You and I have something fundamental in common. We are both ALIVE. We also both surrounded by an uncountable variety and quantity of living forms. Scoop up a clump of dirt, and you are likely carrying more bacteria than there are humans on planet Earth.
Because bacteria are so abundant, ubiquitous, and invisible to the human eye, biologist E.O. Wilson often refers to them as the “dark matter of the biosphere”.
But where did all this life come from?
Before we can answer that we need to figure out what life is. Besides being bizarre, many scientists describe life as an open system that constantly extracts energy from its environment in order to maintain its own internal processes. We call this complex maintenance a metabolism.
How does life manage to do this?
With something biologist Leslie Orgel called “specified complexity”. Life has a biological memory of its own environment encoded in highly ordered molecules. On our island of life, all that information is encoded in the same basic code: deoxyribonucleic acid; better known as DNA.
Then life does something else interesting. Life reproduces its own information; and as a result of differential survival, life changes over time in a symbiotic way with the environment, or it perishes.
But when did it first start to occur on Earth?
To find out, we need to go back 4 billion years, to the early Earth. When the Earth first formed, it looked nothing like it does today. The moon was much closer, there was no water, and most importantly, there was no life. There was geology, there was chemistry, but there was no biology.
Numerous fossilized biological microstructures from Australia, dating to 3.5 billion years ago suggests that this situation changed rapidly. Somehow, the Earth had started teeming with primitive life. What was going on?
Well, abiogenesis was going on, the natural process where biology emerges from chemistry. And it was going on in a very chaotic environment.
Earth weathered the Late Heavy Bombardment, a period of meteor and asteroid collisions, that occurred 100 times higher than the contemporary average.
To a life-filled planet, this bombardment would have been catastrophic. But to a life-less planet, this planet brought gifts, including water and organic compounds; critical ingredients for life as we know it.
The Earth now had oceans, and those oceans were filled with complex chemistry. But how did these ingredients spontaneously self-organize, into the complex biological structures we find in every cell today.
Back in the present day, abiogenesis has proven to be one of the biggest mysteries for modern scientists. This mystery runs so deep that microbiologist Lynn Margulis said: “to go from a bacterium to people, is less of a step, than to go from a mixture of amino acids to a bacterium.”
Biologists like Jack Szostak are trying to take that step, by producing simple chemical systems that can transition into systems exhibiting life-like characteristics. The result would be revealing a scientific “holy grail”: understanding the pathway (or pathways) to life.
Experimentation has shown us that it’s really hard to replicate abiogenesis. But they have also revealed fascinating hints about the pathway to biology. Some organic molecules naturally develop water-loving and water-hating membranes. This allows for something essential for cellular activity: compartmentalization of amino acids and nucleotides, the building blocks of protein, RNA, and DNA. And consequently, a potential first step towards a proto-cell with the biological machinery necessary for cellular growth and reproduction.
While we have yet to uncover exactly how this pathway was achieved, what we do know is that once the genetic code for life emerged on Earth, those first living forms shared their genes as liberally as humans share ideas globally today.
By sharing biological information, early life developed useful adaptations, allowing them to persist through supervolcanoes, asteroids, and global ice ages. So although life is mysterious, it is also most definitely resilient.
Remember that clump of dirt I was holding with billions of bacteria? Our life-filled world stemmed from microscopic pioneers that shared a lot in common with these extant bacteria.
This simple life also makes me wonder. Is our pale blue dot unique in it’s ability to foster abiogenesis. Or is it a simple and common process throughout the universe?
I’ll be in the comments, so discuss this with my below!
Everyone knows that Lord of the Rings is a work of fiction. There is no evidence that JRR Tolkien’s elves, wizards, dwarves or orcs ever existed. But recent discoveries have raised an important question: did hobbits actually exist?
In September 2003 a team of archaeologists led by Peter Brown and Mike Morwood unearthed a new human species, fossil skeleton LB1, on the tiny Southeast Asian island of Flores. LB1 stood 1m tall, had an ape-sized brain, and lived only 18 thousand years ago. Scientists named it Homo floresiensis, but because of its small size, the press gave the species a different nickname: “hobbits”.
Scientists were shocked and completely at a loss to explain how LB1 could have existed, considering it lived at a time when Homo sapiens – that’s us – had colonized every available landmass.
