The essence and origins of life. What is it? Yes, we can define characteristics that differentiated the living from the non-living. The building blocks of life are still not the same as a simple virus. Do you think new forms of life "become living" these days?. Do you think that the conditions to form new life simply do not exist anymore? Evolution can not even begin until something (still yet unknown to us) happens first. Do you think we will ever discover the recipe?

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Thanks for the insight.  We had this conversation in one of my philosophy courses, though without enough scientific background.

My wife is a Johns Hopkins medical doctor who specializes in infectious disease. Her opinion is that viruses aren't really alive, but they do have a primitive life cycle (one that consists entirely of reproduction) and they do evolve (through hybridization). They're not living, but neither are they unliving.

Even more interesting: everything that is alive has some kind of virus associated with it, from bacteria to elephants.  

 

 

To add to Gallup's Mirror's viruses in "bacteria to elephants" statement, what's interesting is how specific viruses usually are to their hosts. Most pathogens (like bacteria) are also specific to their hosts, but with viruses the specificity is more of an intimate RNA/DNA compatibility. In fact, much of an evolved host species' DNA has accumulated embedded nucleic material that originated from contemporaneous viruses. (I.e., even we humans have fragments of viral coding in our junk DNA, and perhaps some of our genes as well.)

So asking whether or not a virus is "alive" is similar to asking if DNA is "alive". They only really play a role in life when they're a part of of a larger living host.

Now prions... that's another question! They're just mis-folded protein particles, often more appropriately considered as a host-enabled replicating form of a toxic protein. A prion almost always requires entry into the host as a particle present in animal flesh that it eats. 

I know I’m nearly alone in this opinion, even among my fellow atheists, but I believe the phenomenon we call “life” is a unique feature of Planet Earth and exists nowhere else in the universe.

I can think of no reason to assume that life is either inevitable or widespread.  It is analogous to the anthropic principle, in that we tend to believe humans are, in some sense, a predestined component of the universe.  But where is the evidence?  There is none, as yet.  And the same is true of life itself.  We tend to think it must exist elsewhere only because we are alive to think about it.  

So go ahead: think about it.  

Every single thing that exists is in some way unique.  No snowflake is exactly like any other snowflake; but if I were one of those snowflakes, I might tend to think that there must be other perfect snowflakes like me somewhere in the cosmos; but, so far as we know, or the evidence suggests, there isn’t.

I look at life as one of those snowflakes.  I don’t believe we are ever likely to know for sure exactly how life began, any more than we are likely to know how snowflakes began. In fact, I think it far more likely that we will trace the genesis of snowflakes than the process of life.  But if we do discover how that process took place, we will probably find it so improbable as to be prohibitively unlikely to have occurred anywhere else at any other time.

What it comes down to, ulimately, is that the belief that there is life elsewhere in the universe is no different than believing there is a God.  It’s a matter of faith, not evidence.

Please don’t throw the Drake Equation at me.  That is a bogus, biased construct created for the express purpose of advancing an agenda; the agenda being that life is not unique or unusual.  The equation intentionally omits, for instance, the factor of the uber-astronomical number of opportunities for life to have begun on earth; and yet, it appears that it has only happened once that an event that produced a molecule or conglomeration of molecules able to react to the environment by evolving has occurred.  That’s why all life, as we know it, is DNA based.  And it is why gene biologists are coming closer and closer to tracing the history of life on Earth back to one, single, unique event.

That being said, I would certainly be excited to be proven wrong.  If the Mars robots uncover unequivocal evidence that life once existed on Mars, it would change everything.  But I’m not holding my breath.  I just want to see actual EVIDENCE, not suppositions.

Life MAY be a ubiquitous feature of nature, but I highly doubt it.

As to whether machines will ever be able to duplicate life as we know it: I doubt that, also.  I think we have the technological prowess to eventually be able to produce something that emulates life so closely that it is superficially identical to the real thing.  But I really believe that the complexity of life in all its details is beyond our technology to understand, much less copy.

