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The Facts of Life

John Lidwell-Durnin

foerMichel Morange
Life Explained
Yale University Press, 2009
224 Pages
ISBN 978-0300158502

Pick up a good dictionary. Leaf through it. Within that volume are all the words that, when organised in the right sequence, correctly define, explain, and describe life. How many words would such an explication involve? A concise one might not need more than 50 or 60. Marvel at the majesty of language. Imagine how one’s life would change if one could dwell upon, perhaps even put to song, those enlightening, powerful words.

Now, if you like, pick up Michel Morange’s Life Explained. It too, probably, contains all the words that, when organised in the right way, explain life. Has Morange got them in the correct order? Here’s the short version of the explanation:

“Organisms share three fundamental characteristics: they possess particularly complex molecular structures; they routinely support a large number of highly specific chemical reactions by drawing upon the external environment for both molecular material and energy; and they reproduce themselves.”

One might feel cheated and disappointed: all this seems to say is that, from a structural point of view, you’re really complicated. In addition, you can use sunlight to make vitamin D. And so long as you’re properly intact and reasonably charming, you can make more of you. But isn’t there something more that you wanted to know; isn’t there something more to you than a complicated, vitamin D-producing sex machine (because, at the very least, one might feel a bit silly putting such words to song)?

But like any good explanation, this one cannot be abstracted from the larger picture of the world in which we live—it would be a gross disservice to the 16 elegant, concise, and illuminating chapters of Life Explained to rifle through it in search of a list of the constitutive elements of organisms. In fact, Morange’s main goal is not really to deliver a final explanation of life, but rather to direct our thought away from the powerful illusion that if we understood the minimal requirements for life, then the question which rests at the heart of biology will have been answered. Such a programme is misguided because, as Morange points out (in Chapter 10, “The Search for the Minimal Genome”), the simpler an organism is, the more it depends upon work done by other organisms in order to flourish. Thus, the simplest of organisms found on earth often prove to be “highly evolved forms of life”.

This discussion is part of Morange’s concerted critique of the notion that autonomy is one of the hallmarks of living organisms. If you’re anything like me, then when you imagine the origins of life you hear Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and picture little pastel jellies floating about in a technicolor blue, developing little tails, eyes, and teeth here and there. Our picture is of life beginning with individual entities. While I continue to trust that “Fantasia” provides me with most of what I need to know about the dinosaurs and the social order of fauns, cupids, and centaurs, Morange has a strong case for erasing the Disney account of life’s origins forever from your font of intuitions. Drawing upon recent research into the role played by viruses in early evolution, Morange suggests that the movement from an RNA-based world to a DNA-based world may have involved a period where much of the genetic information that organisms relied upon to reproduce was contained not in the organisms themselves, but in viruses which freely disseminated the genetic material by lateral gene transfer. If we were to point to an example of a living organism in such a world, we could not point to the organisms without pointing also to their relationship to viruses—in a word, we would have to point to a system. This means that, in our search for answers, we would be misguided not only in asking what the minimal requirements for life are, but also in presuming that autonomous organisms come first and that a system follows. Autonomy is a later stage in evolution.

Like any volume of popular science, Life Explained at times reads like a letter from the front: scientific battles are truncated, the gory details omitted, and a narrative supplied where perhaps no such narrative can yet comfortably account for all the events and facts. One should also be careful to remember that Morange is not without his politics: Morange is a card-carrying member of what he styles as a new school of emergentism. As an emergentist, Morange does not believe that once we have accounted for the basic properties and laws of the universe (presumably at the quantum level) we have thereby exhausted our description of reality. Rather, he maintains that new properties “emerge” when these basic building blocks arrange themselves in complex orders. This might not seem a controversial point, but one of the basic tenets of emergentism is that we have no way to predict or describe in advance what kinds of properties may emerge at higher levels of complexity. Such a view of reality is exciting and gripping, but is not necessarily embraced as widely as Morange suggests.

Still, for those of us that are privately convinced that we have witnessed abiogenesis—the creation of life—in the primeval soup of a half-eaten bowl of milk and Cheerios left on the kitchen counter for a few days, Life Explained is a godsend. With its details still fresh in the mind, one will pace one’s familliar settings eagerly hopeful of encountering someone ready to debate the importance of reproduction in classifying life, or the usefulness of looking to organisms that live in extreme environments to understand the conditions that gave rise to life. Most importantly, as the details fade, one will retain a sense that one’s mind has been reorganized and tidied: clutter removed, passageways better lit, all due to the therapeutic effects of letting Morange’s thought echo in your mind for a few hours. But if you are going to read it, read it fast: there’s a reason why there are no classics in the field of popular science. Most of them are proven wrong and misdirected fairly soon.

John Lidwell-Durnin graduated in 2010 with a BPhil in Philosophy from University College, Oxford. John lives in Oxford with his wife and daughter.