Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review of "A Brief History of Creation: Science and the Search for the Origin of Life" by Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II

How did life on Earth begin? This has been a burning question in people's minds for millenia. In this book, Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II provide a history of how early scholars....then natural philosophers (early scientists)....then modern scientists have addressed this question over the course of history.

The book includes brief biographies of some pertinent scholars as well as their ideas about how life arose. I'm not going to provide a summary of these big thinkers - there were too many of them.

I'll just say that, for a very long time, intellectuals from all cultures accepted the notion of spontaneous generation: the belief that living things can spring from inorganic substances. For example, ancient settlements along the Nile River were regularly flooded, after which thousands of frogs appeared in the rich soil. People just thought the frogs formed from the dirt.

Historically, humans simply accepted that some living things hatch from eggs (like birds), some are born from mothers (like pigs), and some are created from soil, old food, dirty clothes.....whatever. Natural philosophers did myriad experiments that 'proved' spontaneous generation occurred, but we now know their experiments were seriously flawed.

Whatever their beliefs, natural philosphers had to be careful to attribute life on Earth to the work of God. Any other suggestion resulted in punishment from the Church, or even death. One early researcher who published his work on spontaneous generation (apparently without invoking God) had his feet and legs crushed, after which he was paraded through town and hanged. This kind of thing probably stifled a lot of research. (LOL....but wryly.) Nevertheless scientists carried on, being infinitely curious about how life came to be.

In time Darwin proposed his theory of evolution and this 'eureka development' led scientists to believe that a 'first living organism' (FLO) gave rise to millions of species (over eons). Darwin, who was religious, never really addressed what this FLO was, or where it came from. Other researchers, though, developed many theories about the FLO and some have attempted to recreate it in the laboratory.

One current idea about the FLO is that it originated as a 'ribozyme' - an RNA enzyme that catalyzes biochemical reactions, like protein synthesis. If ribozymes were enveloped in a 'bubble' (cell membrane)......voila, the first cell. Sounds good to me....ha ha ha.

Just for fun, I'll include a recipe for spontaneously generating mice (adapted from the 17th century Flemish chemist Jean Baptiste van Helmont).

'Put a soiled shirt and your gym socks in a bowl with grains of wheat....and put it out in your garage. After about 21 days, the dirt from the clothes will react with fumes from the wheat - and the wheat will be tranformed into mice.' Ha ha ha.

The book is thorough in its coverage of an interesting subject - the evolution of ideas about life's origin. For me, though, the prose is too dry and matter of fact; it could have used more humor. Also, the anecdotes feel repetitious because many natural philosophers had similar ideas and did similar experiments. Still, I'd recommend the book to readers interested in the subject.

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