Mar 4, 2022

Life in a Barrel

This week, we flip the Disney story of life on its head thanks to a barrel of seawater, a 1970s era computer, and underwater geysers. It’s the chaos of life.

Latif, Lulu, and our Senior Producer Matt Kielty were all sitting on their own little stories until they got thrown into the studio, and had their cherished beliefs about the shape of life put on a collision course. From an accidental study of sea creatures, to the ambitions of Stephen J Gould, to an undercooked theory that captured the world’s imagination, we undo the seeming order of the living world and try to make some music out of the wreckage. (Bonus: Learn how Francis Crick really thought life got started on this planet).

This episode was reported by Latif Nasser, Matt Kielty, Heather Radke, Lulu Miller and Candice Wang. It was produced by Matt Kielty and Simon Adler. Sound and music from Matt Kielty, Simon Adler, and Jeremy Bloom, and dialogue mix by Arianne Wack.

Special thanks to Alan and Alida Goffinski for giving our chaos musical life in the song at the end of the episode.

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Support Radiolab by becoming a member of The Lab today. 

Citations in this episode

Scientific Papers:
Elisa Beninca, Reinhard Heerkloss, et al, “Chaos in a long-term experiment with a plankton community” Nature (2008)
Hendrik Schubert, Reinhard Heerkloss, et al, “Chaos theory discloses triggers and drivers of plankton dynamics in a stable environment” Scientific Reports (2019)

Books:
Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life
Francis Crick, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature
Stephen Jay Gould: Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, and The Mismeasure of Man
David M. Raup, Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?
David Sepkoski, Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline

 

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

LATIF NASSER: Okay, so let me just — cus I also don't entirely know what's going on…

LULU MILLER: I’m Lulu Miller.

LATIF: I’m Latif Nasser.

LULU: And we also have with us...

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: Producer Matt Kielty.

MATT KIELTY: Um… 

LATIF: We have three different pitches.

LULU: Yeah, we're gonna — you guys are the...

MATT: Wow. We're doing three different things?

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: Yeah but mine's very little, but I need — you gotta leave me 15 minutes at the end.

LATIF: 15 minutes. Okay, and then…

LATIF: Okay, a little context. A while back, the three of us found ourselves in a studio together because our editor, Soren, he knew that we were independently working on these different stories.

LULU: Is — is about like…

LATIF: Oh, so you don't know that — Lulu, you do know the stories or you don't know the stories?

LULU: No! I don’t know any of…

LULU: And unbeknownst to us at the time, he decided that each of our stories pitted chaos versus order in a way that could upend some of our deepest beliefs about how life works. 

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: And so he wanted to just get us in the ring together. 

LATIF: It’s a cage match. It’s a story cage match.

LULU: Yeah, and we’ll get to all that, but…

LATIF: Should I start?

MATT: Yeah.

LULU: Latif has got story number one. 

LATIF: Alright. Okay, so we're starting at the University of Rostock in Germany.

[MUSIC IN]

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: Yeah, the story started here in Rostock.

LATIF: With this ecology professor named Hendrick Schubert. 

LATIF: Did I pronounce that right?

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: Absolutely great. You got it.

LATIF: So back in the early 80’s, Hendrick finishes his undergrad degree in ecology at Rostock, studies in a couple different departments there, goes on to teach for a while at a different university. 

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: And then by chance, I got the professorship here, in Rostock, in my former department.

LATIF: He came back home.

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: It was really by chance, I never dreamed of.

LATIF:  But the job was department chair. So basically now, he was gonna be the boss of his former teachers.

[MUSIC OUT]

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: Yes.

LULU: Awkward.

LATIF: Yeah, it’s kind of a funny dynamic, right?

MATT: Mmm hmm.

LATIF:  Anyway, one day he walks into this temperature controlled lab that they have there and he sees one of his old professors.

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: A mentor of mine, Reinhard…

LATIF: Reinhard Heerkloss. 

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: Yeah, my name is Reinhard Heerkloss and…

LATIF: And right next to Reinhard, he also sees, much to his surprise…

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: I saw this barrel.

LATIF: A bright blue 100-liter barrel.

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: Yeah. My barrel for my experiments.

LATIF:  And Hendrick — Hendrick knew this barrel.

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: When I was still a student and we had a practical course, where we …

LATIF:  Because as an undergrad he had done this experiment with Reinhard where they had filled these barrels full of seawater.

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: Brackish water from a lagoon of the Baltic Sea called…

LATIF: And they were tweaking the nutrient levels just to watch how it would affect the, you know, tiny microorganisms living in the water. 

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: Like copepods.

LATIF: Yeah.

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: Zooplanktons.

LATIF: But it was this simple little experiment that had only lasted for two weeks. And now, more — you know, a decade later, Reinhard still had that barrel, you know, just sitting there. 

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: So I ask Reinhard, “Hey, what are you – what are you doing with this?” and he told me…

LATIF: So Reinhard then tells him the story.

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: So I can go back to the late 80’s. A group…

LATIF: So a few months after the initial experiment in 1989, something unthinkable happened.

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: It’s a big jump in history.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [[cheering]]

LATIF: The Berlin Wall fell.

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: The Berlin Wall fall.

LATIF: Rostock was in East Germany. And all of a sudden, just like it felt like overnight, everything changed. The currency changed, the head of state changed, the university changed its name, it’s curriculum. Like all these very specific things about Reinhard’s day to day life, all of a sudden, just changed.

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: Yeah. It’s — it’s a cultural shock.

LATIF: Cut to six months later, June 1990. In all this chaos, Reinhard has completely forgotten about these barrels, until one day a colleague of his in his department wanted to do a different experiment. And so came to him and was like, “Hey could you” — was bugging him — like, “Could you just get those barrels out of there?”

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: I was asked to remove these barrels for their own experiment.

LATIF: So he does it one by one. So he like, takes the one, he like shimmies it over, he dumps it out…

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: Empty the water and wash out the sediment.

LATIF: Takes the other one. So he’s sort of doing that. And then he gets to the control barrel, which is the one in the experiment that they, you know, they had done nothing to. It was just sitting there under a light source, right, it — as a comparison for the other barrels where they were tweaking things.  

LULU: Okay.

LATIF: And for some reason, he’s about to tip it over and then stops himself. And he’s like, “You know what? Let me just like, take a little sample of this and look under a microscope and see what’s actually like in this barrel.”

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: Is there still life in it or is it not in it?

LATIF: And so, he looks at it and he’s totally dumbstruck by what he sees.

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: Sample filled with many, many, organisms, with zooplankton and algae and so on.

