So, I wouldn’t even read this if I were you.
You’ve been warned.
I guess I’m a little late to the hydrothermal-vent-as-likely-origination-point-of-life-on-earth party, but I’m really intrigued with it, and it feels like an essential piece of the grand structure of the understanding everything puzzle has fallen into place for me.
In an earlier post I looked at how scientists have wound the clock back on a universal, galactic scale and worked out the Big-bang theory of the origination of the universe. In a similar way, biologists have wound back the clock on a planetary scale and worked out a theory for the origin of life and the subsequent explosion of biodiversity driven by a mostly stable but highly variable genetic code held in DNA and given an over-arching structure by Darwin’s theory of evolution.
But both theories, the big-bang on a cosmic scale, and the origin of life on our more intimate planetary scale, have a remaining hard little nugget of a question mark deep in the creamy dark center of them. In the big-bang the question is, of course, what caused the incredibly dense, incredibly smooth, hard ball of all future matter and energy that would make up the universe to form in the first place, and what predated that, and why is there something rather than nothing at all?
In biology, we’ve got a similar gap between the very simplest form of life and the most complex of organic molecules, with a kind of hazy “well, given enough time, sufficient energy in the form of electricity, heat, radiation, etc” eventually something happened and these complex organic molecules kind of evolved into prokaryotic cells, which then, given enough time, suddenly evolved into eukaryotic cells, which pretty much sent us off to the races.
I remember seeing some movie in seventh grade or something, about the experiment where the guy put a bunch of the chemicals present in early earth in a glass beaker and added heat and electricity and created amino acids, and the theory was that life probably originated in a puddle on the surface of the hot, still largely volcanic, pre-atmosphere early earth.
But there were some problems with the theory, mainly that conditions in the imagined scenario were not really lining up with what we were learning about the early earth.
It wasn’t until the deep submersible subs like ALVIN were developed that marine biologists were able to observe conditions at the deep sea hydrothermal vents, and they were blown away by what they found there. You’re talking about two miles deep, bottom of the ocean, incredible pressures, no sunlight for miles, deeply cold conditions. We basically thought then of the oceans as largely empty of life, similar to deep space. Lots of life up near the surface, and close to land, but more like an empty desert in the pelagic depths. We didn’t think the conditions were suitable for life, other than a few odd exceptions, monsters and deep-sea creatures that seemed more like myths than anything real.
But when they get down there, they see all this life.
Tube worms three meters in length, their feet in the hydrothermal vents, their mouths out in the cold dark waters, feeding off of these vents spewing toxic metals and chemicals up from the bowels of the earth and into the bottom of the sea. Shrimps and octopi, crabs, eels, all manner of blind and impossible life.
The really interesting thing to me is that these hydrothermal vents have maintained a steady environmental state for billions of years. It’s not like top-side, where climate changes, the continents drift and collide, and asteroids bombard and wipe out whole planetary lifecycles.
It’s really, really stable.
I mean, the vents themselves don’t last more than ten or twenty years at a time, we think. But they pop up reliably all along a forty-six thousand mile long chain of volcanic deepsea ranges and have been there since the oceans formed.
A long, long time.
Which means that we still have this little engine chugging along that is probably just like what it was like a million million million years ago. Before the dinosaurs, before everything else.
And it’s still here. Still doing its thing.
Another thing I really like about this fact is when I think about all we’re doing to destroy this place and all life on it. We can kill off everything on the surface, wipe out everything we can get our hands on, cover the planet with pollution and shit, strip away the ozone layer, block the sun with the cloudcover of nuclear winter, turn the earth into a cinder, but unless we can actually strip the oceans away, we’ll still have this same engine of life chugging away, living in the deepest, coldest, most isolated part of the planet, living off of toxic chemicals and the energy of the planet’s core, and throwing off new life that can repopulate the planet a hundred million years after we’re all gone.
I really, really like that.
You begin to get this feeling for a universe that is truly universal. The conditions everywhere are roughly the same. Same organic building blocks that arose out of the same building blocks throughout the cosmos. Everywhere there are stars. Everywhere. And we’re learning that planets are yet more numerous than stars. And some of these planets are small, rocky places just the right distance from their sun to be warm enough to support life, right in the goldilocks zone. And everywhere these chemical reactions churning. Everywhere billions of years of time accumulating drip by drip. Everywhere carbon, everywhere the same kinds of tools and conditions.
The universe comes into being spontaneously. As does life itself. And life love complexity. Life asserts itself. Life worms its way into every possible nook and cranny. It experiments with every possible way of being. It rolls the genetic dice again and again and again and again, never resting, never stopping.
Mind boggling waste. Massive failure rate. Endless successes that eventually die out or get wiped out or wipe themselves out. But always another coming to take the stage. And look just on this one tiny planet how smart we’re getting. How many brains there are, not just in humans, but all over the place. You can’t swing a dead cat around here without hitting a goddamn brain. Lots and lots of experiments in consciousness. Numberless tries at it.
And look at us, experiment number two billion three hundred eighty seven million and twelve.
Look at what we’ve done.
We’ve figured all this shit out. The origin of the universe, the laws of physics, the nuts and bolts of how life works.
Yeah, we’re not very good at it yet. We’re a provisional kind of consciousness still. We don’t know how to live life well, we don’t know what to do with our great good gift. We’re consciousness 1.0.
Don’t worry, there are lots better versions coming down the pike.
Anyway, all this shit makes me happy to think about.