Aleksandr Ivanovich Oparin (1894-1980), a Russian biochemist, was noted for his contributions to the explanation for the origin of life. Profoundly influenced by Charles Darwin (1809-1882), Oparin presented a theoretical foundation that stressed both a materialistic and mechanistic explanation for both planetary formation and the evolution of life on this planet. His understanding of astronomy, chemistry, geology, biology, and philosophy had allowed for a comprehensive view of a temporally evolving world and humankind’s place within it. Oparin’s underlying principles encompassed not only the chemical processes that constituted the precursors to and the emergence of life but also the immense evolutionary time that was necessary for its formation. Oparin is best known for his major works The Origin of Life (1938)and Genesis and Evolutionary Development of Life (1968).
The biological history of this planet could be found within its remote geological history. Against prevailing philosophies and theologies, Oparin viewed the emergence of life as a result of chemical synthesis and external influences of our planet’s developing environment. Acknowledging and encompassing the universe in its totality, this chemical synthesis and development of cellular organisms are unique to this planet within the cosmos. In terms of theoretical or cosmological origin paradigms, Oparin rejected the concepts of autogeneration, cosmozoa, spontaneous generation, panspermia, and vitalism as possible explanations. For Oparin, only inorganic matter existed in the beginning of Earth’s development. This evolving matter would later emerge as organic. The implications are certain: life emerged from inorganic matter. The saga of symbiotic relationships between and among organic and environmental (inorganic) matter is as complex as life itself. Nevertheless, the origin of life evolved from simple beginnings.
According to Oparin, the evolution of carbon compounds, especially hydrocarbons, was necessary for a biogenic synthesis of organic substances. The formation of proteins and the development of amphoteric electrolytes allowed for multiple reactions with water. The subsequent complexity of protein and protein molecules allowed for greater organization and even greater complexity. This billon-year process resulted in the primordial “soup” by which greater complexity would slowly evolve. Although it would be over 2 billion years before the earth would attain single-celled life, the protobionts stage encompassed the emergence of coacervates, coenzymes, enzymes (including genetic information), and anaerobes. Additionally, changes in atmospheric conditions allowed for further evolution and emergence of aerobes. Over this span of nearly a billion years developed greater complexity and symbiotic relationships that resulted in multicellular life.
Oparin’s speculations offered a unique perspective on the relationships within the inorganic matter from which life itself emerged. Stressing chemical action and reaction, the chance “environment” in which greater organization and complexity took place makes life unique within a highly improbable universe containing life. This point has two implications. First, the idea that life emerged from inorganic matter over billions of years implies a rejection of anthropocentric philosophies and theologies. Second, it answers the question, “Are we alone in the universe?” with a degree of implausibility. Today, design theories and the “God gene” are alternative explanations for the philosophical questions of human existence. There is very little doubt that Oparin would reject any version of these ideas and their manipulation of science. The principles set forth by Darwin, when applied in a comprehensive manner, would exclude these assertions. Oparin, a Darwinian evolutionist, understood both the temporal nature of organic and inorganic processes and their implication for humankind. From inorganic to organic, life, especially human life, is distinctive but not necessarily unique within this dynamic material universe.
David Alexander Lukaszek
See also Darwin, Charles; DNA; Evolution, Chemical; Evolution, Organic; Life, Origin of; Materialism
Oparin, A. I. (1953). Origin of life. New York: Dover Press.
Oparin, A. I. (1968). Genesis and evolutionary development of life. New York: Academic Press.