[MUSIC IN]

LATIF:  I mean, he hadn’t touched this thing in months. Nobody had. 

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: I thought there will be nothing. More or less dead.

LATIF: But when he looks, he sees that it's—it's not just alive, it's thriving. There's like tons of different species. So there are phytoplankton — these are like little plants, and a lot of them are green. Zooplankton, which are basically like the animal-y type of plankton, some of which eat the phytoplankton, some of which eat the other zooplankton. And then there are bacteria, which are basically like the equivalent of the mushrooms or whatever that are—that are recycling the whole system. Unwittingly, he had created a little natural world.

MATT: Quick question, clarification.

LULU: Yeah.

MATT: Did he create it? Or did he just preserve it?

[MUSIC OUT]

LULU: Yeah.

LATIF: I think it's like a semantic thing.

MATT: [laughs] That's what — That's what I love.

LATIF: Like, like, sure. So, so maybe he didn't create it. But he — he like…

MATT: He sustained it.

LATIF: He didn't sustain it cus he didn't touch it. It just happened. It's like a thimble of ocean that he got and somehow this thimble of ocean is continuing to live.

MATT: Okay, cool.

LATIF: Okay. So also when he that sees that it's alive, part of the other reason that it excites him is that at that time in the '80s and '90s there was this kind of open question in the field of ecology, about the natural course of an ecosystem. And I'm—I'm kind of like bastardizing the question in a way that I understand it. So, like — but this is basically, I think what it is. If you could just give an ecosystem the basic things it needs, right, like, sunlight, and space and whatever, but there were no humans around to mess with it, you know, no comets, no earthquakes, no — noth — no outside confounding factors, what would happen? What would that ecosystem do? 

LULU: Huh. 

MATT: Cool.

LULU: Okay. 

LATIF: And there’s sort of two options here. You know, like it might be that all the creatures get, you know, to some certain population level and with a bit of eating one another, and more being born over here and — and then it basically stabilizes. You know, beyond the day to day, up and downs, it  basically, it’s like a line in the end.

MATT: Like a never-ending line of harmony.

LATIF: Yeah.

MATT: Okay. 

LATIF: Or maybe you would see more like, more like a cycle. Like there would be more of one thing for a while, and it would dominate for a while, but then it sort of crashes and because there’s not enough of another thing for it to eat and then another thing takes over. And then instead of like a line — so in this case, instead of like a line, what you have is like a circle.

LULU: [singing] The circle of life!

LATIF: That's right. That's right! It's what Mufasa says in The Lion King, the circle of life. That's the song, right?

LULU: Yeah.

LATIF: Yeah, so two options: line or circle, which are kind of just two flavors of balance.  

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: The prevailing view was that when they are left alone, the nature turns to get balanced.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [Circle of Life from The Lion King.]

LATIF: But here, in this barrel, Reinhard thought, I have the perfect opportunity to answer this question. I've got an ecosystem that's totally untouched by humans. And the species in that ecosystem are born, reproduce and die at a super quick clip. So in just a few month's time, we'll be able to see, like, hundreds of generations worth of transformation. And so he starts tracking how the various species are doing. Week after week, he's, like, interrupting Christmas with his family because he's like, "I gotta go. Sorry." Looking at and scrutinizing like a glass of water over and over and over again. And everyone’s like, “This is the most boring thing.” Like even his colleagues who are like scientists who do boring other stuff…

[MUSIC OUT]

LULU: Gotta go check in on my stale water.

LATIF: Exactly, they are all like, “This is” —  they’re like, “What even is this experiment?” But, from another way, he’s a god…

[MUSIC IN]

LATIF: Overseeing a tiny universe where he is watching it and it's like generations are passing in, effectively, the blink of an eye for him. And he’s watching this, like, very dramatic story unfolding. But he’s trying to figure out like, what exactly is the shape of it? Like what is the plot?

[MUSIC OUT]

LULU: He's like, “Am I in a suspense movie? Am I in an apocalypse?”

LATIF: That's exactly what's happening. And he can’t figure it out, because what he is seeing…

[MUSIC IN]

LATIF: It's like a microbial like, like Game of Thrones, or something that he's like watching. The species that are there, they're booming. They're crashing. One type of creature could be the dominant species in the barrel for—for hundreds of generations. And then just it's a blip from then on. Like, it just crashes and then it never comes back.

MATT: It’s like Rome rises, thinks they’re gonna be on top of the world forever, and then…

LULU: Yeah.

MATT: The barbarians come in like, oh hell [bleep] no, it’s Germany now.

LULU: Okay.

LATIF: Right. Right. Right. 

[MUSIC OUT]

LATIF:  And so he watches this play out in this barrel for over six years waiting for the harmony.

LULU: Oh!

LATIF: And he just never…

[MUSIC IN]

LULU: It never came?

LATIF: It never came. No line, no circle.

[MUSIC OUT]

REINHARD HEERKLOSS: In this nutshell of a small ecosystem, nature is chaos, chaos, chaos.

LATIF:  What Reinhard had discovered in this barrel was that this tiny ecosystem, when left to its own devices, was completely chaotic.

LULU: So what does that mean-mean? Like is that saying it’s just booming and busting at random? Or does that mean? 

LATIF:  Well so…

ELISA BENNICA: Well, first of all maybe I should tell a little bit what chaos is.

LATIF: Please.

ELISA BENNICA: Because, because for most of the people, chaos is just sort of random, but it's not.

LATIF: This is Elisa Bennica. 

ELISA BENNICA: I’m Elisa Bennica and I’m a theoretical ecologist.

LATIF: Reinhard brought her in to analyze his data. And she says, the way to think about chaos is not whether it’s random or not, but to what extent we can predict what’s going to happen.

ELISA BENNICA: So actually, a chaos is the system, which is high in predictability on the short term, but cannot be predicted in the long term. And the weather is actually the best example for that. 

LATIF: Hmm.

ELISA BENNICA: Meteorologists can do forecasts up to two weeks.

LATIF:  After that they're no better than you or I trying to predict the weather. And in the case of this barrel …

ELISA BENNICA: Species could be predictable for around 15, 30 days. After that you couldn't know who is going to be in advantage.

LATIF: Huh.

LATIF: So it’s not like, you know, things are just happening completely randomly for no reason whatsoever. It’s just that we — like, it’s beyond us to see why things are happening, or what’s going to happen. Which, to Reinhard, you know suggested there’s no line. There’s no circle. Like Harmonious, natural balance, like that’s all BS. Like, at any moment the natural equivalent of the Berlin wall could fall and — and just upend the whole system. 

