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Adaptation

A friend turned to me the other day at a basketball game and started talking about evolution and intelligent design. I explained that I wanted to watch my daughter play basketball. I did not want to debate the nature of life. I would never forgive myself if I missed seeing my kid make a three-pointer because I was too busy yakking about the intelligent design of the eyeball.

Then last night, out of the blue, a neighborhood kid called and asked if the Martian meteorite ALH84001 really had microfossils of ancient Martian organisms. I said I didn't know (and probably should have left it right there), but then began opining that life, specifically simple life, might be fairly common in the universe, though intelligent life is a whole different kettle of fish.

These two incidents remind me that I am, for better or worse, an oracle on all things life-related. People expect me to advise them about life itself. I don't know a darn thing about relationships or healthy lifestyles or communication strategies, but I can tell people how likely it is that micro-organisms flourish in the cold, dark subsurface ocean of the icy Jovian moon Europa. I can't tell you how many times I've answered the phone at three in the morning and been forced to explain the difference between RNA and DNA.

I'm thinking about life in part because scientists a few days back announced the discovery of, to quote the press release, "communities of organisms mostly made up of delicate, soft-walled, single-celled species, most of them new to science." What's remarkable is that they found these organisms in the sediments of the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Marianas Trench, itself the deepest trench in all the oceans. It's nearly 11,000 meters below sea level, which is to say, about seven miles down. (Just the thought of a place that deep in the sea gives me the willies.)

By any definition this is a hostile environment. The trench is also a relatively young place, the scientists suspect, possibly having forrmed sometime in the past 6 to 9 million years. These bottom-of-the-sea organisms appear to have evolved from ancestors that originally lived at much shallower depths.

Consider what this means: Life found a way to adapt to an environment that is not just cold and dark but extraordinarily pressurized. A human being at that depth would instantly be crushed to the size of a Barbie. No, wait, to the size of a Kelly doll. (These are rough calculations subject to revision.)

The gist of the intelligent design argument, as I hear it, is that "life couldn't do that by itself." I know there are far more sophisticated versions of intelligent design and I will get angry emails from people saying I'm missing the point (my editor Tom promises to weigh in soon on the blog with his own theories). But invariably the notion is that life is too amazing and sophisticated and complex to have evolved on its own accord, that there had to be a divine designer at various steps of the way, tinkering with it, adding a little this and that, trimming some stray hairs, chucking it under the chin, giving it a pep talk.

I think this sells life itself short. Life is by definition a thing that adapts. It adapts promiscuously. It finds ways to survive in the strangest places. If boldly goes where no life has gone before. If life gets a toehold someplace, it will find a way to hang on. That's how I read this new message from the deep.

By Joel Achenbach  |  February 10, 2005; 12:51 PM ET
 
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