Sometimes waiting until a book’s been in print for a number of years before reading sort of allows you to free-ride on the experiences others have had with it. Amazon.com reviews are usually helpful in winnowing out books that may only appear to be promising, but with science books, a great many reviewers seem more interested in impressing with their subject mastery than in confessing any flaws in the delivery or substance of the book. I picked this book up at the local library. Nearly ten-year-old books that remain on its shelves have usually been winnowed as effectively as an Amazon.com review page.
But, The Way of the Cell dissatisfies for a number of reasons. Obviously, a great many things have changed in the near-decade since its publication, but that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that Harold seems lost and confused when he finally disentangles himself from the thickets of intracellular processes to look at how the whole thing fits together. That, and Harold apparently can’t decide to whom he is writing—the general public or his microbiology colleagues. Though I knew the meanings of a good bit of it from previous studies, microbiological jargon abounds, very often without any translation for the layman.
Harold’s difficulties point to the impossibility of speaking to both scientists and laymen simultaneously. Every academic specialty speaks a language of its own, and it seems that the more abstruse and convoluted is the language, the more the academy prefers it. In large measure, academia uses recondite jargon like the Crips and Bloods use tattoos, scarves and hoodies—as short-hand communication for distinguishing among those that are members and those that aren’t. And just like gangbangers compete amongst themselves to have the most elaborate tattoos and gang-identifying clothing, academicians compete amongst themselves to have the largest vocabulary of obscure words related to their field of study. Which is all fine and good, if the real purpose of the writing is to impress colleagues with your academic stature. If instead, the purpose is to actually communicate ideas so that more than just academic colleagues can understand them (who presumably already do), the jargon has to go. Harold has a beautiful vocabulary outside of microbiology that would send most college sophomores occasionally digging in the dictionary, and his writing is best when he puts it to more lyrical prose than describing, e.g., the energy transfer system of ATP and ADP. And I’m sure he probably thinks he toned down the academic jargon to facilitate mass consumption of his ideas. But he didn’t. A fish doesn’t know it’s in water while it’s in it. Neither, it appears, can an academic realize he’s still trying impress the academy when, as Harold admits in the preface, he allowed a great many of his colleagues to look over his shoulder while he wrote.
Harold is a capable philosopher of the science of biology, and this is where he makes his greatest contribution, jargon and all. For instance, though we know the underlying chemistry of a particular protein whose sequence for construction is encoded along a stretch of DNA, even with all the knowledge of cause and effect relationships modern chemistry provides, we still have no way of knowing how the protein will fold itself, and proper folding is as important to function as is a proper sequence of amino acids. Since we don’t know the “how” of protein folding, perhaps we could gain insight by understanding the why? But the “why” is clear—without proper folding the protein is useless to the entity that created it. So we’re back to the how, yet the mystery is nowhere close to resolution. There is no way to know from a gene in the DNA what particular shape a protein it codes for will take, even if we know that changing the genetic sequence can yield an improperly shaped protein that is ultimately useless. Though we have learned a great deal about the inner workings of life’s basic unit, there is much more yet to learn. Harold wonders, aside from whether or not we’ll ever be able to solve mysteries like protein folding, whether, even if we know every mechanistic reason behind every cellular action, will we really then understand the cell? Will there still be something more that we are missing?
Neurobiologists of a materialistic bent believe that if we could figure out the intricate inner workings of the brain and its millions of neurons with their myriad relationships, we could explain the emergent quality of consciousness, perhaps even resolving where and what it exactly is that philosophers refer to when speaking of the human soul. Those with less of a materialistic instinct believe that something more might be involved than just the electro-chemical energy of firing neural synapses. Harold refuses to take a side, but points out that, given the difficulties in understanding the cause and effect relationships driving the inner workings of single-celled organisms—there is still much we don’t know about how simple bacteria do things—understanding through reductionism emergent qualities like consciousness that arise from literally trillions and trillions of discrete relationships might just be an impossible task, hastening to add that just because understanding might be beyond our reach does not warrant reversion to mysticism.
The essence of the question that Harold ponders is whether physical laws can explain all of what we see in the workings of life. Is there an as yet undiscovered transcendent biological law that overrides the laws of the inanimate universe? Yet Harold skips past the most obvious source of the problem, which is also perhaps the greatest mystery in science today: The collapse of our theory for the very large into a confusion of infinities when applied to the very small. General Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory do fine at describing the universe in their respective realms (though Relativity seems to more and more totter towards mysticism as the theory is contorted to fit accumulating evidence), but the two can’t be reconciled. Perhaps within this inexplicable gap lies the secret that Harold seeks. Perhaps, just as the universe of galaxies, stars and planets is an emergent quality not predicted nor explained by the physics of protons, neutrons and electrons, the morphology of a protein and where it fits within the life of a cell is an emergent quality that no amount of reductionism alone can ever explain. Should we ever discover how it is a string of nucleic acids creates a cell, knowing just how to fold a protein and where to position it such that a disorganized collection of matter and energy becomes a discernible matter, energy and information organizing and processing entity, we would likely then be able to reconcile Quantum and Relativity Theory.
Physical laws can’t explain all of life’s functioning because the ones we’ve discerned so far can’t explain all of anything. We may one day finally reconcile Quantum and Relativity Theory, and it might even be done through the study of life. But it won’t be applicable only to life. It will be a transcendent law stitching together all the parts and pieces of the universe, with life being a special sub-case of its application.
Quantum theory tells us that all we can know about discrete events in the universe of the very small is probabilities. We can’t ever know for sure where an electron might actually be. Yet out of this probabilistic foundation arises determinism. We can predict virtually the exact time of lunar eclipses thousands, even millions, of years hence, but there is no way to know exactly where any of the electrons in the elements and molecules making up any of the three entities necessary for the event to take place—the sun, moon and earth—will be at any single moment. Conversely, life has a deterministic foundation that yields to probabilities. DNA strives to perpetually survive intact. Yet life’s ability to adapt to changes in its environment necessary for perpetual survival depends on the probability that errors in deterministic transcription routinely occur. If we are to find some transcendent law stitching together the universe, we’ll likely find it somewhere in the hazy transcription space where information flows from DNA to RNA to protein; where determinism is sidetracked by quantum probabilities.
The best of The Way of the Cell is the end. Harold wraps up his exegesis by exploring the current (2001) science investigating the origins of life. The landscape is very much as bleak as ever. We simply haven’t any good (and testable) ideas that survive a skeptic’s scalpel, and Harold admits as much. The problem with origin of life theories is that we can really do nothing more than speculate about the environment in which life first began. Without knowing the environment, there will never be any way to replicate the conditions such that hypotheses can be tested. I believe the best we could do today is take the most primitive of living cells of which we are aware, and strip away the components one by one to see which are necessary for life. Remove the RNA, DNA, enclosed membranes, etc. See what is the bare minimum required for continued life. That would give us an idea about what would need to arise spontaneously for life to begin, no matter the environment.
Harold concludes with the vaguely philosophical question of whether any meaning could be wrung from human life if it turns out the whole matter is purely materialistic and apparently purposeless. But life has a very obvious purpose, no matter from which angle–theological or scientific—it is viewed. The purpose of life is the continuance of life, meaning the point behind everything we do is to acquire the resources needed to continue living today and into eternity through gene propagation. Whether there is a God animating that reality or not, there can be no question that is its purpose.
Or, as I tell my kids: The purpose of life is lunch. Preferably for my genes, an eternity of them.