[MUSIC IN]

[MUSIC OUT]

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: He told me, “I never have seen a stable state…”

LATIF: So when Hendrick, the student turned department chair, ran into Rienhardt and his barrel, Reinhard told him about all of this data he collected. 

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: “Sometimes I had a stable state for some weeks of even months, but then, suddenly, the system shifted again. And I decided to follow up.”

LATIF: And then with, you know, the help of Hendrick and Elisa and others, Reinhard gets his work published in Nature. And according to Hendrick there was this immediate blowback from other — some other ecologists.

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: Yes.

LATIF: Because it sort of thumbed its nose at this whole field of study. Like…

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: If this is true, why should we do any research anymore?

LATIF: If we’re trying to bring a system back to order and you’re saying that there’s no such order to begin with, what the hell are we even even?

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: “Well, if there's chaos in nature, why do we do restoration or whatever?”

LATIF: But you know, Hendrick, he was also skeptical of the result for, you know, scientific reasons. Because, you know, even if Reinhard found chaos inside this one barrel…

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: It doesn’t mean chaos that is something mandatory. 

LATIF: Yeah.

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: He showed that there might be chaos.

[MUSIC IN]

LATIF: Hendrick is like, "I'm — I'm — I'm redoing this whole thing."

LULU: Ha! Really?

LATIF: “Let's see what happens." So this time he repeats the experiment.

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: Similar set up, an improved set up.

LATIF:  Tried to control for all possible variability.

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: To get our best, let's say.

LATIF: And ...

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: For a year, twice ...

LATIF: With eight barrels this time, they scoop and measure, scoop and measure, scoop and measure.

[MUSIC OUT]

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: Etcetera.

LATIF: What did you what did you and your colleagues find?

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: We had signs of chaos in some of the vessels, and in some of the compartments tested.

LATIF: So not all eight.

HENDRICK SCHUBERT: Not all eight and not always the same.

LATIF: Like, when there was chaos, it was playing out in different ways in the different barrels, which provides me at least with a little sigh of relief because in some ways it's saying like, we still don't know.

LULU: Or — or is it just now just like a multiverse of chaos where we can't even tell if it's going to be chaotic or when it's going to be chaotic. Like I just see deeper, deeper, deeper chaos, which I — you know, which — fine. I’m okay with. 

LATIF: Really?

LULU: Yeah! Yeah!

LATIF: For me it was, for me, reading about this study, I found it — personally, I found it quite jarring. I think you really – I really wanted there to be like a hidden order to everything that is not about us. That has nothing to do with us. Where things make sense. And — and for that not to be there, I think, is very unsettling. Like when we do conservation or restoration or whatever, it just feels like you’d be throwing your hands up and like… 

LULU: My thought was like, if the order is gone, if there is no guaranteed harmony, that actually makes conservation work even more important. It's like if we don't intervene and protect the order, it's not guaranteed.

LATIF: Who cares about your choices if it's chaos anyway? If it's — if there are things that are beyond your control…

LULU: Because those choices are…

LATIF: That are gonna, that are gonna....

LULU: Happen…

LATIF: Screw it all anyway.

LULU: It's like the idea of the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don't think it does, which is terrifying. So what you — you have to fabricate a form of justice. And yeah, there’s a pandem…

LATIF: Well, wait can I interrupt you?

LULU: Yeah.

LATIF: Okay. Write that version of The Lion King. See how many kids go to see that.

LULU: Okay, ready?

MATT: [laughs] Right here.

LATIF: Yeah, do it. Go. Make the song, Elton John. Go for it.

LULU: I'll—okay. [singing]

LATIF: I'm very excited to hear what's coming next here. [laughter]

LULU: Simba, based on the work as—as confirmed by Reinhard, there is no delicate harmony awaiting you. And if you don't choose wisely and show respect to your fellow creatures and plants and bacteria and fungi, the — everything will die. The balance is not delicate, the balance is not there at all.

[MUSIC IN]

LULU: And the song is not the Circle of Life. It’s The Giant Abyss of No Promises Vortex of Life.

LATIF: But then why are we gonna watch any of the rest of the movie? like even if you're a lion king, your lion kingdom is going to—like the Roman Empire, it's gonna crumble and fall…

[MUSIC OUT]

LULU: Right.

LATIF: And, like, who cares?

LULU: Oh. I for sure, think that's coming. I think we're probably out of here pretty soon, but let's make it decent for the other humans and creatures that will get to live in this short future. Sure. Yes. 

[MUSIC IN]

LATIF: Okay, so that was round one of our chaos-off.

LULU: Yeah, so we’re gonna take a quick break and you can use that time to ruminate on whether you believe chaos is totally empowering and great…

LATIF: Or has let all the air out of your spiritual balloon. 

LULU: [laughs] And then when we come back, round two, we’ve got another smack down, order vs. chaos, coming up from producer Matt Kielty. 

[MUSIC OUT]

LULU: Lulu.

LATIF: Latif. Radiolab.

LULU: And we’re back!

LATIF: With Matt.

MATT: Okay, so my turn?

LULU: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MATT: Alright, I think I see how these things go together. Cus Latif — Latif has this little barrel ecosystem that was in chaos, which is not totally random, but is like a weird wildly fluctuating thing.

LATIF: Right.

MATT: But I have a story that kind of steps that up. Because we found a part of life — you could argue the most important part — where it looks like things are actually fully completely random.

LATIF: Ah.  

MATT: And I say we, because…Hello!

HEATHER RADKE:  Hi! Can you hear me?

LATIF: Hi Heather. We can hear and see you. 

MATT: I reported this story out with our contributing editor Heather Radke. 

HEATHER:  Yes, yes, yes.

MATT: And Heather actually first heard this story from this guy, Chris Haufe.

CHRIS HAUFE: Thank you, Heather.

HEATHER:  Who's a philosopher of science at Case Western Reserve University.

CHRIS HAUFE: Yeah.

HEATHER:  Chris, how did we come to this story? You kind of—you wrote me an email and said…

CHRIS HAUFE: I have a great story for you.

HEATHER:  Yeah, you're like, I got a hell of a tale.

CHRIS HAUFE: Exactly. Fasten your seat belts.

[MUSIC IN]

MATT: Okay, so we're going back in time …

HEATHER:  To some big collars, cool music.

MATT: Back to late 60s, early 70s. And to this guy …

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Professor Gould, the floor is yours.]

MATT: Stephen Jay Gould.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Jay Gould: I want to start by presenting the basic argument in a somewhat abstract form.]

