James D. Livingston

The evolution of life

Matt Damon in "The Martian"

Pluto's surface as seen by New Horizons

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket

Size comprison of the Earth, the moon, and Pluto (lower left)

Aerial view of Spaceship Two crash in Mohave Desert

Close-up of nucleus of comet 67P taken by ESA spacecraft Rosetta

Wernher Von Braun & engines of Saturn V

Steven Swanson (left) and Russian colleagues

Yutu, Chinese rover, on the moon

Comet ISON and its green tail

International Space Station, where NASA will continue to support the astronauts during the shutdown

Artist's version of Mars One colony (Bryan Versteeg)

Kepler Space Telescope (artist's version)

Pluto - the Former Ninth Planet

Virgin Galactic space plane over New Mexico's Spaceport America

Saturn - Lord of the Rings

Arizona's Meteor Crater

Radar view of the surface of Venus as seen by Magellan orbiter

Use of Terra, a spin-off of CheMin (instrument on Curiosity), in King Tut's tomb

Streambed found on Mars by Curiosity (compared to dry streambed on Earth)

Self-portrait of the rover Curiosity on Mars.


The Story of Life

August 30, 2016

Tags: homo sapiens, big bang, evolution, RNA world, Georges Lemaitre, Jenn Martel, Life of Pi, story telling, Ken Read-Brown

In an online interview, Yann Martel, the author of “Life of Pi,” said, “the subtext of the book can be summarized in three lines: 1: Life is a story, 2. You can choose the story, 3. A story with God is the better story." And to another question, he answered, "God is hard to believe, ask any believer. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

Martel’s thoughts, my readings on how skill at story telling provided a likely evolutionary advantage to early homo sapiens, plus a sermon last year by Ken Read-Brown, minister of my UU church on the Great Story, the scientific story of life, together encouraged me to put together for a summer service at the church a condensed version of this story (in what may be a familiar format to those who have read Genesis):

In the beginning, 13.8 billion years ago, our universe was born in what is called the big bang. A poor name for it, since it wasn’t big and there was no bang, but we’re stuck with the name, particularly now that there’s a TV show named after it. Shortly after the big bang, what would later become our huge universe, with its billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, was then very small and consisted only of pure and intense energy. (This may be hard to believe, but what is your problem with hard to believe?) As it expanded and cooled, particles of matter began to form out of the energy – electrons, protons, and neutrons. These particles gradually merged to form the first atoms of matter, mostly hydrogen and helium. The expanding universe gradually filled with clouds of hydrogen and helium. (The big bang theory, by the way, was first proposed in the 1920s by Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian physicist who was also a Catholic priest. The Vatican today is quite pleased with the Big Bang theory. Pope Francis says it proves creation.) Thus endeth the first day.

On the second day, perhaps a hundred million years later, even though Isaac Newton had not yet been born, the hydrogen and helium atoms somehow knew they had mass, knew from Newton’s theory of gravitation that masses were attracted to each other, and they started clumping together. And in a runaway process called gravitational collapse, the atoms rapidly came together and formed the first stars. And there was light. And it was good. If any planets formed around these early stars, they contained only hydrogen and helium, so could not form life. But inside the stars, where the temperature and pressure were very high, the hydrogen and helium atoms were squished together and produced heavier elements, including carbon, oxygen, and other elements necessary for even the simplest life.

On the third day, – about 4.5 billion years ago, after about nine billion years of star formation and element formation (some days are longer than others), our own sun formed by gravitational collapse – our sun was rather late to the party. But as a result, now there were enough heavy elements in the clouds remaining around the sun to form some rocky planets – four, in fact – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. The “third rock from the sun” (a former TV show), Earth, was at a distance from the sun where the temperature was just right to hold liquid water. If it were hotter, the water would boil away. If it were colder, the water would freeze. The Earth was not too hot, not too cold, but just right for liquid water, in what we call the Goldilocks Zone. And that was very good, because liquid water is a great solvent and is favorable for the initiation of life.

On the fourth day, within the liquid water on earth, the six elements necessary for even the simplest life - carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, and sulfur - combined and recombined to form larger and larger and more and more complex molecules, in a stage called chemical evolution. (Until now, we were talking mostly physics and astronomy – now it’s chemistry’s turn.) Abut 3.5 billion years ago (about a billion years after the formation of Earth), long and complex carbon-based molecules formed in water, specifically RNA (ribonucleic acid), its sister molecule DNA, and many proteins, and they combined to form the first single-cell life – a tiny microbe. And it would reproduce and one-cell life would spread throughout the seas – and it was good. Life may also have formed on other planets in the universe, perhaps many, but so far we have no evidence of that. So we may be it (although I personally doubt that).

On the fifth day, through changes in DNA and by natural selection, more and more varied and complex living things formed from simple single-cell life through biological evolution - sometimes called Darwinian evolution. (The Vatican formally accepted evolution years ago. They learned their lesson with their problems with Galileo in the 17th century. Many fundamentalists still fight evolution with creationism and with intelligent design, an attempt to make creationism sound more scientific. But evolution is the basis of modern biology.) Multicellular life first appeared about 2 billion years ago (for over a billion years, earth had been a one-cell microbe world). A bit later the first plants appeared, and later the first animals. Some left the seas and covered the land. And it was good. The first mammals appeared about 200 million years ago. Practically yesterday on the time scale of the universe – 13.8 billion years.

On the sixth day, a few million years ago, the first human-like animals appeared in Africa. Only about 200 thousand years ago, the first homo sapiens – our own species - finally evolved (talk about being late to the party!) – and via their gift of story telling, they (we) developed religions, nations, corporations, commercials, politics, and wars. It was both good - and not-so-good.

That’s the scientific story of life, as of 2016. A lot of it came from 19th- and 20th-century science, and probably will need revisions as science learns more. This story is similar to Genesis 1, but includes no mention of God. In that Genesis, we are made in God’s image, and are given dominion over every living thing. God cares about us. Not in this story.

The fourth principle of Unitarian Universalism is the free and independent search for truth and meaning. This scientific story, in which the universe seems rather impersonal, may contain the truth, but does it also contain meaning? Does adding God make it a better story, as the author of “Life of Pi” said?

Many people think so, perhaps because they prefer a more personal universe, in which God cares about us. And in Christianity in particular, the story of Jesus, called in book and film “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” includes the promise of triumph over death. I’m afraid the science story does not offer that hope either.

I personally don’t believe in a personal God, one who cares about us, or in an afterlife. I find the science story miraculous enough without having to invent a supernatural God to add to it. But there remains a central mystery about the existence of the universe and of us, and occasionally I use the word God to refer to that mystery. As Einstein did. Good company.

This Scientific Story of Life is not as short as the op-eds on space I wrote for the Patriot Ledger, but it does have a connection to space – and the question that drives much of space exploration – are we alone in the universe?


  1. August 31, 2016 4:22 PM EDT
    Your text describes material human life, in so far as we know it. However, it does not describe the immaterial aspects of life, which contains ideas and emotions. You imagine a God who started the universe, but thereafter does not interact with it. I feel that this immense, unimaginably large force makes itself felt from Creation to infinitely long times in the future. That is my choice. All people will not agree. That is their choice.
    - Ted Mihran

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