Chance, Necessity, and the Origins of Life
Hazen, Robert M.
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Earth’s 4.5 billion year history is a complex tale of deterministic physical and chemical processes, as well as "frozen accidents." This history is preserved most vividly in mineral species, as explored in new approaches called "mineral evolution" and "mineral ecology." This lecture will explore possible roles of mineral surfaces in life’s origins, including molecular synthesis, protection, selection, concentration, and templating. We find that Earth's changing near-surface mineralogy reflects the co-evolving geosphere and biosphere in a variety of surprising ways that touch on life's origins. Recent research adds two important insights to this discussion. First, chance versus necessity is an inherently false dichotomy when considering the possibility of life on other worlds—a range of probabilities exists for many natural events. Second, given the astonishing combinatorial chemical richness of early Earth, chemical events that are extremely rare may, nevertheless, be deterministic on time scales of a billion years.