Chance or necessity? Are emergent evolving systems in the Cosmos (planets, life, the human mind) inevitable or are they random and unlikely events. We postulate that the framing of complex events in cosmic emergence and evolution in this polarized way creates an inherently false dichotomy. Our project is needed because a more nuanced, quantitative approach is required when addressing issues that seek to answer Big Questions: Is life a cosmic imperative? Are we alone in the universe? How did life emerge?

The origins of life may be modeled as a sequence of chemical reactions, each of which has a range of probabilities in prebiotic environments. Data on these probabilities are lacking, but we gain insights by focusing on Earth’s more than 5100 mineral species, each defined by a unique combination of crystal structure and chemical composition. Each mineral represents a chemical reaction, most of which (remarkably) arise through biological processes. We will apply recently derived statistical methods to perform quantitative analyses of the origins and evolution of Earth’s varied mineral species. We conclude that for chemical reactions that led to Earth’s minerals and life, chance versus necessity is an inherently false dichotomy, because a range of probabilities exists.

We will expand mineralogical databases, develop new statistical methods, and analyze mineral frequency distributions to demonstrate the continuum of probabilities for the formation of mineral species and, by extension, the chemical reactions that led to life’s origins. We will also demonstrate that events that are extremely unlikely at laboratory scales may be deterministic on spatial and temporal scales of a planet. We will produce at least 15 submitted manuscripts, 20 conference abstracts, & 15 seminars and public lectures--products that will strongly influence the origins of life and astrobiology research communities and lead to a more nuanced view of the Big Questions related to life’s origins.