Sophisticated complexity vs. messy simplicity

A few weeks back, I noted “if the original seeding event was due to intelligent intervention, we might expect to find a pattern of biological diversity laid on top of a deeper universality. The diversity of biological features would echo the intent to enhance the chance for a successful seeding, while the deeper universality of biological features would follow from the original cells functioning as deposited stem cells (Crick and Orgel’s argument), exhibiting common design strategies to similar problems, while also reflecting an attempt to maximize the success of seeding.”

We can also draw on our own experience to predict one other feature of the first cells from a design perspective. As I have explained before, our own designs have grown more sophisticated and complex over time. Simply compare the first camera with today’s digital cameras, or Henry Ford’s Model T with today’s new Ford Mustang. The list is endless. Much of this sophistication and complexity has been made possible by the development of information technology, where computer programs allow designers an enhanced ability to control complex systems. If the first cells were designed, it is likely that the base of knowledge, along with the technological skills used to implement the design, exceeded our own abilities given the simple fact that the ability to design life is still far beyond our grasp. Since life, in terms of its complexity, control, and sophistication, can be viewed as an advanced extrapolation of human design, it stands to reason that the first cells exhibited sophisticated complexity. That is, these cells were at least as sophisticated and complex, if not more, than the cells we study today.

The Spawning Story leads us to expect a different pattern of data. It predicts both a chemical and historical continuity between geochemistry and biochemistry. This account cannot really begin with sophisticated complexity, as that would be invoking the hypothesis of spontaneous generation that was falsified by Pasteur. Instead, to put the origin of life in Mother Earth’s reach, we must start from rather simple and messy beginnings – the state of messy simplicity. A popular expression of the Spawning Story begins with a simple, self-replicating molecule that emerges, by chance, from the prebiotic soup. Then, through a set of sloppy interactions with constituents of the soup, it co-opts pieces and parts to serve its replicating needs, gradually lurching toward the complex state of some type of ill-defined proto-cell. Another popular version envisions some set of primitive catalysts working together in some sloppy catalytic cycle that serves to perpetuate and replicate the catalysts. The appeal of all these scenarios is that they break down the gap between life and non-life into a series of small steps, rendering the whole account more intuitively probable.

However, in trying to shrink the gap by invoking messy simplicity at the beginning, a non-teleological expectation about life is also born – the Spawning Story leads us to expect that life should be multifarious.

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