February 19th, 2012
Russian scientists have recently succeeded in drilling through to ice to reach Lake Vostok, a huge freshwater lake in Antarctica that has been isolated from the biosphere for millions of years. Much excitement has attended this project, because it bodes well to provide fascinating insights into the evolutionary process. The lake’s biome has traveled its own evolutionary path for perhaps 25 million years, independently of the rest of the earth’s biosphere, and so provides us with a fascinating experiment in evolutionary development. I’m sure that the results of this project will be important.
But they will also be seriously misunderstood by the public – and, sadly, by some scientists. There are two crucial ideas that people don’t seem to grasp: first, that negentropy is the fuel of life, and second, that the sources of negentropy in that lake are much weaker than any other biome. I have referred to this idea in another essay. Sunlight is far and away the largest source of negentropy on the earth. However, there are a few oddball sources of negentropy that conventional life has colonized and managed to survive in. The most striking of these are the biomes surrounding hydrothermal vents along the ocean ridges (“black smokers”) from which pour hot water and high concentrations of various chemicals. The living creatures around these vents have developed radically different metabolisms that feed on the negentropy provided by the odd chemistry there instead of sunlight. We know that they did not originate there; they are conventional life forms that adapted to this radically different source of negentropy. There are also bacteria that live deep underground, taking advantage of the negentropic value of the soil or rock chemistry to eke out survival. These are impressive examples of the ability of earth’s life to adapt to all sorts of hostile environments.
All the analyses of these creatures shows that they did not originate in their current locations: they have conventional DNA that links them to conventional living systems. They have adapted to these hostile environments; they did not arise in them.
We can therefore make some predictions about what the Russians will find in the water that they pump up from Lake Vostok. Mostly, they’ll find nothing. There’s no sunlight down there, so there won’t be much negentropy to support life. In fact, there’s very little negentropy to work with down there. The chemistry of that lake has likely been very stable for millions of years; any concentrations of high-entropy compounds have long since been used up. The only possible source of negentropy I can imagine would be some kind of volcanic vents – and any life will be hunched close to those vents.
Thus, I believe that there is little likelihood that they’ll find any life down there. I won’t rule out the possibility, because there remains the possibility of some oddball source of negentropy in that weird environment. But if they do find any life, it will either be concentrated close to thermal vents, or very thinly spread through the lake. That water will NOT teem with life as seawater or lake water does.
A number of scientists have speculated that Lake Vostok will provide us with examples for what life might be like in harsh environments such as underneath the ice on Europa, a moon of Jupiter. What they fail to grasp is the fact that all the life we have found in harsh environments like these descended from life that originated in much more hospitable environments. Harsh environments may be colonizable, but they are not nurseries.