Review: Addy Pross, What is Life (1)
“TV’s Talking-heads” frequently start their position statement: “I’m not a scientist but….” Then they proceed to inform you, in the manner of a peddler, that he is “right” and you are “wrong”. Here is the ageless Zero-Sum Game:(2) “I win – you lose!”
Unlike those sellers, this author is a scientist and a physician. What is unfortunate in this “pseudo-debate”, looking at both sides of the biological controversy –those from the faith-based discussants and those employing observations and reasoning, – each is playing the tired and ancient game: Zero-Sum.
In my view, neither side needs to defeat the other to win, with what they are defending. My opinion is that just as oxygen and nitrogen can occupy the same space, the subjective (faith-based) and the objective (science-based) are not mutually exclusive. In my view, an intelligent and enlightened person can comprehend both subjective and objective aspects concurrently.
It is also my observation that like many arguments, the debating advocates perceive those holding the alternate view, to be challenging their authority; “winning” outweighs substance.
The perceived, and in my view, a flawed argument, may have begun in 1633.
“On June 22, 1633, Galileo was put on trial at Inquisition headquarters in Rome. All of the magnificent power of the Roman Catholic Church seemed arrayed against the famous scientist. “Galileo was charged with ‘vehement suspicion of heresy.’ He had to renounce ‘with sincere heart and unfeigned faith’ his belief that the sun, not Earth, was the center of the universe and that Earth moved around the sun and not vice versa, as ecclesiastical teaching dictated.”
“Galileo, however, was no scoffing atheist nor angry escapee from religion. He had attended Catholic school, both of his daughters had become nuns and, most important, he considered himself a loyal son of the church. He felt that he was trying to save, not hurt, the church. He was attempting to prevent the church from having to defend a doctrine that he thought subject to disproof.” (3) The Pope had previously allowed Galileo to pursue his work, but, in the end, The Vatican perceived it to be a challenge to its authority.(4)
Thus in 1633, at the start of the debate, it was destined for frustration as The Church was defending its authority of the subjective (spiritual) whereas Galileo was describing the objective (Sun and planets) – not an issue of Authority.
The subjective and the objective are not competitive but complementary.
Major figures in the discussion are Issac Newton (5)(1642 – 1726), Charles Darwin (6) (1809-1882) and Albert Einstein (7) (1879-1955). Their contributions have enlightened our view of the objective. Having done so, each continued to cherish the subjective. What these three, all-time great thinkers, had in common was a questioning mind. Their intellectual skills and inquisitive drive embodied the essence of critical thinking. Newton and Darwin were devoutly religious men (5,6) and Einstein often spoke of subjective and spiritual values.(7)
Another milestone was The Scopes Trial (8) in Tennessee (1925) This landmark trial was hopeless from the start for the same failure of defining the positions of subjective or objective, which doomed the Galileo Trial. The Scopes trial was a proxy fight between William Jennings Bryan, a Fundamentalist Christian, and Clarence Darrow, ho was defending ideas based on observation and reasoning. In my opinion, the two sides argued past one another, each defending different values. They allegedly debated over Charles Darwin’s brilliant insight, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, 1859 (Descent with Modification)(6) which is the description of the objective (physical. and biochemical) mechanism and how living things change over long periods of time – not the subjective, spiritual quality of mankind. Darwin’s insight anticipated the much later knowledge of genes and DNA. (9)
In an attempt to clarify how all life began, Addy Pross. What Is Life, opens with biochemistry and molecular biology discoveries, which as a scientist and physician, I found fascinating. I would say that Pross did push earlier into the timeline of the molecular biology of early life, but failed to explain to me, the inexplicable source and nature of the irrepressible force which continually overcomes the inherent degradation and retrogression of its components. The author describes the improbability of the force driving life in a seemingly teleological force of complexity (improvement of the products of reproduction?). Although his descriptions are biochemical, his message attempts to explain an unexplained force of life in spite of the dissembling characteristics of the non-living material of the world.
Let us try to examine life from the objective view, how does it relate to the inanimate world, and how did it emerge?. Nature, if anything, pushes systems toward disorder and chaos not toward order and function. “It is not just common sense that tells us that highly organized entities don’t just spontaneously come about. Certain fundamental laws of physics preach the same sermon.”(1)
So the relationship between the life phenomenon and its extraordinary complexity can now be stated: “complexity is not the essence of the phenomenon, complexity is its consequence. Replication induces complexity, not the other way around.”(1)
Pross continues: “Even though life is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon, the life principle is surprisingly straightforward. Life is the resultant network of chemical reactions that emerges from the continuing cycle of replication, mutation, complexification, and selection when it operates on particular chain-like molecules— the nucleic acids.”
