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Life as a cosmic imperative


For centuries scientists have tried to explain the universe with laws of physics, expressed through mathematical equations. The universe was viewed as an immense machine that always functioned in a stable form. Life and consciousness did not have a place in that paradigm. They were matters for the religions.

But everything has changed since the 1920s, when astronomer Edwin Hubble showed that the natural state of the universe is not stability, but change. The universe began expanding with the explosion of a point: extremely small but immensely hot, and full of potential: the big bang. Then the quarks and leptons were formed, the most elemental particles that, once combined, gave rise to protons and neutrons, the basis of atoms. And starting from there, everything.

Expansion, self-organization, complexity, and the emergence of order, ever more sophisticated, are characteristics of the Universe. And life?

We do not know how it emerged. We can only say that it took the Earth and all the Universe billions of years to create the conditions for the birth of this beautiful thing that is life. Life is fragile because it can easily get sick and die. But life is also strong, because until now nothing, not volcanoes, earthquakes, meteors, or the massive extinctions of past eras, has managed to totally extinguish life.

For life to emerge the Universe had to be endowed with three qualities: order, arising from chaos, complexity, derived from simple beings and information, created by the connections of everything with everything else. But one factor was still lacking: the creation of the bricks with which the house of life is built. Those bricks were forged within the heart of the great red stars that burned for several billion years. They are the chemical acids and other elements that enable all the combinations and transformations. Thus, there is no life without carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, iron, phosphorus, and the 92 elements of the Mendeleyev periodical table.

When these varied elements are united, they form what we call a molecule, the smallest piece of living matter. The joinder with other molecules created the organisms and organs that form living beings, from the bacteria to human beings.

Ilya Prigogine, 1977 Nobel laureate for chemistry, is credited with showing that life results from the intrinsic self organizing dynamics of the Universe itself. He also showed that a factory exists that continuously produces life. The central motor of this factory of life is the combining of 20 amino acids and 4 nitrogenous bases.

Amino acids are a group of acids that when combined permit life to emerge. They are comprised of four nitrogen bases that function like four types of cement, joining the bricks to build the most diverse kinds of houses. This is biodiversity.

Consequently, the same basic genetic code creates the sacred oneness of life, from micro-organisms to human beings. We all are, in fact, cousins, brothers and sisters, as Pope Francis affirms in his encyclical letter on integral ecology (n. 92) because we are made of the same 20 amino acids and 4 nitrogenous bases (adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine).

But the cradle that could welcome life was missing: the atmosphere and biosphere with all the essential elements to life: carbon, oxygen, methane, sulphuric acid, nitrogen and others.

With these pre-conditions, some 3.8 billion years ago something portentous happened. Possibly from the sea or a primitive marsh where all the elements bubbled like a kind of soup, suddenly, from the impact of a great bolt of lightning from above, life emerged.

Mysteriously, there has been life for 3.8 billion years on the minuscule planet Earth, in a fifth order solar system, in a corner of our galaxy, 29 thousand light years from the center of that galaxy. Here, the most unique event of the evolution occurred: the emergence of life.

Life is the original mother of all living beings, the true Eve. All other life forms descend from her, including we humans, a subchapter of the chapter of life: our conscious life.
Finally, I would dare join biologist Christian de Duve, also a Nobel laureate, and cosmologist Brian Swimme, in saying that the Universe would be incomplete without life. Whenever a certain level of complexity is reached, life will always emerge as a cosmic imperative, in any part of the Universe.

We must overcome the common idea that the Universe is merely a physical and dead thing, with some specks of life to adorn the picture. That is a poor and false understanding. The Universe seems to be full of life and it exists for that, as the cradle that welcomes life, especially our life.

Leonardo Boff Theologian-Philosopher, of the Earthcharter Commission

Free translation from the Spanish sent by
Melina Alfaro,

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