HEATHER:  Maybe you’ve heard of him. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Jay Gould: Darwin, in fact, never said that…] 

LATIF: Oh yeah, yeah. He’s the greatest. He’s one of the best science writers of all time.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: And his new book Full House…]

MATT: Yeah. He wrote some big deal books, Mismeasure of Man is one.

LATIF: Right.

HEATHER:  Wrote a lot about evolution…

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Jay Gould: the fundamental principles of Darwinian theory…] 

HEATHER:  A lot about the History of Science.

MATT: But before Gould was a public thinker, he was just a young man who really loved fossils.

[MUSIC IN]

HEATHER:  He had, like, the kind of classic moment …

CHRIS HAUFE: Where his dad took him to the American Museum of Natural History.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Jay Gould: I was four or five. ] 

CHRIS HAUFE: To the hall of dinosaurs.

HEATHER:  He sees the T-Rex. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Jay Gould: I remember standing under the Tyrannosaurus and a man sneezed. I thought the Tyrannosaurus had come to life and was about to devour me but — that that moment of fear, I just had fascination creep in.]

CHRIS HAUFE: He was like, absolutely hooked.

LATIF: Oh, I didn’t know that. That's cute.

MATT: And Gould says, after that moment, this fascination with fossils started to unlock all these questions.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Jay Gould: Questions like: Why are we here on this earth? What are we related to? How is the earth built? What has it’s history been through time? What’s been the pageant of change over this immense span of years?]

HEATHER: So Gould felt himself drawn to the field of paleontology. 

MATT: The study of fossils.

HEATHER: But that actually kind of a problem for him because... 

CHRIS HAUFE: Paleontology was not really seen as, like, a real science.

MATT: You don’t really get to answer big fun questions in paleontology. 

HEATHER: You kinda look at a lot of fossils.

CHRIS HAUFE: Yeah. Heather, you described it as stamp collecting. [laughter] Yeah, well, I mean, this is the problem that Gould was attempting to confront. You know, if we're going to survive as a science, we need to find a way of contributing answers to important questions.

MATT: So in 1967, Gould gets his PhD. 

CHRIS HAUFE: And he's immediately hired at Harvard. 

HEATHER:  And then one day …

CHRIS HAUFE: This guy, Tom Shopf, he’s a paleontologist at the University of Chicago.

HEATHER: Called up Gould, said he’d read some of his research and he’d been wondering …

CHRIS HAUFE: If they could do anything really cool, basically, with computers and the fossil record.

[MUSIC IN]

MATT: Gould’s like, Ohhh. That could be something. 

HEATHER: So the fossil record, it’s like everything we humans know about what existed before us. 

MATT: It’s what allowed us to start thinking about evolution. It kind of became the foundation for Darwin. 

HEATHER:  And for this guy Shopf, he thought, well maybe there’s still something in there and we could use these new powerful machines to pull it out and start answering some big important questions.   

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Jay Gould: Why are we here on this earth?]

MATT: And Gould was just like, “Yes.”

CHRIS HAUFE: Yeah, exactly. 

HEATHER: Okay, so let's set the scene. It's like 1972, Shopf. Gould.

CHRIS HAUFE: Right. And they invite this guy Dave Raup. 

MATT: Another paleontologist 

CHRIS HAUFE: Who had done these really cool studies…

MATT: Looking at seashells and geometry. 

HEATHER:  And then there was this fourth guy, Dan Simberloff 

CHRIS HAUFE: An ecologist who was really into, you know, mathematical modeling. 

HEATHER: So we got three paleontologists and an ecologist… 

MATT: By the—by the way, it sounds like a beautiful beginning to a joke. Three paleontologists, an ecologist and a computer walk into a bar…

CHRIS HAUFE: Yeah.

[MUSIC IN]

HEATHER:  Okay. It’s the winter of 1972

MATT: These four guys go up to Woods Hole, Massachusetts

HEATHER:  Where there’s sort of this holy grail of fossil records.

MATT: This fossil record of marine life.

CHRIS HAUFE: Marine invertebrates.

HEATHER:  What are we even talking about? Like shellfish or what? 

CHRIS HAUFE: Yeah. 

MATT: Mollusks?

CHRIS HAUFE: Yeah, mollusks, ammonites. 

HEATHER:  Oh sure.

CHRIS HAUFE: Trilobites.

MATT: Trilobites.

CHRIS HAUFE: Yeah, I mean… 

MATT: Your various bites. 

CHRIS HAUFE: Yeah, stuff on the seafloor.

HEATHER:  And in this book for each species, it basically has …

CHRIS HAUFE: Where this first appears in the fossil record, where it disappears in the fossil record.

MATT: So they grab this book, they go to a house somebody had …

HEATHER:  And then, they go to the computer... 

MATT: Take their big book out, they start entering all the data. 

HEATHER:  Boo-boo-boop-boop, tck-tck-tck…

MATT: Uh-huh. And then they're like, “Okay, what next?” 

[MUSIC OUT]

HEATHER: I mean, the problem — okay, like a computer needs—like, you can't just say “Computer, make a cool thing.” You have to ask a computer a question.

CHRIS HAUFE: And you get the sense that they just did not know what question to ask the computer. [laughter] They didn't have a good question to answer that evolutionary theorists would care about.

MATT: So like, for five days, they don't know what to do.

HEATHER:  And then right before — it's like the last day, Raup is like, what if we have the computer simulate evolution at random?

LATIF: And why would they do that?

MATT: Well, because evolution, you know... 

CHRIS HAUFE: Is not a random process.

MATT: Right. Darwin established it's like it's small, incremental change over long periods of time.

CHRIS HAUFE: But it's not just that, right.

MATT: Oh. 

CHRIS HAUFE: It favors certain things.

MATT: Oh right, yeah, yeah, yeah.

HEATHER:  And it favors like, adaptive traits. 

MATT: Right. The, the fittest survive. 

CHRIS HAUFE: Yes. 

HEATHER:  And if you're not fit...

CHRIS HAUFE: You just die. 

MATT: You get wiped off the face of the earth because the strongest push you off.

HEATHER:  Because they're better suited for the niche.

MATT: Right, they’re better than you.

CHRIS HAUFE: Yeah, right. 

HEATHER:  What a bunch of jerks. 

MATT: Way of the world. 

MATT: But so all they had was this really simple question.

CHRIS HAUFE: Right, if things were just happening by chance, what would we see?

[MUSIC IN]

MATT: So what they do is they make a computer program, and they start with, let's say, they start with a species in this program. They don't give that species any definable characteristics, anything like that. It's just this nondescript species.

LATIF: Can you just name the species just because it helps me.

MATT: Yeah let's call it... 

