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All forms that perish other forms supply' (By turns we catch the vital breath and die) Like bubbles on the sea of matter borne' They rise' they break' and to that sea return.
In the beginning was the word. The word proselytised the sea with its message, copying itself unceasingly and forever. The word discovered how to rearrange chemicals so as to capture little eddies in the stream of entropy and make them live. The word transformed the land surface of the planet from a dusty hell to a verdant paradise. The word eventually blossomed and became sufficiently ingenious to build a porridgy contraption called a human brain that could discover and be aware of the word itself.
My porridgy contraption boggles every time I think this thought. In four thousand million years of earth history' I am lucky enough to be alive today. In five million species, I was fortunate enough to be born a conscious human being. Among six thousand million people on the planet, I was privileged enough to be born in the country where the word was discovered. In all of the earth's history, biology and geography, I was born just five years after the moment when, and just two hundred miles from the place where, two members of my own species discovered the structure of DNA and hence uncovered the greatest, simplest and most surprising secret in the universe. Mock my zeal if you wish; consider me a ridiculous materialist for investing such enthusiasm in an acronym. But follow me on a journey back to the very origin of life, and I hope I can convince you of the immense fascination of the word.
'As the earth and ocean were probably peopled with vegetable productions long before the existence of animals; and many families of these animals long before other families of them, shall we conjecture that one and the same kind of living filaments is and has been the cause of all organic life? asked the polymathic poet and physician Erasmus Darwin in 1794. It was a startling guess for the time' not only in its bold conjecture that all organic life shared the same origin, sixty-five years before his grandson Charles' book on the topic, but for its weird use of the word 'filaments'. The secret of life is indeed a thread.
Yet how can a filament make something live? Life is a slippery thing to define, but it consists of two very different skills: the ability to replicate' and the ability to create order. Living things produce approximate copies of themselves: rabbits produce rabbits, dandelions make dandelions. But rabbits do more than that. They eat grass' transform it into rabbit flesh and somehow build bodies of order and complexity from the random chaos of the world. They do not defy the second law of thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system everything tends from order towards disorder, because rabbits are not closed systems. Rabbits build packets of order and complexity called bodies but at the cost of expending large amounts of energy. In Erwin Schrodinger's phrase, living creatures 'drink orderliness' from the environment.
The key to both of these features of life is information. The ability to replicate is made possible by the existence of a recipe' the information that is needed to create a new body. A rabbit's egg carries the instructions for assembling a new rabbit. But the ability to create order through metabolism also depends on information -- the instructions for building and maintaining the equipment that creates the order. An adult rabbit, with its ability to both reproduce and metabolise, is prefigured and presupposed in its living filaments in the same way that a cake is prefigured and presupposed in its recipe. This is an idea that goes right back to Aristotle, who said that the 'concept' of a chicken is implicit in an egg, or that an acorn was literally 'informed' by the plan of an oak tree. When Aristotle's dim perception of information theory, buried under generations of chemistry and physics, re-emerged amid the discoveries of modern genetics' Max Delbruck joked that the Greek sage should be given a posthumous Nobel prize for the discovery of DNA.
The filament of DNA is information, a message written in a code of chemicals' one chemical for each letter. It is almost too good to be true' but the code turns out to be written in a way that we can understand. just like written English, the genetic code is a linear language, written in a straight line. just like written English' it is digital, in that every letter bears the same importance. Moreover' the language of DNA is considerably simpler than English, since it has an alphabet of only four letters, conventionally known as A, C, G and T.
Now that we know that genes are coded recipes, it is hard to recall how few people even guessed such a possibility. For the first half of the twentieth century, one question reverberated unanswered through biology: what is a gene? It seemed almost impossibly mysterious. Go back not to 19 5 3' the year of the discovery of DNA's symmetrical structure, but ten years further, to 1943. Those who will do most to crack the mystery' a whole decade later, are working on other things in 1943. Francis Crick is working on the design of naval mines near Portsmouth. At the same time James Watson is just enrolling as an undergraduate at the precocious age of fifteen at the University of Chicago; he is determined to devote his life to ornithology. Maurice Wilkins is helping to design the atom bomb in the United States. Rosalind Franklin is studying the structure of coal for the British government.
In Auschwitz in 1943, Josef Mengele is torturing twins to death in a grotesque parody of scientific inquiry.Genome
Excerpted from Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley
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