from that of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), orderly interruptions in the normal pattern of signals. The difference is that it is also much more. It is first an attempt to provide a reliable story of origins for the emergence of life on earth and then a possible blueprint for anyone who wants to boldly go further afield.