Life Before Earth

Alexei Sharov at the National Institute on Ageing in Baltimore and his mate Richard Gordon at the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Florida, argue that it’s possible to measure the complexity of life and the rate at which it has increased over time. When they extrapolate the rate of biological evolution into the past, what they found is that life would have begun 10 billion years ago. Since our evidence is that life on Earth is only 4.5 billion years old, life must have started off Earth.

Life before Earth

If we plot genome complexity of major phylogenetic lineages on a logarithmic scale against the time of origin, the points appear to fit well to a straight line. This indicates that genome complexity increased exponentially and doubled about every 376 million years. Such a relationship reminds us of the exponential increase of computer complexity known as a “Moore’s law”.

What is most interesting in this relationship is that it can be extrapolated back to the origin of life. Genome complexity reaches zero, which corresponds to just one base pair, at time ca. 9.7 billion years ago. (Alexei A. Sharov and Richard Gordon, “Life Before Earth“)

Why the increase of genome complexity follows an exponential law instead of fluctuating erratically? Will it continue to grow following the same law? The authors explain that, in fact, existing data indicates that the genetic complexity may have increased a little faster than exponentially, which may be explained by phase transitions to higher levels of functional organization. That would push the projected origin of life close to the origin of our galaxy and the universe itself.

On the other hand, Moores’s law has led to the idea of a “technological singularity”, which refers to the time when technology-based intelligence will emerge and possibly replace humans (Kurzweil, 2005). Alexis and Richard think that prediction of future events such as “technological singularity” is flawed, and that growth rates of specific technologies should not be confused with the increase of functional complexity of the human civilization as a whole.

The rate of increase of functional complexity of human civilization can be better measured by indicators that are not linked to a single technology. For example, the doubling time of the number of scientific publications from 1900 to 1960 was only 15 years. Interestingly, extrapolating the exponential increase of scientific publications backwards gives us an estimated origin of science at 1710 which is the time of Isaac Newton. The increase in the number of patents has the doubling time of ca. 25 years. Thus, the functional complexity of the human civilizations doubles approximately every generation (i.e., 15-25 years), which is ca. 20 fold slower than for most “critical” technologies.

What we expect is a stronger integration of human mind with technology that would result in augmented intelligence. Creation of new technologies is the norm in the evolution of life and we should not be afraid of it.


the_creation_of_adam_by_eresaw-d3ald0rFeatured Image: The Creation of Adam

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