How did it happen that in the vast, dark, barren universe of matter, life developed? Why are we here? Two great stories, the greatest ever created by humanity, seek to answer that question of questions. According to one, everything occurred gradually, across countless eons, slowly, slowly, slowly. The second story says that everything happened instantaneously: And God said, and there was.
For many generations, the proponents of the two narratives were divided into enemy camps that waged bitter battles with each other. But perhaps it’s actually the same story, told in two languages?
Two big bangs
At bottom, life is a combination of three phenomena: structural distinctiveness created by a membrane that separates the cell from its surroundings; a collection of chemical reactions (metabolism); and the ability to reproduce, based, among other elements, on the replication of genetic information. These phenomena rest on three types of biomolecules, the building blocks of life: lipids, which constitute the cell membrane; proteins, of which the largest group are enzymes, which set metabolism in motion; and the nucleic acids DNA and RNA, which contain the information for creating proteins. The accepted scientific approach is that, because of the vast complexity of these three elements, the journey to life began with one of them, which came into being randomly and then, somehow, spawned an additional one and then the third.
Over the years, tremendous efforts by researchers have been devoted to finding the origin of life in one of the three elements. The lack of success of laboratory experiments intended to simulate each of the requisite scenarios for the gradual creation of life, has recently led, however, to the examination of a subversive alternative, according to which structurality, metabolism and information replication appeared together, at one and the same time, in a very simple form.
The “big bang of life” theory faced an obstacle that until recently seemed irresolvable: Each of the three mechanisms of life is based on completely different biochemistry: Nucleic acids are very different from proteins, which are completely different from lipids, and this renders negligible the probability that the building blocks of life appeared in the same place and at the same time, from the same basic chemical substances.
But maybe it really did happen that way? A major push for the “subversive” alternative was provided in 2015 by biochemists from Cambridge University in an article published in the journal Nature. The scientists found that a combination of a few common compounds can, through a simple chemical reaction which required ultraviolet light, heating and drying, and wetting with water, become the basis for lipids, for amino acids from which proteins are constituted, and for nucleotides, which are the building blocks of the nucleic acids.
Further support for the theory that life was formed all at once and not gradually comes from a study of meteorites, which provide a geological record similar to the conditions that existed when Earth came into being. One such subject of study is the Murchison meteorite, which fell in Australia in 1969. According to an article by science writer Michael Marshall, published last month in New Scientist, comprehensive laboratory tests found lipid-like molecules, amino acids and a component of RNA in the meteorite. This heightens the possibility that, despite the immense differences between them, all three could have also existed simultaneously on the young Earth.
The findings are not yet definitive, and much information is still lacking. However, in recent years, the approach that the most wondrous transition – from no life to life – appeared on Earth instantaneously, is becoming increasingly accepted among scientists, who are absolutely not creationists.
This “big bang” of life is not the only “bang,” of course. Around 90 years ago a similar answer was offered in connection with the second great question: Why does anything exist at all? How did that vast, dark universe come into being? The prevailing myth in most cultures spoke of spontaneous creation, whereas science had insisted for centuries that there’s no way the universe had a “beginning.”
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The picture began to change with the publication of a subversive, breakthrough article in Nature in 1931. The author was a brilliant Belgian physicist, a graduate of MIT who was, amazingly, also an ordained Catholic priest. That cleric-scientist, Georges Lemaître, pointed to a seemingly surprising phenomenon: The fact that the universe was expanding, as was discovered around that time, suggests that if we were to go back in time, the universe would look smaller and smaller, until in the end we would reach a certain moment when the mass of the entire universe would have been concentrated in a single point, which he called the “primeval atom.” At that point, Lemaître argued, time-space fabric came into being.
Ninety years later, we are used to this idea, which sounds to us logical and acceptable. But stop and think about it for a moment: The whole vast universe concentrated in one point, and then emerges from it – how? why? – in an instant, like a jack-in-the-box. Wonder of wonders. The scientific community was fiercely critical of Lemaître’s article; Albert Einstein, for example, described his physics as “atrocious.” However, within a short time Einstein acknowledged his mistake, which he termed the biggest blunder of his career, and heaped praise on Lemaître’s theory: “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”
Thus was born, in the scientific language, the Big Bang narrative – which can be seen as a translation of “Let there be light” in the other language – accepted in the scientific community. Now, perhaps, another big bang has been discovered – of a sudden and simultaneous appearance of lipids, amino acids and nucleotides, a sibling to “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth the living creature.’”
This duality – two languages that are so different and yet, as it turns out, not necessarily contradictory – is perhaps not accidental. If we look at the biblical account of Creation, we can find in it a similar duality, an ostensible dispute, around the story of the emergence of mankind. Genesis 1:27 depicts the dramatic event thus: “And God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female created he them.” This is humankind as the crown of Creation, fashioned after all the animals, man as God’s image, not as a metaphor, in practice.
The account in Genesis 2:7 is completely different. Here, humankind is created before the animals, “from the dust of the earth,” not as the purpose of Creation but only as a means to sustain it, “to care for it and to maintain it.” Here the man is also created alone; only afterward does God understand that “It is not good for man to be alone,” and makes “a fitting helper for him.”
God did not create two types of humans, but he created a being of such fierce duality that one creation story was insufficient to accommodate it. If the human being created in the image of the divine can be understood as pure consciousness – human 2.0, made from dust, reflects our sheer physicality. These two facets of humanity are expressed by the names of the protagonists of the biblical narrative: “Adam” is bound up with adama, soil, namely the level of the material, the objective; “Hava” (Eve) connects with havaya, experience – that is, with consciousness, with the subjective.
It is fair to ask why the second human was created. After all, God looked at Adam I and saw that “it was very good.” Why did he fiddle around in the mud and make Adam II? Possibly because he understood that he didn’t need another one exactly like him. He wanted someone who could do what no god has the capacity to do: fail. For if there is no option of failure, there is no space for effort and no possibility to transcend.
It’s the duality that allows the offspring of Adam and Eve a life of meaning, but its pursuit is far from simple. Indeed, again and again we fail. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm hypothesized that the sin that led to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden was not the eating of the fruit of the tree contrary to the divine injunction, but the mutual accusations exchanged by Adam and Eve, who were selfish, alienated. Who did not love.
Alienation is not only the sin, Fromm wrote, but also the punishment. God did not need to expel Eve and Adam from their garden. By perceiving themselves as separate, they were already outside. Paradise and hell, in this sense, are not physical places but mental states. The Garden of Eden is love, love for all aspects of the human, those in you and those in me. Hell is alienation from them.
To live in our image
Humanity has been in hell for a very long time. People, nations, civilizations live amid divisions and estrangement, emphasizing the above-mentioned aspects of the human, while neglecting the other. The more acute the alienation becomes, and the more that one side of the duality is strengthened at the expense of the other side, the higher the temperature of the flames grows. At the moment, the material side has the upper hand, but its achievements – to the extent that they emanate from alienation from the humanistic, the social, and not from fraternity – also involve unprecedented inequality, mental plagues, apocalyptic environmental ruin.
According to a fifth-century C.E. midrash, man was created on the first day of the month of Tishrei. In other words, the Hebrew New Year is also the birthday of humanity. Perhaps what we can wish for it, for us, is a life of union and fullness instead of a life of alienation and division. That may be our only hope. For us to relate with erudition both of our stories alike, know how to fuse being and thought, meditation and mathematics, mysticism and physics. To be in our image.