Enter Into Joy

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Are rocks alive?

Crystal Skeleton by Lawrence Stoller

Look closely at a grain of sand, the seed of a thousand beings can be seen. 
Mahmud Shabestari14th century.

The recent discovery, by NASA scientists, of so-called “arsenic-based microbes” may have redefined life as we know it. Certainly there are places inhabited by life that we haven’t found yet. And the line between animate and inanimate isn’t sharply drawn.

A common thread of the mystical experience is the realization of the unity of life. How does the Mineral Kingdom fit into the picture? In the Bible, and in the Koran, God created Adam from clay, and breathed life into him.

The earliest fossils known, microbial remains, are about 3.8 billion years old. The origin of those early, simple life-forms is a matter of debate. There are several theories, one being that mineral crystals formed a kind of template for organic molecules.

Scottish biochemist Graham Cairns-Smith developed a theory of “genetic takeover”. The precursor to biological life may have been tiny, platy, crystals of a clay mineral, like kaolinite, which actually grows and replicates itself when in the right environment.

Wind picks up the tiny crystals as dust, and scatters them to new places. The flat faces of the crystals are templates for identical crystals to form – replicates. The surfaces carry information - a kind of genetic code. They have a regular, repeated arrangement of charged atoms that also can attract and organize simple organic compounds, and act as a catalyst for chemical reactions.
Perhaps the reactions formed an organic coating to protect the crystals from weathering. These arrangements of organic molecules may have eventually become RNA and DNA. Eventually, the coatings themselves began replicating, and these primitive biological replicators took over from the geological ones.
In addition to growing, and replicating themselves, minerals have evolved along with plants and animals. About two-thirds of the more than 4,000 known mineral species are linked to bioligical activity, mainly because of the development of an oxygen-rich atmosphere that is a consequence of photosynthesis.
For the vast majority of human history, the Stone Age, the working of flint for arrowheads was the pinnacle of technology. Now, some think that life may be approaching another genetic takeover – by self-sufficient, self-replicating, machines.  An inorganic machine of this type could be more efficient than an animal. The information-carrying part of most advanced machines is the integrated circuit – a man-made crystal. So, while rocks may not be alive in the conventional sense, biological life may be bookended by crystals.

 “Dust Thou Art, and Unto Dust Shalt Thou Return. “ (Genesis 2:7).
— Kelly Nash


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