If Microbes begat Mind: origins of life and intelligence

No one would explain scientific progress as randomly generated hypotheses from which the community selects the fittest to survive. So why do we accept such an arbitrary view of evolution? There was indeed a Designer of life – life designed itself in the context of, and interacting with, its environment.

The origin of life is an ultra hard problem. Because evidence from 2.8 billion years ago, when life probably began on Earth, is almost non-existent, scientists are forced to look for contemporary analogs to probable early Earth environments, and to harness logical argument, making the origin of life the ideal case study to examine how scientists tackle hard problems. Artists [Jenny Mottar, NASA, below] can take creative license because for this hard problem “what if” imagined scenarios precede gathering observational evidence .


The diverse questions scientists choose as starting points, and the contrasting approaches they take to generate hypotheses about the origin and synthesis of life, demonstrate design thinking at its best.

Although it was once assumed that Darwinian evolution was an attribute of life, chemists, first Graham Cairns-Smith, and later Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow, though their views differ, both in different ways focused on demonstrating that the principles of evolution operate in non-living systems that could have preceded and “invented” life.

If Microbes begat Mind, this was not a simple, linear sequence — evolution begat life, which begat intelligence. Life and intelligence co-evolved through cyclic feedback, designing each other, their feedback cycles intertwined. Design meets science as theorists design hypotheses about the origin and synthesis of life. How can scientific method better harness the methods of design? What learning environments can we design to promote “thinking like designers” about the deep questions of science and the broad challenges of the future?

ZannGill-MbM-cover-1-16The book’s subtitle, the origins of life and intelligence, characterizes the history of intelligence as a continuum, embedded in evolution. Intelligence emerges from dynamic, evolutionary process that preceded life. Debates continue about how to interpret what Darwin meant by evolution. Rather than argue for “one right answer” to the question of how life originated, the book shows how design principles apply, not only to the origin of life and to the design of hypotheses about it, but also to the debates and questions it inspires.

How do the origin and synthesis of life reveal principles of “mind”? The book describes how the evolution of life and the emergence of intelligence co-evolved, and argues that their co-dependence presumes that the simplest precursor of mind originated when life originated.

If random variation and environmental selection alone were insufficient to originate and evolve complex life on Earth, we need a complementary mechanism that embraces, but goes beyond the traditional interpretation of evolution — life designing its “self” through synergetic evolution as its components “collaborate” to achieve wholes greater than the sum of their parts. Intelligent Design missed the point in placing the locus of intelligence outside life (in an Intelligent Designer).

microorganismsgreenDarwinists also missed the point, telling only half the story in placing evolution’s creativity outside life in environmental selection. If Microbes begat Mind reveals why the current paradigm of reductionist science focused on half the story, random mutation and environmental selection, overlooking the full story — life’s role in designing itself.

Although If Microbes begat Mind began as a study of the history of ideas, comparing the creative processes of origin of life theorists, through the emergent process of writing this book it’s own hypothesis about the coupling of the origin of life and the origin of consciousness emerged – the A-PR Hypothesis.

The film below was taken of Zann Gill giving an early talk on the origin of life at NASA Ames in 2008, which predates the A-PR Hypothesis.

Reviewer comments on the book, pre-release
Debates Addressed in the Book
Quotes from the book


Picture Credit: Jenny Mottar, NASA
Background on the talk at NASA Ames.

Gill, Zann. 2011. The A-PR Hypothesis: Autonomy and Pattern Recognition in the Origin of Life. Origins 2011, ISSOL (International Society for Study of the Origin of Life) & Bioastronomy Joint International Conference; July 3 – 8 – Montpellier, France.
Gill, Zann. 2002. Origin of Life: Case Studies of Hypothesis Construction, ISSOL 2002, International Conference on the Origin of Life, Oaxaca, Mexico. June 30 – July 5.
Gill, Zann. 2001. Invited chapter Simulating the Future: Computing and Speculation in the book To Mars and Beyond: Search for the Origins of Life published by the National Museum of Australia..