[SOUND EFFECT: Bloop, bloop.]

MATT: Let's call it bloop. 

[SOUND EFFECT: Bleep bleep bleep.]

LATIF: Bloop. 

[SOUND EFFECT: Bloop…]

MATT: It’s just this bloop, blah, bloop. 

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

MATT: And then they programmed the computer, so that it's just like it’s an arbitrary number. It's like, let's say 100 years, 100 years of bloop living and the computer’s like, “Okay, I now assign you bloops one of three things at random.” So thing number one could be: nothing happens to bloop. The bloop just keeps living on through the next round. 

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

MATT: So that's one option. Or the computer could pick number two, which is a little tweak to bloop. And from bloop, you get …

[SOUND EFFECT: Bleep. Bleep. Bleep, bleep, bleep.]

HEATHER:  Bleep.

MATT: Bleep. Whole new species.

[SOUND EFFECT: Bleep, bleep, bleep.]

LATIF: So it’s just bloops?

[SOUND EFFECT: Bloop, bloop.]

LATIF: Then it’s just bloops and bleeps?

[SOUND EFFECT: Bloop, bloop, bloop. 

MATT: Yeah and they could just—now they could go forward and they can go to the next stage. 

HEATHER: So number one is nothing happens, you move on. Number two, you can change, evolve, speciate. Or the third thing that can happen is …

[SOUND EFFECT: Uh? Uh? Bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop! Eh….]

HEATHER:  Bye-bye bloop.

LATIF: Dead.

MATT: Extinct, dead. Forever.

HEATHER:  Bye-bye bloop.

LATIF: RIP.

MATT: So that’s it: one, two, three.

HEATHER:  Live, die, or speciate.

LATIF: Live, die…

LULU: Rock, paper, scissors, shoot.

MATT: Yeah, exactly. And the computer’s picking them at random.

CHRIS HAUFE: Okay, so they produce these simulations…

MATT: Running bloop after bloop through this program 

CHRIS HAUFE: Over millions of years

HEATHER: And then they go to the computer, they print it out and all of a sudden they see something pretty bananas. 

CHRIS HAUFE: Which is the simulations that they produced looked remarkably like the actual fossil record.

MATT: Wait, what is that…?

CHRIS HAUFE: I can—I can share a screen. 

MATT: Chris showed us these graphs. 

CHRIS HAUFE: Okay, so this is a graph of the actual fossil record. 

MATT: For the sake of this just imagine, tree of life, sort of evolution, you know, image. And you can see okay, mollusks, they start here, they die here. And trilobites, they start here, die there.

HEATHER:  And so then Chris showed us the graphs of these simulations. 

CHRIS HAUFE: You see this one over here?

HEATHER:  Oh.

MATT: Woah.

HEATHER:  Basically if you were to zoom in on these branches, you’d see at the end of the branches the extinction points of the species. And the ones from the computer are the same as the ones from the fossil record. So like, bloops and bleeps are going extinct just like trilobites went extinct, just like ammonites went extinct. 

LULU: Hmm.

LATIF: Ah.

MATT: So for me, it's like, I'm like, huh, wow. Yeah, these do look similar. But I'm like, sooo what?

CHRIS HAUFE: Yeah okay. 

MATT: So what, so what.

CHRIS HAUFE: So I think the key here is kind of seeing the resemblance that these randomly simulated groups bear to real groups, and then remembering that these are just going extinct randomly. Whereas we thought these were going extinct through natural selection.

LULU: That is wild. So it’s like, it's just like computer programming equals life itself…

MATT: Computer programming of nothing but chance and randomness, which is totally counter to the sort of order of natural selection.

LULU: Mmm.

HEATHER:  So natural selection, it'd be like, you've got a bird with a, like, awesome beak and cool eyes and it's like, can fly like a baller. And then there's like a lesser bird that's kind of a weenie bird and it's got, like me, it can't see in three dimensions. And it's like, not good at sports. It's like basically, this is Heather bird. [laughter]

LULU: The Heather bird, the Heather-ite, the Heather bird is…

LATIF: Weenie bird, you’re projecting yourself onto weenie bird.

HEATHER:  But in this scenario, in like — in the Darwinian idea, it's like, athlete bird with its great eyes, its great wings wins the Dar — the evolutionary battle, Heather bird goes extinct. Weenie birds as a kind of bird, as a species, cease to exist. But what these computer simulations were showing is that extinction doesn't work that way. And that actually, Heather weenie bird and super athlete bird have equal chance of not necessarily thriving, but like existing.

LATIF: So, so it's like if those two species were born at the same time, weenie bird and athlete bird, [laughter] it’s up to chance which one would survive longer than the other one?

MATT: Right, so fitness might explain why one species does better than another. But what they saw suggests, that when it comes to extinction, it’s not fitness or out-competing one another, it’s just random. 

LULU: But it…

HEATHER:  It's a little hard to get your mind around.

LULU: But wait. But I have a question. Going back to that marine, you know, they're in Woods Hole. What did they all—do we know what they thought at that moment?

LATIF: Yeah.

MATT: Yeah, we do…

LULU: Okay, what did they think?...

HEATHER:  It’s funny…

MATT: They were all totally shocked.

HEATHER:  Chris told us the way he had heard it, is that basically …

CHRIS HAUFE: When, you know, the printouts come out, they're like, “Oh, my God!” [laughter]

[MUSIC IN]

MATT: Also, like, we should say, it's at this point that we got Chris a better microphone.

CHRIS HAUFE: It says a mic gain of eight.

LULU: Yay, Chris, you sound great! 

MATT: Anyways, but basically, like, they were kind of freaked out cus the ideas if Darwin can't explain why things go extinct then the question is: Why do things go extinct? Like is it just chance and randomness? 

HEATHER:  And that question would send the three of them off in very different directions. 

MATT: So Gould, for Gould he actually — this was mostly just like a big huzzah moment. 

[MUSIC IN]

HEATHER: Cus paleontology had sort of knocked down a piece of Darwin and put forward this new question.

CHRIS HAUFE: Yeah. Exactly.   

MATT: And as Chris put it…

CHRIS HAUFE: It put paleontology at the high table.

MATT: But Gould, Gould actually leaves extinction behind

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Jay Gould: Goes back to what I said at the beginning that, we want to know why we’re here?]

MATT: And he starts using randomness and chance to look at things like diversity and adaptation.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stephen Jay Gould: Now to a large extent it is a grand scale accident that we’re here. Evolution has oddly contentioned pathways that never run the same way twice.]

MATT: And he starts writing all sort of books. He becomes kind of like, famous Stephen Jay Gould. But then Raup, the guy who came up with the question to ask the computer, he becomes obsessed with extinction. 

