Navigation Bar
MAIN Cheap Thoughts Cheap Thoughts Index Cheap Thoughts on Science Really Cheap Thoughts Index

 

Cheap Thoughts on Science

 

Biology and Life

 

The system of life on this planet is so astoundingly complex that it was a long time before man even realised that it was a system at all and that it wasn't something that was just there.
     Douglas Adams, Last Chance To See (with Mark Carwardine, 1990)

 

Everything about microscopic life is terribly upsetting. How can things so small be so important?
     Isaac Asimov

 

Currently, we seem to be in the midst of a novel kind of mass extinction, with human activity rendering the biosphere uncongenial to much of the biota it has to share it with, and possibly to itself. Self-induced extinction of this kind may be an ineluctable concomitant of ‘progress’, for in an ultra-pessimistic neo-Malthusian viewpoint, it may be that the ability to annihilate oneself inevitably outstrips the development of intelligence. The most gloomy view is that although societies can survive when individuals can kill only a few thousand at a blow (as throughout human history until now), no society can survive when technology has developed to the point at which a single individual has the power to kill tens of millions. Human society may just have arrived at such a point. If it is a general rule for societies on all planets, then there is little hope that we will ever fulfil the cosmic aspirations of humanity that optimistic science fiction so imaginatively inspires. But, at least our own extinction will give opportunities to cockroaches.
     Peter Atkins, Galileo’s Finger:  The Ten Great Ideas of Science (2003)
     “Evolution:  The Emergence of Complexity”

 

The living world emerged when inorganic matter stumbled on a way of passing on intricate, unpredictable information, and found that it could achieve immortality for that information by its ceaseless replication.  Here lies another furiously running Red Queen, for permanence is achieved only by perpetual replication.  In the same spirit, our own nominally civilized, cultivated, intelligent, and reflective level of life emerged when organisms stumbled on a way of passing on intricate, unpredictable information to others around them and following them.  It did so by inventing language and effectively binding together all human organisms, past, present, and future into a single mega-organism of potentially boundless achievement.
     Peter Atkins, Galileo’s Finger:  The Ten Great Ideas of Science (2003)
     “Evolution:  The Emergence of Complexity”

 

The genome is the book of the cell in much the same way as the dictionary is the book of a performance of Waiting for Godot. It is all in there, but you will not deduce one from the other.
     Philip Ball, Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of Molecules (2001)

 

Some people object to genetic engineering on the grounds that it is ethically wrong to tamper with the fundamental material of life — DNA — whether it is in bacteria, humans, tomatoes, or sheep. One can understand such objections, and it would be arrogant to dismiss them as unscientific. Nevertheless, they do sit uneasily with what we now know about the molecular basis of life. The idea that our genetic make-up is sacrosanct looks hard to sustain once we appreciate how contingent, not to say arbitrary, that make-up is. Our genomes are mostly parasite-riddled junk, full of the detritus of over three billion years of evolution. There seems little that is admirable or elegant in this unruly library; rather, the admiration should be reserved for the cohorts of diligent proteins that painstakingly sift snippets of meaning from reams of nonsense. It is truly amazing how well the whole affair works; but, like most of life, it is a makeshift compromise in which efficiency and tidiness count for little.
     Philip Ball, Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of Molecules (2001)

 

Life is anything that dies when you stomp on it.
     Dave Barry

 

Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business.  Of the billions and billions of species of living thing that have existed since the dawn of time, most — 99.99 percent — are no longer around.  Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous.  It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

 

I have brought you a long way to make a small point:  a big part of the reason that Earth seems so miraculously accommodating is that we evolved to suit its conditions.  What we marvel at is not that it is suitable to life but that it is suitable to our life — and hardly surprising, really. It may be that many of the things that make it so splendid to us — well-proportioned Sun, doting Moon, sociable carbon, more magma than you can shake a stick at, and all the rest — seem splendid simply because they are what we were born to count on.  No one can altogether say.
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

 

One of the biggest surprises in the earth sciences in recent decades was the discovery of just how early in Earth’s history life arose.  Well into the 1950s, it was thought that life was less than 600 million years old.  By the 1970s, a few adventurous souls felt that maybe it went back 2.5 billion years.  But the present date of 3.85 billion years is stunningly early.  Earth’s surface didn’t become solid until about 3.9 billion years ago.
     “We can only infer from this rapidity that it is not ‘difficult’ for life of bacterial grade to evolve on planets with appropriate conditions,” Stephen Jay Gould observed in the New York Times in 1996.  Or as he put it elsewhere, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that “life, arising as soon as it could, was chemically destined to be.”
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

 

Whatever prompted life to begin, it happened just once.  That is the most extraordinary fact in biology, perhaps the most extraordinary fact we know.  Everything that has ever lived, plant or animal, dates its beginnings from the same primordial twitch.  At some point in an unimaginably distant past some little bag of chemicals fidgeted to life.  It absorbed some nutrients, gently pulsed, had a brief existence.  This much may have happened before, perhaps many times.  But this ancestral packet did something additional and extraordinary:  it cleaved itself and produced an heir.  A tiny bundle of genetic material passed from one living entity to another, and has never stopped moving since.  It was the moment of creation for us all.  Biologists sometimes call it the Big Birth.
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

