Life arose on Earth within a billion years (1 Ga) after planetary accretion and core formation. The geological record, which begins 3.8 Ga BP, indicates environmental conditions much like today's, except for the absence of oxygen. By 3.5 Ga BP microbial ecosystems were already colonizing shallow marine hydrothermal environments along shorelines of volcanic islands. Although similar environments could have existed more than 3.8 Ga BP, they may not have been the spawning grounds of life. Geophysical models of the first 600 Ma of Earth history following accretion and core formation point to a period of great environmental disequilibrium. In such an environment the passage of energy from Earth's interior and from the Sun through gas--liquid--solid domains and their boundaries with each other generated a dynamically interacting, complex hierarchy of self-organized structures, ranging from bubbles at the sea--air interface to tectonic plates. Nested within this hierarchy were the precursors of living systems. The ability of a planet to produce such a hierarchy is speculated to be a prerequisite for the origin and sustenance of life. Application of this criterion to Mars, which apparently experienced no plate tectonism, argues against the origin of martian life. Because only further geological and biogeochemical exploration of the planet can place these qualitative speculations on firm ground, the search for evidence of extinct life on Mars continues to be of highest scientific priority.