CHRIS HAUFE: And stays on that track for the rest of his professional career.

MATT: He ends up writing this book, which I, I have right here. Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?

LULU: Oh, question mark! 

MATT: And to Raup, the answer was — it’s both. Like you can't discount fitness but when it comes to extinction there’s so much other stuff happening. The climate is changing, or an asteroid hits earth, sea levels can rise and fall drastically. Like all of that stuff is outside of your control, you could sort of die at any moment. So he sort of charts this middle ground view which is probably how Gould saw it too. 

HEATHER: But then, you have Tom Shopf, the guy who started the whole project. And he just goes full randomness.

CHRIS HAUFE: I mean he — the impression that I get was like, pretty much from the word “go,” he was like, randomness is, is the order.

HEATHER:  Shopf developed this idea called “species as particles.”

CHRIS HAUFE: Species as particles in space and time.

HEATHER:  He believed that if extinction is truly random, then as a whole, species are sort of indistinct. Like they have no real differences between one another. 

CHRIS HAUFE: That there are no, like, better or worse — the way he puts it: there’s no inferior or superior beings. There’s just ones that survive and ones that don’t.

[MUSIC IN]

HEATHER:  Shopf began writing a book trying to flush this theory but in 1984, at the age of 44, he was in Texas doing field work with students and he died suddenly of a heart attack. 

MATT: While reporting this story, we would — we talked to some paleontologists and we’re like, who — like do we know? Is it sort of like the Raup, bad genes, bad luck? Is it the Shopf, total randomness? Like what is — what drives extinction? And the answer we got is that we — we still don’t know. Like we still haven’t answered the question they sort of uncovered with this computer in Woods Hole.

[MUSIC OUT]

LULU: Well, I gotta say, I’m rooting for Shopf. I mean, if it doesn't matter how quote unquote fit or muscley, or well honed or sleek our model is. If it doesn't actually matter, if that doesn't relate to how long we're going to, like, hang around on Earth, it means in a very real way that we’re all equally good. And for me, it creaks open all this possibility that might be waiting behind things that we look at and deem unfit or deformed or weenie bird-esque. Like, it like it gives — it gives all this — it returns all this possibility that gives me a sense of like, thrill. Like, it makes me want to look at the things I'm discounting you know?

HEATHER:  Totally.

LULU: I don’t know.

LATIF: I don't know. I — I'm not sure cus, okay. So to me, like, it's like, it's like this, right? Like, let's say, we—we used to have this idea of fitness, where it's like, okay, there are the cool kids who are fit and they — in the old mentality to be like, yeah, like this is like — we're, we're Team Human, and there are some people that get picked first for Team Human, who are the ones who are helping us survive and some people who get picked last for Team Human who are like us. But then this, it seems like this, if it's like, oh okay, your survival actually, even the fittest people, like, they're not necessarily helping you survive. Those fitting — those super fit characteristics, like, you can still get hit by a bus. And like, that's the way they go. So it's not like, oh now all the people who were picked last on the team, like, they have the same chances of surv — but it's not like—the people who were picked last, they — they aren't now brought up to the team of the people who were picked first. It's like the people who were picked first are now brought down to the level of the rest of us where any of us… 

LULU: But that's the same thing!

LATIF: No.

MATT: No, no, this is — when Lulu was talking, I'm like, no — it's just a matter of perspective. And it's like, everything has the same value, which means it's like, wonderful and beautiful, or everything has the same value, which is it has no value.

LULU: It’s pointless and defeated. Yeah.

MATT: Right.

HEATHER:  But that's kind of awesome. That's great. 

MATT: And it's great. Yeah, and you can sit—you can sit in either reality and bask in that. It's just up to you which one you want to bask in.

LULU: Yeah. 

HEATHER:  Did you want to reflect, Matt, about how it had changed you?

MATT: No.

LATIF: Yeah, do it, do it.

LULU: I want that.

MATT: Well, I mean, the thing, the only thing I would say is that, like, one of the things we learned when reporting this story is that 99% of all things that have ever existed on earth have gone extinct. Basically. Basically everything that’s ever lived has eventually died. Whether or not — like and it’s seems like chance is a big part of that but we don’t fully know but whatever they — everything dies. And I have sort of maybe naively, always existed with this thought that, like, we as species are progressing towards something. Like some sort of better world eventually for us, and I don't know, other species. And kind of really believed in the idea that like, in some way, your actions, the actions that you take, the things that you do are rewarded in some way to continue to strive towards something better. And instead, in doing this reporting, it's like, oh, no, no, no, no. You, your kind and every other kind, eventually just gets wiped off the face of the earth. You have no foresight, you don't know it's coming. It just happens. And not only does it just happen, but like in the long run, it happens to almost everything. And I guess, in some way, I'm like—I— it just feels deeply nihilistic, and I'm kind of like, well, what are we doing here?

LULU: I got a—this is making me think of a song for the shape.

HEATHER:  A song with a shape? 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [The Circle of Life from the Lion King]]

LULU: I was like, Okay, if it's a circle — yours is telling us it's like, [sings] it's the clip of life and we're all gonna die. [laughter]

LATIF: [sings] Who knows where and when?

LULU: [sings] So why even try, just eat some French fry.

LATIF: When we come back, we’re gonna take the chaos question all the way back to the beginning.

[MUSIC OUT]

 

LULU: For our final round of this order vs chaos throwdown, just to sir the pot — or the barrel — a little bit. I have with me a special guest who is going to…

LATIF: In person you have a special guest?

LULU: Yup. They're gonna beam in now.

HEATHER:  They're beaming in?

LULU: They're beaming in. 

LATIF: Wow.

LULU: So just wait. They're coming.

HEATHER:  Oh my gosh!

LULU: They're coming.

HEATHER:  Oh! It's—it's ...

ALL: It's Candice!

CANDICE WANG: Hi, everyone. I'm back.

MATT: And all is right in the world now.

LULU: So Candice Wang is a former intern and she is the one who got us into our final mess when she told me that we should take a closer look at how it all began. 

CANDICE: Do you guys have a sort of thing you think about when you think about the origin of life? 

HEATHER:  Sure.

LATIF: In the ocean.

HEATHER:  Primordial ooze.

MATT: It’s like cauldrons of heat. 

LULU: Heather, did you just say, “primordial ooze?”

HEATHER:  Yeah. Primordial ooze.

LATIF: Oh. Isn’t it soup? Is that — 

HEATHER:  Oh. Yeah…

LATIF: I don’t know, that’s how I remember it. 