“But how can this ephemeral and dynamic nature of living systems be explained? In fact, this particular aspect of life is one of the easiest to understand. Pross uses the analogy of a replicating population to a water fountain. “The fountain is stable (persistent) even though the water that makes up that fountain is turning over continuously. Different water, same fountain. For any replicating entity the same proposition holds. In other words, it is the population that is stable, with the individual entities that make up that society always turning over. And this continual turnover holds at all levels of complexity— molecules within cells are always turning over,” cells and organisms as well (1)
In my view, these objective observations and descriptions do not, however, explain: what is the source and nature of the force which drives the biochemistry and biological systems forward in spite of the natural characteristics of disorder and chaos. Lacking objective answers to this question, we are in the subjective arena. Some scientists believe these replicative forces toward complex structure and function, are the products of an enormous number of random encounters of non-living chemicals over extremely long periods of time.(10)
“Fred Hoyle, the well-known astronomer, says the likelihood of such an event would be similar to that of a whirlwind blowing through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747. Life’s organized complexity is strange, very strange.”(12)
Several prominent scientist insists that “evolution” does not mean “improvement”. Dawkins (10) proposes that Darwin’s “descent with modification” is explained by random errors in DNA replication with some products having greater survivability than others. In this explanation, we humans are not an improving, higher form of life, just different from our deep ancestors, with, perhaps greater, on average, better survivability. These scientists deny a teleonomic character. Pross disagrees and believes that both the structure and the behavior of all living things lead to an unambiguous and unavoidable conclusion— living things have an ‘agenda’ (Pross’ word). Living things act on their behalf. The Pross “agenda”, I believe is an idea that should be in the subjective arena and not in Pross’ objective analysis..
Pross uses an analogy of an automobile without an engine (pre-life) and a car with an engine (life) to describe the replicating entity. “The entity with an energy-gathering capability is now like a car with an engine— it can go uphill too. That means that a replicating system with an energy-gathering capability would appear to have an agenda. It would seem to be acting purposefully, as it would no longer need to be confined to the downhill thermodynamic path, which we interpret as objective behaviour, but rather the path toward systems of greater organization and function, which could involve the equivalent of rolling some way uphill.” (1) This analogy does not answer the question: where did the “engine” come from and what makes the engine run?
The main body of the book is the physics and chemistry of his thesis. Let us Jump to his conclusion which we find in the last chapter.
Pross’ conclusion: In our “me-first” culture, we tend to value experiences egocentrically. Although individuals are extremely valuable, their value is fully realized only when fulfilled as members of networks (families) and communities. (Individuals function in communities of approximately one hundred and fifty, caring for one another.)(11)
“Each individual is part of a nuclear family, which, in turn, is part of an extended family, which is part of a local community, which is part of larger groups of the human organization. The survival of the community requires far more than the individual. Reproductively speaking, individuals are incomplete. Biologically speaking, our individuality is actually non-existent.” That’s why a new pregnancy catches our attention. That powerful and compulsive news resonates with our fundamental selves.
“Just as importantly, we are also emotionally incomplete. Various psychological elements also connect us to the network. We obsessively need to be with others. We think of ourselves as individuals, but we are just components of a network. Our “lifeboat” is not just many individuals, but an ever-expanding living network. The irrepressible force of life leaves no stone unturned in seeking ways to extend the invaluable larger life of which we are the stewards. We obsessively need to be with others. We think we are separate, but we are one. We think of ourselves as individuals, but we are just components of a network.”(1)
Charles C. Rogers, MD, FACR, Emeritus Professor, The George Washington University
August 5, 2015
(1)Pross, Addy, What is Life,? : How Chemistry Becomes Biology. Oxford University Press. 2012
(2) Merriam-Webster Dictionary
(3) Hal Hellman, Special to The Washington Post, September 9, 1998; Page H01
(4) Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo
(6) Norman, Andrew, Charles Darwin,: Destroyer of Myths
(7) Isaacson, Walter, Einstein,: His Life and Universe
(8) An introduction to the John Scopes (Monkey) Trial
University of Missouri–Kansas City
(The Scopes trial by no means ended the debate over the teaching of evolution, but it did represent a significant setback for the anti-evolution forces. Of the fifteen states with anti- evolution legislation pending in 1925, only two states (Arkansas and Mississippi) enacted laws restricting teaching of Darwin’s theory.)
(9) Andrew Berry and James WatsonWatson, DNA
(10) Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene 30th Anniversary edition
(11) Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens,: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND, HarperCollins, 443 pages, 2014
(12) Fred Hoyle, the well-known astronomer, the likelihood of such an event would be similar to that of a whirlwind blowing through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747. Life’s organized complexity is strange, very strange. And how it came about is even stranger. Cited by Pross (1)
(13) http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science…/project_scientific_me…The scientific method is a way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations and doing experiments. The steps of the scientific method are to: Ask a Question. Do Background Research.