Recently, computer engineer and philosopher Jonathan Bartlett pointed out that Elon Musk has inadvertently highlighted the biggest problem with origin of life studies: How life originated is not as difficult a question as how it originated with the ability to reproduce. If the first cell somehow morphed into existence without the ability to reproduce, it would also have been the last cell. The only cell, in fact.
Musk, as it happens, was talking about the production of cars when he tweeted, “The machine that makes the machine is vastly harder than the machine itself.” He estimated “1000% to 10,000% harder.” Indeed, and that’s also true of the cells that comprise just about every living being. Our cells not only live but they replicate themselves. Imagine a car that produced a new car every seven years or so…
Musk can’t build us that car but biochemist and medic Michael Denton’s new book, Miracle of the Cell (2020), helps us understand the remarkable way that each live cell in our body enables us to live. If cells are machines, they are vastly better and more sophisticated than any machines we have ever built:
A cell consists of trillions of atoms, representing the complexity of a jumbo jet and more, packed into a space less than a millionth of the volume of a typical grain of sand. But unlike any jumbo jet, unlike any nano-tech, or indeed unlike even the most advanced human technology of any kind, this wondrous entity can replicate itself. Here is an “infinity machine” with seemingly magical powers.
In terms of compressed complexity, cells are without peer in the material world, actualized or imagined. And there is likely far more complexity still to uncover.Michael Denton, Miracle of the Cell, pp. 15–16
Denton calls the cell a “third infinity”: “Where the cosmos feels infinitely large and the atomic realm infinitely small, the cell feels infinitely complex.” (p. 16).
About the significance of the ability to reproduce, perhaps we should give the last word to Queen Christina of Sweden:
In the seventeenth century Christina, Queen of Sweden, upon hearing René Descartes insist that organisms are analogous to machines, is said to have retorted by saying of a mechanical clock, “See to it that it produces offspring.” Christina’s challenge has yet to be met.Michael Denton, Miracle of the Cell, p. 21
Well, if even Elon Musk agrees that reproduction is a huge challenge, we should heed the warning. He isn’t shy about promising great things. He promised a fleet of a million robot taxis by the end of this year and we’re still waiting.
But we must all face reality sometimes, especially when we must.
You may also enjoy: Elon Musk tweet shows why many doubt origin of life studies. Musk was talking about the origin of machines, not life, but the principle is, perhaps surprisingly, the same. Creating a machine that manufactures or a cell that reproduces is much harder than creating a prototype of either. It’s a search for a search. (Jonathan Bartlett)