 

Every human body consists of about 10 quadrillion cells, but about 100 quadrillion bacterial cells.  They are, in short, a big part of us.  From the bacteria’s point of view, of course, we are a rather small part of them.
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

 

All the tiny, deft chemical processes that animate cells — the cooperative efforts of nucleotides, the transcription of DNA into RNA — evolved just once and have stayed pretty well fixed ever since across the whole of nature.  As the late French geneticist Jacques Monod put it, only half in jest:  “Anything that is true of E. coli must be true of elephants, except more so.”
     Every living thing is an elaboration on a single original plan.  As humans we are mere increments — each of us a musty archive of adjustments, adaptations, modifications, and providential tinkerings stretching back 3.8 billion years.  Remarkably, we are even quite closely related to fruit and vegetables.  About half the chemical function that take place in a banana are fundamentally the same as the chemical functions that take place in you.
     It cannot be said too often:  all life is one.  That is, and I suspect will forever prove to be, the most profound true statement there is.
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

 

If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here — and by “we” I mean every living thing.  To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement.  As humans we are doubly lucky, of course:  We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better.  It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.
     We have arrived at this position of eminence in a stunningly short time.  Behaviorally modern human beings — that is, people who can speak and make art and organize complex activities — have existed for only about 0.0001 percent of Earth’s history.  But surviving for even that little while has required a nearly endless string of good fortune.
     We really are at the beginning of it all.  The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end.  And that, almost certainly, will require a good deal more than lucky breaks.
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

 

A hen is only an egg's way of making another egg.
     Samuel Butler, Life and Habit (1877)

 

If I try to create Abraham Lincoln without having him born in 1809 and having him be the president during the Civil War, he would not turn out to be Abraham Lincoln.
     Arnold Caplan, of the Center For Bioethics, discussing
     the feasibility of cloning a human being, quoted in Roy
     Blount, Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story (1998)

 

Physics-envy is the curse of biology.
     Joel Cohen, Science 1971, 172, 675

 

This [double helix] structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest. ... It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.
     Francis Crick & James D. Watson, "Molecular Structure
     of Nucleic Acids," Nature (April 25, 1963)
          [This was the paper that first reported the double-helix structure
          of DNA.  The last sentence is probably one of the single
          greatest understatements in the history of science.]

 

I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before.
     Charles Darwin, after seven years of work on a study of barnacles
     quoted in Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way (1988)

 

But, however many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead, or rather not alive.
     Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence
     of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design
(1986)

 

What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a 'spark of life.' It is information, words, instructions. If you want a metaphor, don't think of fires and sparks and breath. Think, instead, of a billion discrete, digital characters carved in tablets of crystal. If you want to understand life, don't think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.
     Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence
     of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design
(1986)

 

It is possible that there is, after all, something unique about man and the planet he inhabits.
     Theodosius Gregorievich Dobzhansky,
     Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (1972)

 

Biologists are always on the lookout for animals easy to rear in the laboratory, and what could be easier than cockroaches, which are usually there to start with anyway.
     Howard Ensign Evans, Life on a Little Known Planet (updated edition)

 

Certain steps in evolution have a Borg-like quality.  For those of you who have just woken up from a decades-long coma or are for some other reason unfamiliar with Star Trek, the Borg is a fearsome entity that evolves by assimilating other species, incorporating their technology and culture into the Borg Collective.  The price for becoming part of the ever-growing perfection of the Borg is that you give up your individuality.  On Earth, complex cells were created by the assimilation of once separate, simpler life-forms whose abilities were added to those of the collective.  Resistance was futile.  We are the Borg.
     David Grinspoon, Lonely Planets:  The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life (2004)

 

Botany is not a science; it is the art of insulting flowers in Greek and Latin.
     Alphonse Karr

 

The important fact to recognize is that life did form in the galaxy at least once. I cannot overemphasize how important this is. Based on all our experience in science, nature rarely produces a phenomenon just once. We are a test case. The fact that we exist proves that the formation of life is possible. Once we know that life can originate here in the galaxy, the likelihood of it occurring elsewhere is vastly increased. (Of course, as some evolutionary biologists have argued, it need not develop an intelligence.)
     Lawrence M. Krauss, The Physics of Star Trek (1995)

 

Not too long ago the United States succeeded in landing on Mars an unmanned spacecraft, the chief purpose of which was to ascertain whether or not anyone lives there. The results are not all in yet but there is, I am afraid, little doubt that the answer will be in the affirmative. It is pointless to assume that the earth alone is afflicted with the phenomenon of life.
     Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life (1978)
     "Mars: Living in a Small Way"

 

