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Earth on Apr 18, 2013

Did life begin before Earth existed?

Two scientists using Moore’s Law to explain the exponential increase in life’s complexity have found that, by this measure, life is older than Earth itself.

As life on our planet has evolved, its complexity has increased exponentially. Two scientists using Moore’s Law – a theory that explains technological development – have extrapolated this trend backwards and found that by this measure, life is older than Earth itself.

And what is Moore’s Law? Moore’s Law says that computers increase exponentially in complexity, at a rate of about double the transistors per integrated circuit every very two years. Looking at the complexity of computers today and working Moore’s Law backwards shows that the first microchips came about during the 1960s, which is, in fact, when they were actually invented.

Geneticists Richard Gordon of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Florida and Alexei Sharov of the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore have taken the same approach and applied Moore’s Law to biological complexity. According to their new paper posted to the preprint database arXiv, if the evolution of life follows Moore’s Law, then life began before planet Earth was formed.

Image credit: NASA

Satellite image of the Sundarbans in southwestern Bangladesh and southeastern India, the largest remaining tract of mangrove forest in the world. Image credit: NASA

They suggest that the complexity of life and the rate at which it has increased follows Moore’s law, but in this case, the doubling time is 376 million years rather than two years. Working backwards, they say that means that life first came about almost 10 billion years ago, which predates the creation of Earth itself. Most scientists agree the Earth formed just 4.5 billion years ago. Assuming that Moore’s Law does apply to biological complexity, this would suggest that life began somewhere other than on Earth and migrated here.

The two researchers acknowledge their ideas are more of a “thought exercise” than a theory proposal, and acknowledge that there are of course other possibilities to explain what happened. For example, life could have evolved following Moore’s Law during certain periods but not at others, a deep freeze could have temporarily halted changes in complexity, or cataclysmic events could have periodically killed off the more advanced biotic life forms. Then of course, there is the very real possibility that the beginnings and evolution of life don’t conform to Moore’s Law at all.

And, if you’re imaging a scenario from the movie Prometheus, in which life’s building blocks are delivered by a proto-human species from another planet, that’s not what this paper is suggesting. In fact, the scientists said:

This cosmic time scale for the evolution of life has important consequences: life took ca. 5 billion years to reach the complexity of bacteria; the environments in which life originated and evolved to the prokaryote stage may have been quite different from those envisaged on Earth; there was no intelligent life in our universe prior to the origin of Earth, thus Earth could not have been deliberately seeded with life by intelligent aliens.

Bottom line: A paper posted to the preprint database arXiv by geneticists Richard Gordon of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Florida and Alexei Sharov of the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore in April, 2013if suggests that if the evolution of life follows Moore’s Law, then life began before planet Earth was formed.

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