Evolution is easy – what about the origin of life?

A biochemist friend of mine some years ago told me, while a little tipsy at a party, that she didn’t really believe in evolution. Well, not evolution exactly, the origin of species and all that was easy enough, but the origin of life itself from inorganic chemistry. How could that possibly have happened?

At the time, I didn’t really have a good answer for her. But it was a good question, really. I mean, I’ve always had this sort of smugness about how an appreciation for geological time gives me the ability to see evolution as an obvious mechanism, and not really that outstanding and extraordinary, but the origin of life? Time doesn’t seem to be the issue: it’s the transformation of one thing to another, a moment of breakthrough.

So it was with interest that I read Creation: The Origin of Life / The Future of Life by Adam Rutherford as a voluntary reviewing assignment for the Museum’s magazine.

And what I learned was this: the origin of life is just an incremental as evolution itself. It seems like a remarkable statement, but Rutherford explains beautifully how the lines blur between chemistry, biochemistry and life. Just like the eye’s component parts seem like they wouldn’t do anything independently, and that the eye would not function in any way at all without any of those parts; so it is with all the important parts of life: RNA, DNA, the ribosome, the cell wall.

But we know the eye did evolve, and now we can see more primitive eyes, and the components stacking up over time. RNA filled in a lot of what DNA now does, and the lipids of cell walls can be enticed into formation surprisingly easily. How we know these things relies a lot on sometimes simple, and sometimes sophisticated lab experiments.

‘It’s more complicated than that’

Throughout the book, you get the feeling Rutherford is leading you to the conclusion that he can’t actually answer the question of what the origin of life was, instead he closes in on the question by filling in around it. Getting closer and closer to the how and the when. By the end, he does give one possible account of the whole story, based on the ideas of one of his favourite researchers, but you know this is only a hypothesis, and by this time it doesn’t matter so much anyway. You understand that it’s a lot more complicated than a single moment of transition, and much of that complexity has been artfully explained to you.

So, it’s fair to say I liked this book, and learned an awful lot. Rutherford has a way of explaining the processes of cells that make your body feel like a whole universe of time and space.

Playing with creation

But, this is only one half of the book, ‘The Origin of Life’. Flip the book over and you get ‘The Future of Life’. In the introduction to both books, Rutherford uses a fantastic analogy to physics: in order for physics to understand one of its biggest questions, how the universe was formed, it had to recreate it; i.e. the supercollider experiments. To understand the origin of life, we have to recreate it, or at least its component parts.

This appears to be the rationale for the second part of the book, experimenting with the cell to understand it more fundamentally, but really it’s just Rutherford leaking undeniable enthusiasm for genetic engineering and synthetic biology. His support is more than obvious, and although he does devote a chapter to the objections and protests, it’s the briefest overview, quickly swept away with more enthusiastic reasoning and descriptions of incredible biological technologies. This side of the book was interesting, but to be honest, a little unnecessary compared to the revelations and intricate lessons of the first. It might be better as a larger, more carefully considered separate book.

Would I recommend it? Yes. It’s also quite a beautiful object !

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