- © The Mineralogical Society Of America
For over 50 years, the Parker Brothers’ board game “Clue” has maintained its position as the classic family detective game. A murder has been committed in the mansion, but we don’t know where, by whom, or how. Was it Professor Plum in the study with a knife, or Miss Scarlett in the ballroom with a candlestick? Through rolls of the dice, fragments of information patiently accumulated piece-by-piece, and the application of logic, players construct a case to figure out “whodunit”. Because there are several potential solutions to the problem, the key challenge is to figure out what happened by understanding how it happened.
As for the players of “Clue,” scientists seeking to understand the co-evolution of life and Earth are often confronted with the dilemma of having to parse multiple solutions to an ancient biogeochemical event. For example, in trying to explain the genesis of Archean Banded Iron Formations, we must ask whether it was cyanobacteria in the near shore-environment producing O2, or anoxygenic phototrophs in the oceans directly oxidizing iron (Kappler et al. 2005)? Again, in parallel to “Clue,” typically all we have to work with are isolated scraps of evidence—metamorphosed pieces of rock collected from remote locales on Earth, that contain morphological and/or chemical fossils whose origin and/or meaning is enigmatic. Nevertheless, the legacies of billions of years of evolution—genetic rolls of the dice, subject to natural selection—provide us with a means to interpret these putative biosignatures. By applying the principle of uniformitarianism, we assume that the study of modern organisms can provide us with insights into the composition and behavior of their ancient relatives, thereby allowing us to reconstruct ancient events. This, of course, is a necessary assumption that may not be true, so in the end, all we can really claim is to construct …