The species small size can potentially be explained by “insular dwarfism”, which is the evolution of small body size as a result of migration to a small island.
The hobbits shared their island with another dwarfed creature, the Stegodon, as well as a creature – the komodo dragon – that experienced the counter-effect to insular dwarfism: island gigantism. But so far no evidence suggests that hobbits encountered modern humans. Flores was an isolated “Shire” for Homo floresiensis… keeping them separated from mainland Eurasia.
But, hypothetically, what would they have encountered had they left the comfort of their “Shire” and ventured out into the Middle “Pleistocene” Earth?
New evidence suggests that they would have encountered as many as four different human species. All of these species were exhibiting behavioural traits once considered unique to modern humans… and they were all interbreeding. These discoveries are completely changing the way we understand human evolution.
The first human hobbits may have encountered was Homo erectus; a species that successfully inhabited most of Eurasia and Africa for nearly 2 million years. That’s 20x longer than modern humans have existed!
As primatologist Richard Wrangham explained in his 2009 book Catching Fire, Homo erectus changed the planet becoming the first known species to make complex technology and control fire. This allowed them to excel as hunters and… as the world’s first chefs!
Their cooking may not have impressed Samwise Gamgee – but using fire to cook hunted meat became a common strategy for all humans… except the hobbits of Flores.
Further north into Middle Pleistocene Eurasia lived Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis, two species of evolutionary significance in that they expressed symbolic behaviour.
Symbols are objects that represent ideas. Historically, symbolic activity was thought to be a hallmark of modern humans. That idea no longer seems tenable.
Paleoanthropologist Francesco d’Errico thinks it likely that Homo heidelbergensis used pigments to decorate their weapons and bodies. This means Homo heidelbergensis’s objects were imbued with a symbolic meaning.
Neanderthals also engaged in a very symbolic activity… they buried their dead. The oldest known Neanderthal gravesite dates to 160,000 years ago. Proof that pre-modern humans understood and ritualized death.
Anthropologist John Hawks has argued in a recent issue of Journal of Anthropological Sciences that the collective evidence of Pleistocene hominins forces us to appreciate that art, ornamentation, music, and language-like communication was not the sole domain of modern humans.
Genetics research has revealed more surprises. In 2008, genetic sequencing of a finger bone from Denisova cave in Siberia revealed the existence of another new human species: Denisova hominin. Subsequent genetic testing revealed that not only did Denisova hominin interbreed with Neanderthals and modern humans, but they also interbred with yet another currently unknown human species!
All of these interbreeding and co-existing humans suggest that human evolution was not a linear progression of human forms… but a complex web of many interacting humans that were not genetically distinct.
Discoveries of this level of significance prompted anthropologist Leslie Aiello to assert that we would be naïve to believe the picture of human evolution is already fully known. How many more human species await future discovery?
As for Homo floresiensis, they may not have evolved like other humans, as they were disconnected culturally and genetically. They probably didn’t cook, make complex tools, or use language. But they were safe from the much bigger and more competitive world around them.
So what caused their extinction? We don’t know for sure, but approximately 17,000 years ago, a volcanic eruption devastated their island… and we see no more evidence of the hobbit humans after this date.
As a result, it’s possible that Flores was both the Shire and Mount Doom for our extinct human relatives.
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I’ve mentioned (and photographed) one of my best friends, Stephanie Katz on this blog. Steph happens to be an amazing photographer and is currently working on a nude photo series about focusing on the beautiful details of women’s bodies. As a student at the School of Visual Arts, she wants the series to focus on how all woman should feel confident and beautiful at any size. I’m all about her series (and her the rest of her wonderful work) and I wanted to help her in her quest for models!
Any interested women in the NYC / Connecticut area: If you’d like to participate in this series by posing nude for the Steph and her camera, you can contact her at email@example.com. No experience in modeling is necessary and you would be photographed in your own home/apartment/dwelling. There is no cost for the shoot and all details can be ironed out with Steph prior to the shoot. Steph is looking for women of all sizes, the only requirement is that you are 18 years or older.
As someone who has posed for this series, I can tell you that it was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done. So if you’re interested, contact Steph at the email above or shoot me an inbox if you have any questions.
And as a side note: Steph’s beautiful self can be seen in the last picture in this photo set. She’s super sweet (but I may be biased) and she will make you feel *super* comfortable throughout your shoot.