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Biological Determinism & The Origins of Life

Biological Determinism & The Origins of Life

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Published by HeatherDelancett
Book Analysis: Paul Davies "The Fifth Miracle?"

Sometimes the mind comes across a question which jostles it out of the security of a myriad of assumptions previously taken for granted. After a visit to Crater Lake in Oregon last fall, one such question came upon me and took up a relentless presence. What is the difference between something that is alive and something that is not alive?
Book Analysis: Paul Davies "The Fifth Miracle?"

Sometimes the mind comes across a question which jostles it out of the security of a myriad of assumptions previously taken for granted. After a visit to Crater Lake in Oregon last fall, one such question came upon me and took up a relentless presence. What is the difference between something that is alive and something that is not alive?

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Published by: HeatherDelancett on May 07, 2012
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Heather DeLancettBiology 101
 –
Spring 2011Prof. Grant Gerrish
What is Life
 –
The Fifth Miracle?
Sometimes the mind comes across a question which jostles it out of the security of amyriad of assumptions previously taken for granted. After a visit to Crater Lake in Oregon lastfall, one such question came upon me and took up a relentless presence. What is thedifference between something that is alive and something that is not alive? It seemed on thesurface to be a simple question to which everyone must know the answer, and yet, when Iquestioned my friends (and everyone else that night at the bar), I discovered that none of uscame up with a satisfying answer
. There was this gaping abyss of our “difference” explanation
missing and we all felt it as the discussion went on. Finally someone with a fancy iPhone lookedit up on Wikipedia and read off about 7 different criteria that were currently accepted for
defining “life” –
though there were exceptions and not everything needed to meet all thecriteria. It all seemed rather loose and blurry even couched in technical sounding terms. By theend of the night, I was deeply disturbed by my own lack of knowledge about something I hadassumed was well known.When you mentioned credit for book reviews, I immediately went to the UHH library
and perused the available choices. Several books got put on my “wish list” despite my already
totally overwhelming schedule this term. Erwin Schrodinger, a celebrated physicist who hasmade my mind stretch in fascinating ways before, had written a short little treatise in 1944
titled: “What is Life?
: The Physical Asp
ect of the Living Cell.” Very excitedly, I took this book
which seemed to summarize my exact quandary and I there began my investigation. Soon, Irealized that Schrodinger was not a man to waste words, and to properly report on this little 92page book, complete with the Epilogue dedicated to the question of determinism and free will,
 
would essentially require
the entire book’s
duplication. I moved on
to “The Fifth Miracle: TheSearch for the Origin and Meaning of Life” published more recently in 1999 by
Paul Davies, atheoretical physicist, cosmologist and an astro-biologist. Davies starts his book with a prefacetelling his own story of discovering Schrodinge
r’s little treatise and how it raised more
questions for him than it answered, leading him to assign the problem of biogenesis to the
mental “too
-
hard” basket for twenty years.
1
I have come to (at least intellectually) respect bothof these men immensely.
Schrodinger’s Preface, penned in Dublin in 1944, i
mmediately addresses one of theissues which initially dissuaded me from scientific studies: the mandate of specialization toexclusive cliques of jargon users who often do not attempt to communicate beyond the given
field of expertise. He says this is a matter regarded as “noblesse oblige”
2
 
 –
a figurativeexpression meaning that to claim a position (as a noble, or here as an expert) requires one toact in accordance to those responsibilities and not waste time with idle pursuits. To this notionof tradition which often prevents specialists from writing on topics outside of their area of expertise, Schrodinger offers an argument based on the epistemological
“inheritance we’ve
received from our forefathers
 
of “the keen longing for unified, all
-
embracing knowledge.”
3
Hereminds us that even the name of our higher learning institutions is based on the value of theuniversal aspect of knowledge
being “the only one to be given full credit”
4
from the time of antiquity. Unapologetically, he states his position as one to which I can deeply relate:But the spread, both in width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledgeduring the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma. We feelclearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding togetherthe sum-total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has becomenext to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a small specializedportion of it
I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true aim be lost forever) than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and
1
Paul Davies
. The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life.
(New York: Simon & Schuster,1999), p. 15.
2
Erwin Schrodinger
. What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell 
(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1955),p. vii.
 
3
Ibid.
4
Ibid.
 
theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them
 –
and atthe risk of making fools of ourselves.
5
 Schrodinger then goes on to express his sheer w
onder, from a physicist’s point of view, at themystery of life. He critiques the current limitations of his own discipline’s understandings by
pointing out that both physics and chemistry are statistical sciences, and asks what is in the
physicist’s “toolbox” that may contribute to learning more about life.
We can return to Schrodinger after a journey through Davies, as indeed this is actuallytwo book reviews in one and may get quite lengthy. An author I
’ve recently cited in another
paper described in his own preface
6
 
the concept of “archival density”
 
 –
that of how many hoursper page a work required for adequate comprehension
. Schrodinger’s
work has a fairly high
“archival density” for me as a non
-scientist, and probably for everyone else as well. But let us
consider two of his beginning questions before moving on: “How can events in space and time
which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics
and chemistry?”
7
 
and “Why must our bodies be so large compared to an atom?”
8
 By comparison, Davies has an archival density of zero
 –
no one need spend an hour overhis written page because he masterfully guides the reader through various data and hypothesesand problematic issues like a well-seasoned professor. In sharp contrast to Schrodinger, it iseasy to lose track of how much theoretical ground one has covered. Nonetheless, it certainly
has a cumulative effect on the mind. Let’s dig in!
 Davies reports that Sir Arthur Eddington, a 20
th
century British astrophysicist whohelped to popularize general relativity theory, regarded the second law of thermodynamics as
occupying the supreme position among the laws of nature to the point that he wrote: “if your
theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is
5
Ibid.
6
Arthur L. Stinchcombe.
Sugar Island Slavery in the Age of Enlightenment: The Political Economy of the CaribbeanWorld 
. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995). p. xiii.
7
Erwin Schrodinger
. What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell 
(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1955)p. 1.
8
Ibid. p. 6.

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