CANDICE: It’s the primordial soup…

HEATHER:  Maybe that’s right. [laughs]

CANDICE: So it’s this idea that life somehow emerged out of this crazy chaotic soup of chemicals, which I remember learning about in the ninth grade.

LATIF: Yeah. 

LULU: Yeah, me too. I even learned about it on this very show a few times.

CANDICE: Yeah, I remember that.

LULU: But apparently the reason that the primordial soup theory is so widespread all goes back to one singular experiment done in 1952 that involves a...

MATT: Soup?

LATIF: Bowl of soup? Can of soup? Please tell me.

HEATHER:  Barrel of water?

LULU: A cauldron. It involves a caudron, but it's kind of barrel-esque.

CANDICE: More like a glass-flask or something.

LULU: Yeah. So Candice, okay, tell us about the experiment and who our guy was.

CANDICE: Okay so our guy is Stanley Miller, this grad student in 1952, U Chicago. And… 

HEATHER:  I'm looking at Stanley Miller.

LATIF: Oh, oh, there's a picture? Should we look at it?

MATT: Like what you see?

HEATHER:  Somebody took a sexy pic of him. They did—it's like a really….

LULU: I see Bill Nye The Science Guy with no hair fondling a globe full of lightning.

MATT: This is the sexy photo you're talking about?

HEATHER:  Yeah, it's kind of — [laughter] I kind of feel like, come on! I mean, I think sexy's too much. It's too much, but look at …

MATT: Yeah, yeah…

LULU: He's got swagger. He's got—he's got science swag. Anyway sorry Candice. Please go on. 

[MUSIC IN]

CANDICE: Yeah, so he’s looking for experiment to do and the thought of this old theory from the 1920s, basically that primordial soup theory that we just talked about, 

LULU: The theory had been floating around but had never been tested.

CANDICE: Yeah. And so Stanley was like okay, I’m gonna test this out.

LULU: He took his little cauldron, filled it with all these gasses…

CANDICE: There’s like Ammonia, hydrogen, methane, all those things that people thought were in the early atmosphere. And then he’s like okay, I’m going to create a little storm and he…

[MUSIC OUT]

[SOUND EFFECT]

CANDICE: Zapped it. 

LULU: Like a bolt of the early Earth’s lightning. 

[MUSIC IN]

CANDICE: Yeah, lightning basically. And he's watching the cauldron for only a day and he finds that it starts turning a little pinkish. And he's like, "Oh my goodness. Like, is there something going on here?" And then a week later it turns deep red. Turban red. 

LATIF: Hmm.

MATT: Like smokey red?

CANDICE: Yeah, it’s like rusty blood-red water that’s collecting at the bottom.

MATT: Oh, the water is becoming red. I see, I see.

CANDICE: Yeah. So it is kind of like a little red soup at the bottom. 

LULU: So he pulls this red borscht out of the cauldron and he looks to see what’s in there. And he finds..

CANDICE: Amino acids.

LULU: Amino freaking acids! 

LATIF: Wow.

CANDICE: The stuff of life.

[MUSIC OUT]

LULU: So like, does anyone know what an amino acid is?

LATIF: The ingredients of DNA, right? Like it’s like that’s the…

LULU: Well, no…But it is the ingredients of pretty much everything else in the cell. So the little motors and enzymes and all the stuff that actually makes a cell work. 

[MUSIC IN]

NICK LANE: Yes. Amino acids, the building blocks of life. So it was kind of almost a meme as an experiment. It was a beautiful experiment. 

LULU: So this is Nick Lane.

NICK LANE: Professor of evolutionary biochemistry at University College London.

LULU: And he says that as beautiful and scientifically fantastic as Miller’s experiment was, the idea that it explains the origin of life Is a bit of a leap. 

NICK LANE: You know, going back to Frankenstein, the idea that you have electricity and lightning and you zap things and they come to life, they spring to life. And all you need is a lightning strike and lo and behold, you know, fast forward four billion years and we’ve got humans. You know, if that doesn't persuade a 13-year-old, well good, because it doesn't persuade me either.

LATIF: Huh. Why not? Like, what’s wrong with that?

LULU: Well, Nick says, you know, Amino acids are great and all but…

NICK LANE: It's another 10 or 12 steps to make something living. 

LULU: To make an actual living thing that could make copies of itself, you need RNA and DNA and a cell membrane and all the intricate goodies inside. 

NICK LANE: This is asking a lot of spontaneous chemistry, that all of these steps should just happen without anything to direct it.

CANDICE: How do you get from just a bunch of ingredients in a soup to, like, very structured very complicated life? That’s a very very far gap to jump.

LULU: I mean, Miller himself worried about this during his lifetime. 

CANDICE: Yeah, but the most famous critic of this whole primordial soup idea was actually Francis Crick. 

LULU: As in the guy who helped discover little thing called DNA.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Nobel prize winner Francis Crick published an extraordinary book called Life Itself, in which he argues from a scientific point of view that life could not have gotten started on this planet.]

LULU: So this is a snippet from a call-in radio show where they are discussing what Francis Crick saw as a far more logical explanation of how life began. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: To cut a long story short, he suggested it was sent here by an alien civilization from the other side of the universe.]

[MUSIC IN]

NICK LANE: Yes. Francis Crick proposed what he called “direct to panspermia,” which is to say some alien civilization put some cells, some bacterial cells by a rocket and crashed it on the Earth.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Where of those spaceships crashed into the early Earth, its cargo of bacteria spilled out and eventually became us. And that's honestly how Francis Crick the Nobel Prize winner saw the beginning of life on this planet.]

MATT: Yeah. Seems more feasible then a glass cauldron…

LULU: Than a lightning bolt.

MATT: Than a lightning bolt.

[MUSIC OUT]

NICK LANE: I mean my immediate reaction is that it’s bonkers. But there’s a kind of less extreme but more real version of that, which is that organic molecules can form in space and be delivered to earth on meteorites. And that’s definitely true. That does happen. There’s no question about that. But…

LULU: Whaaat?!

NICK LANE: If you interact…

LULU: Wait, wait. We got to ...

NICK LANE: Yes?

LULU: Okay, the resident person who knows less here. I mean, what?

NICK LANE: Well plenty of amino acids —  I mean, the same amino acids that Stanley Miller produced, that — all of those have been found and more… 

CANDICE: From space?

NICK LANE: In space, yes.

LULU: How do you—how are they found? 

NICK LANE: Because they arrive on meteorites. Or people have occasionally taken samples of things but mostly from—from meteorites.

