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Lively & interesting, if a little disjointed
on 23 October 2014
I’ve been familiar with some of Adam’s work with the Guardian newspaper for a number of years, though this is the first book of his that I’ve actually read. It has to be noted that there are really two books here in one. The big trick the publishers pulled was to not put the two parts consecutively, but to flip one upside down and then putting them back-to-back. So you end up reading from front to centre, then turning the book round and doing the same again. The upshot of this is that, reading on public transport as I do, people kept giving me funny looks as they thought I was reading upside down.
The Origin of Life
The name kind of says it all. Only it doesn’t. Before we get to the origin of life, we first need a bit of preparation. This is ultimately the story of the history of life. But it is a story told in reverse, with the culmination being the story of the very beginning of life. So we begin not at the dawn of time but with a discourse on a very modern understanding of cell biology. This is something of an overview, familiar to many, but necessary if one is to locate the rest of this half of the book (and indeed the other half) in its rightful place.
So we get a very quick rundown on our understanding of evolution which runs broadly along the lines of many an account you will probably have read. He soon moves to a very important question....
What is life? It’s a necessary question and one that is deserving of a discussion. Adam recaps some of the definitions we should all be familiar with from our school days. Yet it certainly differed a bit from my school as I had always understood that while there was no set definition, viruses were a considerably grey area. Interestingly, though they are pretty much looked over here, they do appear in The Future of Life (see below). The answer arrived is runs along the lines of, “[we may not be able to pin it down, but we know it when we see it]” which makes for an interesting viewpoint given how the rest of the first half of the book develops, as the origin of life looks considerably different from what we would commonly recognise today.
From here we hone in on DNA as being the signature of life, but Adam presses further to suggest that RNA is probably a much older form. This not an unusual idea, but the non-scientifically trained reader may start to go a little cross-eyed at this point. So while Adam does a very good job of presenting his subject in accessible way, the topic at hand is intrinsically a bit tough.
We then get a look at the more basic components of life before finally getting to the question in hand: how did life begin? The answer is, of course, we don’t know. What we have is a series of possible answers and Adam gives us his view on some of these. The view he advocates is that the building blocks developed simultaneously rather than sequentially. These combined to create RNA which was then subject to what we would now call a process of Darwinian evolution. He goes into more detail than I have space for here, talking of experiments which show that this is a possible route.
Yet saying ‘it is possible’ is about as far as one can go. Adam looks at a few other hypotheses, such as the “warm little pool” and panspermia (the idea that life arrived on a comet or meteorite). It’s interesting, particularly with regards to the latter, that Adam is rather dismissive yet he doesn’t apply the same scrutiny to the idea he advocates as he does to the one he rejects. So while both are possible, and both might possibly wrong, the case is not adequately made in this book for why one is preferred over the other.
The Future of Life
So we come to the second part. You can read them independently or in reverse order, but I would be surprised if the majority of readers picked this one first. As has been noted by some other reviewers of this book, this half doesn’t quite have the same great flow to it that the first half did. For some time, I trundled through, thinking it was a bit hodge-podge with Adam just looking at bits that, while interesting, didn’t give an overall narrative as he had done with the origin of life.
Part of this is the newness of it all. Much of the science he describes has only been pioneered in the last 10 years or so, long after I ended any formal education in biology. So Adam describes an area of science that is very much in its infancy but which has already come on leaps and bounds in its short lifetime. Though he rightly points out that genetic engineering is really what nature does anyway, and which Gregor Mendel did with his pea plants in the 19th century. It’s that our capabilities to manipulate genetic code is now much more direct, made possible through other forms of engineering, and so enabling the kinds of experiments that Adam describes.
When considering the future of bioengineering, one name should instantly spring to mind to anyone who follows science: Craig Venter. To some he is a hero, to others a villain. He competed with Francis Collins (who is curiously not mentioned by Adam) to be the first to map the human genome project. Collins did this on a not-for-profit basis, but Venter is very much on the side of profiteering from biological research, to the extent of trying to patent genes. Adam goes into some discussion of exactly what patents and copyrights have been applied for, with a level of critique in his writing, though he doesn’t quite go so far to as advocate the public availability of all research. But he does go someway in this direction.
At this point, I probably ought to add a disclaimer that the company I work for publishes a considerable number of books and journals in scientific research, some of which Adam may subscribe to or own. So I acknowledge that the profits made from these publications contribute to my salary.
Adam is, unsurprisingly, an advocate of the trials of GM crops. He gives us a potted history of the anti-GM movement which has an interesting link over to one of my former hangouts, the Rothamstead Experimental Station in Hertfordshire. Some may take issue with the way he tells the story, with Adam being resolutely pro-science whilst advocating reasonable safeguards.
There is no real neat ending here, as this is very much a fledgling science. Adam presents us with some possibilities, but I would not be surprised if we look back at this in 25 years’ time and find that the field has developed in ways that are unexpected or have gone down different routes from the early sketch that we are given here.
So in conclusion, this is a very good book written about a fairly tough subject. It is not the most abstruse topic for those who are reasonably scientifically literate, but for those who specialise more in the arts then this may prove tough. But I would struggle to find a better book to recommend on the most modern advances in biology. Told with good humour and in a lively style, Adam remains a gifted communicator and I look forward to any future publications he may author.