Evolution Without Life

Philosopher Mark Bedau points out that, even on a dead planet, the microscopic crystallites that make up clay and mud seem to have the flexibility to adapt and evolve by natural selection:

  • Crystals reproduce in the sense that when they become large enough they cleave and pieces break off, becoming seeds for new crystals. A population of reproducing crystals can become the setting for crystal “evolution.”
  • All crystals have flaws, which are reproduced randomly and can become a source of novel information that gets expressed in “phenotypic” traits such as shape, growth rate, and the conditions that cause cleaving.
  • Each new layer of crystals copies the geometrical arrangement of atoms in the layer below, and defects can be copied in the same way. Grain boundaries and dislocations in one crystal tend to be copied to its “offspring” and subsequent generations. Over time these “mutations” can produce “species” among which nature selects.
  • A crystal’s shape, growth rate, and cleaving conditions all affect the rate at which it proliferates, and crystals with different properties will disperse and diffuse differently, which affects the rate at which they reproduce.

So a population of crystals can exhibit reproduction, variation, heredity, and adaptivity. “What is rather surprising is that, in the process, the planet remains entirely devoid of life. Thus, natural selection can take place in an entirely inorganic setting.”

(Mark Bedau, “Can Biological Teleology Be Naturalized?” Journal of Philosophy 88:11 [November 1991], 647-655. I think A.G. Cairns-Smith originated this idea in Seven Clues to the Origin of Life in 1985, and Richard Dawkins took it up in The Blind Watchmaker the following year.)