The species of whale known as the black right whale has four kilos of brains and 1,000 kilos of testicles. If it thinks at all, we know what it is thinking about.
     Jon Lien

 

The universe was not pregnant with life for the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.
     Jacques Monod, Le Hasard et la nécessité (1970)

 

A mighty creature is the germ,
Though smaller than the pachyderm.
His customary dwelling place
Is deep within the human race.
His childish pride he often pleases
By giving people strange diseases.
Do you, my poppet, feel infirm?
You probably contain a germ.
     Ogden Nash, "The Germ"

 

The question of whether there is intelligent life out there depends, in the last analysis, upon how intelligent that life is.
     Bernard M. Oliver, "The Search for Extraterrestrial Life"
     (Engineering and Science, Dec 1974)

 

Incidentally, you will not find the tired word 'blueprint' in this book, after this paragraph, for three reasons. First, only architects and engineers use blueprints and even they are giving them up in the computer age, whereas we all use books. Second, blueprints are very bad analogies for genes. Blueprints are two-dimensional maps, not one-dimensional digital codes. Third, blueprints are too literal for genetics, because each part of a blueprint makes an equivalent part of the machine or building; each sentence of a recipe book does not make a different mouthful of cake.
     Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography
     of a Species in 23 Chapters (1999)

 

The truth is that nobody is in charge. It is the hardest thing for human beings to get used to, but the world is full of intricate, cleverly designed and interconnected systems that do not have control centres. The economy is such a system. The illusion that economies run better if somebody is put in charge of them — and decides what gets manufactured where and by whom — has done devastating harm to the wealth and health of people all over the world, not just in the former Soviet Union, but in the west as well. ... It is the same with the body. You are not a brain running a body by switching on hormones. Nor are you a body running a genome by switching on hormone receptors. Nor are you a genome running a brain by switching on genes that switch on hormones. You are all of these at once.
     Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography
     of a Species in 23 Chapters (1999)

 

This is the reality of genes for behaviour. Do you see now how unthreatening it is to talk of genetic influences over behaviour? How ridiculous to get carried away by one 'personality gene' among 500? How absurd to think that, even in a future brave new world, some-body might abort a foetus because one of its personality genes is not up to scratch — and take the risk that on the next conception she would produce a foetus in which two or three other genes were of a kind she does not desire? Do you see now how futile it would be to practise eugenic selection for certain genetic personalities, even if somebody had the power to do so? You would have to check each of 500 genes one by one, deciding in each case to reject those with the 'wrong' gene. At the end you would be left with nobody, not even if you started with a million candidates. We are all of us mutants. The best defence against designer babies is to find more genes and swamp people in too much knowledge.
     Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography
     of a Species in 23 Chapters (1999)

 

The human brain seems to be in a state of uneasy truce, with occasional skirmishes and rare battles. The existence of brain components with predispositions to certain behavior is not an invitation to fatalism or despair: we have substantial control over the relative importance of each component. Anatomy is not destiny, but it is not irrelevant either.
     Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations
     on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (1977)

 

The warfare between predator and prey extends to the plant kingdom as well. Plants load themselves with poisons to discourage animals from eating them. The animals evolve detoxification chemistry and special organs — the liver, most prominently — to keep pace with the plants. What we like about coffee, for example are the toxins that have evolved to deter insects and small mammals from consuming coffee beans. But we have sophisticated livers.
     Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors:
     A Search for Who We Are (1992)

 

Simpson's Rule of the Survival of the Relatively Unspecialized fits cyanobacteria to a tee. Suited to an amazingly wide range of habitats there was no need for them to ever change. Some experts claim that living fossils are simply champions at warding off extinction. If so, the Grand Champions, over all of geologic time, are hypobradytelic cyanobacteria!
     J. William Schopf, Cradle of Life: The Discovery
     of Earth's Earliest Fossils
(1999)

 

Llamas mate sitting down. That is probably reason enough to study them.
     Gamini Seneviratne

 

Until comparatively recently, many — probably most — biologists agreed with Darwin that the problem of the origin of life was not yet amenable to scientific study. Now, however, almost all biologists agree that the problem can be attacked scientifically. The consensus is that life did arise naturally from the nonliving and that even the first living things were not specially created.
     George Gaylord Simpson, This View of Life:
     The World of an Evolutionist (1964)

 

In some cases the initial hopes of scientists for a beautiful theory have turned out to be misplaced. A good example is provided by the genetic code. ... The genetic code is pretty much a mess; some amino acids are called for by more than one triplet of base pairs, and some triplets produce nothing at all. The genetic code is not as bad as a randomly chosen code, which suggest that it has been somewhat improved by evolution, but any communications engineer could design a better code. The reason of course is that the genetic code was not designed; it developed through a series of accidents at the beginning of life on earth and has been inherited in more or less this form by all subsequent organisms. Of course the genetic code is so important to us that we study it whether it is beautiful or not, but it is a little disappointing that it did not turn out to be beautiful.
     Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist's
     Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature (1993)