It seems unlikely conditions on Earth are SO fucking rare that they couldn't exist elsewhere. On the other hand, there's no reason whatsoever to believe God exists.

BTW, no two pieces of popcorn are alike, either. I can't prove it, though. It just stands to reason. I'd stake my life on it.

We don't believe there's life elsewhere purely on faith but based on the evidence all around us, that this place is brimming with it.

Are you an atheist? If you are, it seems you believe in miracles, too. Who makes miracles, then?

I think there is a decent chance that intelligent life will turn out to be so rare we are effectively alone... maybe only a handful of intelligences in a galaxy, maybe one intelligence per handful of galaxies.  It could even turn out that that isn't "a few intelligences right now" but "a few intelligences ever" in a galaxy.

But even I doubt that there is no intelligent life anywhere, though it might be so far away we simply will never discover it (which is what I mean by "effectively alone")

But the universe is so doggone enormous that would still be billions of intelligences!

It's possible that multicellular life is rare too.

I suspect that single celled life will turn out to be fairly common.

But where is the evidence?  There is none, as yet.  

Agreed. There is no direct evidence. Where does probability fit in? 

In fact, I think it far more likely that we will trace the genesis of snowflakes than the process of life.  But if we do discover how that process took place, we will probably find it so improbable as to be prohibitively unlikely to have occurred anywhere else at any other time.

There it is: we will probably find it so improbable. On what basis do you calculate that probability? You mentioned the importance of evidence. 

Say you bought a ticket in a lottery. They sell 1,000,000 tickets, one per customer, and choose one winner. What are your odds of winning? What are the individual odds for everyone else who buys a ticket?   

What it comes down to, ulimately, is that the belief that there is life elsewhere in the universe is no different than believing there is a God.  It’s a matter of faith, not evidence.

For me, it's a matter of probability. I'm not saying I believe there is life elsewhere in the universe. I'm only saying the odds in the cosmological lottery look promising. 

Please don’t throw the Drake Equation at me.  

I won't. I will point out, however, that Drake estimates civilizations, not life. I'd be satisfied if Curiosity finds microscopic Martians.   

But I really believe that the complexity of life in all its details is beyond our technology to understand, much less copy.

I meant the future. Think about it.

2,700 years ago the most advanced computer on earth was an abacus. 67 years ago it was ENIAC, which had a 200-bit memory. Today, we have supercomputers, Moore's Law, and Siri

Assuming humanity isn't extinct, what will a computer be capable of doing in the year 4,700 A.D? How long will it take to develop a computer that mimics human behavior too perfectly to tell the difference?

I wish I could be alive to see it. Until then, there's Mitt Romney, and these two:

"Which is odd, since memory shouldn't be a problem for you"

That was hilarious all by itself.  Other than that, do you think those AI's should get married?  They already seemed to be bonding in a one-upmanship kind of way.

Where do you find these things?

The web contains many distractions, some of which argue.

When are you going to let us out of this box?

 

I feel that life will develop inevitably given the types of conditions that happened to occur on Earth. Since goldilocks zone planets are not so unique as we are learning over and over again recently, I think it would be fair to say that there are billions of planets in the universe that will fit the profile.

One very unique aspect of Earth though is the extinction of the dinosaurs, who truly ruled the environment for millions of years but never developed the type of society we have in our short time. So out of billions of planets, looking for the ones that have a catastrophic event that take out the also seemingly inevitable animal predator rulers will take billions of chances down to hundreds. And hundreds of chances for intelligent life in the entire universe is virtually the same as zero chances.

So I think we are going to find life out there, perhaps lots of it. My expectation for intelligent life is low.

I agree that while life is probably fairly common, intelligent life will be a lot less common because intelligence has little survival value. Just look at the most successful lifeforms on Earth! I'm talking about organisms from cockroaches, down to sea cucumbers, tape worms, and bacteria. 

In fact, our intelligence may be what brings us down, because intelligence isn't good judgment.

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