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On the Origin of Origin Stories

Ryan Seals

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CREATION: Science and the Search for the Origin of Life. Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II. 336 pp. W. W. Norton, 2015. $27.95.

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An argument can be made that three of the most exciting weeks in 20th-century science occurred between April 25 and May 15 of 1953. On the former date, James Watson and Francis Crick published a brief note in Nature titled “Molecular Structure of Deoxypentose Nucleic Acids.” Two weeks and six days later Stanley Miller published—in the equally prestigious Science —a similarly brief note titled “A Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions.” Neither title is, on its face, attention-grabbing. Such is the understated culture of science.

But in the span of those three weeks, the two publications revolutionized our understanding of who we are and whence we came: The first piece described the structure of DNA, and the second discussed conditions under which proteinlike molecules could arise from a soup of wholly unproteinlike precursors. While Crick and Watson’s paper has come to be the more famous, Miller’s paper drew far more attention at the time. Although Crick and Watson explained the fundamental structure of life—DNA—Miller directly tackled the question of the origin of life itself. And origin stories, as we know, are some of the most powerful stories there are.

In A Brief History of Creation, Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II trace humanity’s fascination—obsession, really—with the origin story of life on Earth as Westerners have told it, from the philosophy of Anaximander in the 6th century BCE to a 21st-century genetic and chemical biology laboratory at Harvard Medical School. The authors’ pace is brisk as they dip into and out of the current of history just often and briefly enough to make it through roughly 2,500 years of philosophical and scientific musings. Although the underlying thread of life’s origins is there to knit the whole together, here and there the narrative reads like a series of appended biographies. Few scientific luminaries—from Egyptian mathematician and Neoplatonist Hypatia to groundbreaking 17th-century experimental biologist Francesco Redi to physicist, biochemist, and 1980 Nobel laureate Walter Gilbert—escape mention in this telling, and the overwhelming impression one gleans from the book is that an impressive number of great scientists, at one point or another in their careers, have become obsessed with the question of the origin of life.

The authors’ own passion for the subject is evident in this broad-based, colorfully narrated account. Cleaves, an associate professor of geochemistry at the Tokyo Institute of Technology Earth-Life Science Institute, and Mesler, a journalist, combine their faculties to offer lucid descriptions of complicated research. Cleaves’s scientific career has been devoted to investigating the enigma that drives this book: the beginning of life on Earth. Not only has he published extensively on prebiotic chemistry, the science of compounds that existed on Earth before the formation of life, but he has also coauthored several scholarly works with Miller himself.

It’s no surprise, really, this age-old impulse to discover the beginning of things. As this book shows, throughout the history of biology it has never been far from center. Louis Pasteur, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Charles Darwin, and Crick, among others less well-known, all turned their gaze to life’s origin. The arguments of—and between—these great thinkers often centered on what, exactly, constitutes life, and therefore what might constitute its formation.

When Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 (after being spurred to do so by Alfred Russel Wallace’s impending publication of essentially the same theory), it did not take long for readers to appropriate its logic on the origin of species to explain the origin of life itself. Darwin at first was reluctant to speculate on the ultimate origins of life, employing some of Origin’s most famously lyrical—and least scientific—language: “There is grandeur in this view of life,” he wrote, “with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved” [emphasis added].

Later he regretted somewhat the biblical tone he had taken in Origin, and he speculated more boldly about the details of life’s ultimate origin, writing to his friend and fellow scientist Joseph Hooker more than a decade after Origin’s publication that perhaps life had originated in “some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, &c. present, that a proteine [sic] compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes.”

The final chapters of A Brief History of Creation delve into current theories about what exactly happened in that “warm little pond.” The theories generally involve RNA, the molecule that, in the governing dogma of biology, is responsible for the translation of the DNA genetic code into the operable machinery of proteins. But in a discovery that netted them the 1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry, Sidney Altman and Thomas Cech showed that RNA could bridge the gap between information storage and proteinlike functionality. This finding meant that, as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted in its award statement, “RNA . . . is not only a molecule of heredity but also can function as a biocatalyst.” This discovery, as Mesler and Cleaves point out, helped resolve a chicken-or-egg debate among scientists who studied the origins of life, bridging the “metabolism-first” group, who “saw the protein or something like it as the earliest key component of life,” and the “gene-first” group, who thought “that the development of DNA and of genetic machinery was the likely first step.”

The history of researching the origin of life has been one of dramatic progress, if mainly of the opportunistic sort: The book shows that as fundamental discoveries are made, they are used to refine the existing picture. But as we hone our knowledge of the basic biology involved, we confront an underlying and quite possibly insuperable quandary. As Mesler and Cleaves write, “It will be the same dilemma embodied by the question once posed by the physicist Enrico Fermi to his old friend Harold Urey: Is this how it could have happened, or how it did happen?” Indeed, science fundamentally describes the way nature does, not how it did, and a theory of life’s origins will never be able to tell us with certainty what happened in that “warm little pond,” nor, for that matter, whether the pond existed at all.

Even so, beyond the scientific benefits of refining our understanding of how life might have arisen, research into the origins of life may have philosophical repercussions. As the authors write about Francis Crick’s funeral: “Michael Crick said that his father had wanted to be remembered for finally putting to rest the theory of vitalism, the idea that some uncrossable chasm existed between the living and nonliving. Noting that the word ‘vitalism’ was not recognized by Microsoft Word, he said, ‘Score one for Francis.’” Considering that Francis Crick shared responsibility for one of the greatest fundamental discoveries in human biology, it is remarkable that he considered his utmost achievement to be the final refutation of vitalism. Crick saw that describing the double helix was not just a necessary step toward understanding biological processes for their own sake, but a step toward connecting the living and the nonliving, and placing humanity, and all life, in its proper relation to the rest of the universe.

Ryan Seals is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts. His research focuses on the epidemiology of neurodegenerative disease.

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