New Statesman – Article By Daniel Dennett On the Social Cell and Doubting Clergy
December 19, 2011
What do debutante balls, the Japanese tea ceremony, Ponzi schemes and doubting clergy all have in common?
A single cell, such as a bacterium, is the simplest thing that can be alive. In addition to the materials from which it is constructed, it needs three features: away of capturing energy (a metabolism), a way of reproducing (genes or something like genes) and a membrane that lets in what needs to come in and keeps out the rest.
Converging lines of research from various schools in biology agree on these three necessities, but there is substantial unresolved controversy about the order in which they must have emerged at the origin of life. If the history of evolutionary biology continues along the paths it has followed so far, it is likely that the solution to this problem will prove to be some ingenious and indirect process of chance combinations and gradual refinements, in which metabolism -like cycles and reproduction-like processes joined forces with non-living membranes that were already floating around, objets trouvés that could be appropriated and exploited. Whatever their origins, the resulting designs have now been refined and optimised for more than three billion years and have proven remarkably hardy. Not only are such single cells the most abundant form of life on the planet, but all living things, from trees to fish to human beings, are constructed of them, harnessed by the trillions into co-operating multicellular teams.