The Sacred Depths of Nature. Ursula Goodenough. 197 pp. Oxford University Press, 1998. $24.
Reasonable people might differ on whether the heroic age of science is at an end, but few could quibble with the idea that our understanding of life is complete enough for a fascinating story to be told. And one would be hard pressed to find an account that combines the elements of reductionism and reverence as memorably as Ursula Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature.
Spare, elegant and beautifully told, Goodenough's story begins at the Big Bang and in a few short chapters works through the essential features of the origin of life, metabolism, enzymology, gene regulation, natural selection, the conservative nature of evolution and the emergence of such higher-order functions as awareness, emotion and sexuality. Remarkably, in these few pages Goodenough manages to convey many of the lessons learned from the explosion of research in contemporary biology. She describes the ubiquity in cells of phosphorylation cascades, which carry signals from circulating hormones or from adjacent cells. She guides the reader through our understanding of embryonic development as the consequence of regulated gene expression in space and time. And she consistently emphasizes the deepest truth that has emerged from the past 20 years of research: that the evolutionary intertwining of life is best appreciated at the molecular level, where the components of particular signaling pathways turn up again and again in different developmental contexts. The great French biologist Francois Jacob called it bricolage, or "tinkering," and Goodenough does his insight full justice, describing this mode of evolution as "the construction of things using what is at hand, the patchwork quilt."
Is all of this cell and molecular biology compatible with Goodenough's awestruck tone? Certainly. The hype surrounding the Human Genome Project, gene therapy and cloning has lately threatened to bring reductionism into disrepute, but Goodenough's discussion of the beauty of this detailed view of life helps to give it back its good name. She explains: "We reduce, and then we synthesize, and then we find another occasion to reduce. How did Mozart generate that modulation into B-flat? Ah, with that chord. How lovely." Her lucid, reductionist explanations extend to a plausible scenario for the evolution of the modern bacterial cell's flagellum, which, incidentally, neatly dispels the notion that complex cellular structures lie outside the Darwinian paradigm. All of this is explained in a straightforward manner that invites a general readership, and one can imagine an intelligent high school biology student coming away from it with a deepened appreciation for the beauty of the subject.
But there is more here. Goodenough, a nontheist, sees this understanding of life as the means to generate religious feelings in the absence of the organized religions that have earned her admiration if not her allegiance. On her own behalf she is quite convincing. From the wonder and strangeness of this scientific understanding of life she finds her own religious impulses based in awe, mystery, gratitude, sublimity and the interconnectedness of all living things. She proposes that this "religious naturalism" can serve as the basis of a global ethic that can be shared by everyone concerned about humanity's stewardship of the planet. Can such an ethic be taken to heart by traditional believers? Here one must be skeptical. Another great French biologist, Jacques Monod, remarked in Chance and Necessity that a scientific worldview imposes "an ascetic renunciation of all other spiritual fare." The Sacred Depths of Nature is certainly an eloquent rejoinder to the notion that science and spirituality are incompatible, but I suspect—and Goodenough herself acknowledges—that there is a great deal of bridge building to be done before religious naturalism inspires the same kind of devotion that is observed in manmade houses of worship.—Alan I. Packer, Genetics and Development, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons