Origin of Life

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According to his bio, Bruce Damer “has spent his life pursuing two great questions: How did life on Earth begin, and how can we give that life (and ourselves) a sustainable pathway into the cosmos? His primary research interest is “The Hot Springs Hypothesis for the Origin of Life”. Matthew Segall teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and has specialized in the study of Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy. According to his bio, his “current research explores the relevance of process philosophy to new paradigms in physics and biology.

In this conversation, Bruce presents a compelling scenario for the hot springs origin of life. The origin of life as the beginning of the biosphere provides an interesting model for the origin of the noosphere, because each represents a major paradigm shift in the nature of how information is stored, transmitted, and used — more of a marked difference than the other major evolutionary transitions.

But how is Whitehead’s process philosophy relevant to both life’s origin and the noosphere’s formation? What perspective does it provide on that paradigm shift? Matt provides a good answer early in the conversation:

“Bruce and I have talked a lot about how to connect his abiogenesis research with Whiteheadian philosophy, and I think the term creativity is the way to go here, that somehow physics and chemistry, in a totally non-supernatural way, are creative. Typically, we would want to say creativity is something that belongs to human beings, human artists, maybe scientists as they make discoveries, but Whitehead wanted to say, “No, creativity is a feature of the universe as such, and, for the origin of life not to be in any way a miracle implies that there’s some kind of continuity here with chemistry and physics and thermodynamics, and that we can understand life as a natural expression of these physical and chemical processes.”… So, as a Whiteheadian philosopher, I think Bruce’s research…is really helping to narrow the gap between physics and chemistry and life in a way that ultimately…will also help us narrow the gap between life and consciousness, or mind, if you’d like, because there’s a similar creative principle at work, totally naturalistic, in both of these transitions.”

Teilhard saw a continuity in the acts of creativity that connected chemistry and life. In an essay titled “Some Reflections on Progress” that was included in The Future of Man, he wrote:

“The phenom­enon of growing consciousness on earth, in short, is directly due to the increasingly advanced organization of more and more complicated elements, successively created by the working of chemistry and of Life. At the present time I can see no more satisfactory so­lution of the enigma presented to us by the physical progress of the Universe.”

Teilhard also understood that the major transition that led to the formation of the noosphere was on a par with the origin of life. He described that poetically in Chapter 10 of The Future of Man:

“Who can say what forces may be released, what radiations, what new arrangements never hitherto attempted by Nature, what formidable powers we may henceforth be able to use, for the first time in the history of the world? This is Life setting out upon a second adventure from the springboard it established when it created humankind.”

In the conversation that follows, David Sloan Wilson explores the ideas that connect the evolution of the physical, chemical, and biological worlds with the emergence of human consciousness — in other words, they connect the origin of life with the origin of the noosphere.

Bruce Damer and Matthew Segall Transcript