LULU: And Nick says it’s not just amino acids

NICK LANE: Bits and pieces of the building blocks of DNA have been found there as well. Yes.

LULU: That’s wild.

NICK LANE: Yes. It’s amazing that this cosmic chemistry happens and that it’s delivered to the Earth! And so maybe they had something to do with the origin of life. Yes, maybe, maybe but…

LULU: For Nick, as a full way to explain the origin of life, that’s still…

NICK LANE:  You know, that’s two steps too far. 

LULU: Hmm.

LULU: Even if amino acids or DNA apparently, are always raining down from the sky, you still have those other 12 steps he mentioned.

NICK LANE: How do you get it to do the things that cells do, which is to say, grow, divide, and copy itself?

LULU: And so, his best guess for how, or rather, where life began — and he's scientific, he's like, this is just my guess, I'm not saying it is — is a particularly hellish spot that looks very not conducive to life.

[MUSIC IN]

NICK LANE: I personally think life started in deep sea hydrothermal vents. You can get these vents anywhere. Some of them can be very deep, five or six kilometers down. 

LULU: Way beneath the surface of the water, far from any sunlight, where the heat from inside the earth is like churning up and creating these craggy rock structures. 

NICK LANE: They can be beautiful spires, pinnacles of rock 60 meters tall. I mean, I like to think of them as Gothic cathedrals or something. They're full of little details, little doodles of rock, and they're beautiful things to look at.

LULU: And according to Nick they’ve got the goods. They’ve got the materials, the right chemicals: methane and carbon and hydrogen are swirling around in the water. They’ve got the energy source — not lightning but this constant churn of the earth’s heat. But finally what he thinks make them really special is their structure. 

NICK LANE: The amazing thing about these vents is they—they mimic the structure of cells in that it’s kind of a round space with a wall around it. And you can think of a cell as kind of a— a bag of solution with a — with a membrane around it. 

LULU: And because you’ve got the materials, the constant churning energy and these rock walls that kind of force everything together… 

NICK LANE: That’s making these gasses react together to form organic chemicals, which are forming inside the pores themselves. They will form spontaneously in this kind of environment into what we call protocells — a little bit optimistically maybe — but effectively, the membrane around the bag of water with some stuff inside. 

LULU: Huh. It’s like the matter and magic you need to make life is lush there. It’s like, you got it all.

NICK LANE: Yes. It's got the right materials and it's got the structure. And I think that's what's been missing from the chemistry and it's what's missing from the soup and it's what's missing from, you know, delivery of organic molecules from space by panspermia. It ends up in a soup. How does that soup form structure? Well, the Earth itself forms the structure for you in the first place in — in these hydrothermal vents. There is a beautiful link between the geology of the planet, with active volcanic systems and active turnover of the surface of the planet and the — and the bottom of the oceans, and the way that living cells work. It's as if a living planet gives rise to living cells, which have the same structure. They’re — both the planet and the cell is a little bit like a battery. It’s got a positive charge outside, a negative charge inside…

LULU: Ohhhhh.

NICK LANE: A membrane surrounding it. And they’re both — they’re both like that and there’s a lovely, lovely sense of continuity that a planet gives rise to living cells. 

[MUSIC IN]

LATIF: Wow, that is very cool. But Lulu, you’ve been — you’ve been championing chaos this whole time and now you’re serving up a story that’s like — this — to me this is like, this is order. 

LULU: Well…

LATIF: Like you’re putting order right back at the beginning of it all.

LULU: Well, that’s interesting. I mean, what I — yeah…

LATIF: Like, like that the — right. Like the soup or the panspermia are both chaotic. Like some random thing just fell to earth or a random lightning bolt hit a random, you know, piece of gas at the right time. Like, those are pretty chaotic. But if it’s like, Oh look, there’s this chimney that was being built and there were a whole bunch of them and they had the exactly right gradient and the right this and the right that, then it’s a very orderly thing. 

LULU: And like the cell is like a tiny planet…

LATIF: Yeah. 

MATT: Hmmm

LULU: I guess. 

LATIF: Yeah. 

LULU: I mean, I was seeing Nick’s explanation as yet another loss. 

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: You know he’s pointing out that our beginning, even our scientific beginning, isn’t as clean of a story as we thought. You know, there was no lightning strike, no clear moment where it all began. Just this slow and like bad breath out of a vent, churning, clumsy mix of chemicals in a dark, dank pit. To me, that — that rips away the last shred of order that I thought the old soup version had. You know?

LATIF: Huh. Yeah. I guess — I don’t know! Cus — like to me it sounds like, maybe at the very beginning of life there was orderliness built right on top of the orderliness of the planet itself.

LULU: You are making me think that if I — If i focus on the structure of the vent and the cell — there is a sense of belonging in that. Like, that every cell in our body looks al little like this planet. 

[ARCHIVE TAPE: [The Circle of Life from The Lion King]

LULU: Maybe we don’t matter and the fact that we’re here is random but we do belong. 

[MUSIC IN]

[SINGING, to the tune of The Circle of Life: It’s o-chaos, everything is chaos. It’s o-chaos, everything is chaos. From the day we arrived on this planet in darkness and far from the sun. There was more that we need, that it’s lightning can seed, more chance that it would never be done. And we fight for our place here, competing through struggles and strife, you can’t anticipate who gets to dominate in the contest for the greatest in life. It’s the chaos of life! That confounds us all! Choose despair or hope, it matters not. Till we lose our place on this path that’s grinding, it’s just chaos…]

[MUSIC OUT]

[MUSIC IN]

LULU: Uh. Guess that's it. This episode was reported by Latif Nasser, Matt Kielty, Heather Radke, Candice Wang and me, Lulu Miller.

LATIF: It was produced by Matt Kielty and Simon Adler with sound and music from Matt Kielty, Simon Adler…

LULU: And Jeremy…

LATIF: Bloom.

LULU: Bloom. Big thanks to Alan Goffinski for creating that song and Alida Goffinski for belting the heck out of it. Thanks also to Chuck Cheeseman, Sarah Luterman, Doug Erwin, Candice Wang.

LATIF: Thanks to David Sepkoski, whose book Rereading the Fossil Record we drew on for the story about Stephen Jay Gould and extinction. Thank you to Nick Haddad, Ayana Johnson, Chris Klausmeier, Laura Verhaeghe and Noelle Bowlin.

LULU: That will do it. Thanks for listening. Goodbye.

[MUSIC OUT]

[UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster, with help from Carolyn McCusker and Sarah Sandbach. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.]

[ALBERT: Hi. This is Albert in State College, Pennsylvania. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]

[JAD ABUMRAD: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.]

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