The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms, and the Order of Life
This book is not about biology, biochemistry or any other finished and finite discipline, but about life. Life seems to me the supreme marvel of the universe—familiar, thoroughly material, probably ubiquitous yet elusive and ultimately mysterious. My purpose is to assess how far we have come toward a scientific understanding of the phenomenon of life. With so broad, not to say nebulous a subject, it seems best to spell out the premises on which this inquiry rests. First, I am a scientist by profession, not a philosopher; we shall be concerned here with what natural science has to say about the nature of life, not how it appears to a psychologist, theologian, poet or epistemologist. Second, I take it that the term “life” designates a real phenomenon, recognizable by a set of properties characteristic of some natural objects and lacking in others; one of our goals must be to identify the essential features that distinguish living organisms from other things. Although we have been able to study but one kind of life, the terrestrial variety, it is likely that life exists elsewhere in the universe, and it is arguable that life everywhere will be based on this common set of general principles. Third, during the past century we have come a very long way by scrutinizing the workings, architecture and chemistry of cells and organisms; what we have learned makes a solid foundation for reflection on the nature of life in general. Finally, I hold that the quest for an answer to the riddle, “What is Life?” is one of the grand themes that resonate through the scientific conversation of this century—a period whose science is also its singular glory. That riddle embraces and transcends the subject matter of all the biological sciences, and much of physical science as well. A physics that has no place for life is as impoverished as would be a biology not informed by chemistry. The study of life as a natural phenomenon, a fundamental feature of the universe, must not be allowed to slip into the black hole of departmental tribalism.
Let me enlarge for a moment on the latter point, for herein lies much of the motivation for writing this book. What science knows of the nature of life, it owes to the labors of countless specialists—physicists and chemists, mathematicians and geologists, geneticists and biochemists and physiologists, biologists evolutionary and biologists molecular. The fruits of our labors are first inscribed in shelf upon shelf of professional journals, and subsequently reincarnated in textbooks that have grown too heavy to carry, let alone read. But the nature of life is not a practical topic for research. General insights, if there be any, must be distilled from numberless particular discoveries, and here time may no longer be on our side. The relentless accumulation of information on all subjects, however desirable in itself, frustrates understanding by pressing everyone into ever narrower borders. A second hindrance is the spirit of the times, the clamor that knowledge has value only insofar as it lends itself to practical ends. Scientists themselves increasingly subscribe to the thesis that science must serve the uses of power, not of philosophy: it is, after all, on our usefulness that we base our claim to scarce public resources. The most productive era of fundamental inquiry may thus be approaching an end, and that makes it timely to gather the threads of knowledge spun out by research and see what pattern they make.
That conversational word “understanding” has already cropped up several times, and since it stands for the object of this entire exercise some attempt at definition is in order. Scientists use the word in a somewhat special sense, that was nicely set forth by Mary Midgley in her critical study, Science as Salvation. “Understanding anything is finding order in it. . . . It is simply putting [the pattern] into the class of things meaningful—noting how its parts relate to it as a whole, and how it itself relates to the larger scene around it” (1). And “explanation?” To strive for a plausible, self-consistent view of the world, and to communicate it to others, is a less exalted quest. But I cannot agree with those who dismiss it as unworthy, as long as we remember the difference.
1 Schro¨dinger’s Riddle 1
2 The Quality of Life 9
3 Cells in Nature and in Theory 17
4 Molecular Logic 33
5 A (almost) Comprehensible Cell 63
6 It Takes a Cell To Make a Cell 99
7 Morphogenesis: Where Form and Function Meet 117
8 The Advance of the Microbes 159
9 By Descent with Modification 189
10 So What is Life? 217
11 Searching for the Beginning 235
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