During my recent sojourn into the wilderness, I took advantage of the opportunities provided by several days of inclement weather to catch up on reading a book by science journalist and Yale professor, Carl Zimmer, entitled “Life’s Edge.” Several of my recent encounters with the natural world have brought the title of his book vividly to mind, and over the summer I began to consider putting together a video presentation centered on the theme of being on the “edges” of life. Zimmer’s book is subtitled, “The Search For What It Means To Be Alive,” and over the four major sections, within some twenty separate chapters, he delves into numerous areas of scientific study, all in the service of trying to address this important topic.
Each chapter tells a different story about the many ways in which one might approach the idea of “being alive,” by delving into the boundary conditions experienced by multiple living creatures and various biological phenomena, along with the efforts of prominent scientists working to explain the functions and importance of everything from the extraordinary nature of ordinary kelp cells, through the development of embryos; from the physical basis of life as we understand it currently to fascinating stories about the hidden life of trees; from the basics of DNA to the nature of consciousness.
The video is still in the works and has proven to be a bit more challenging than expected, so in the meantime, I decided to post a portion of the writing which took place during the deluge we experienced at the beginning of the trip, since it deals with a very specific point of interest for me personally, dealing with the boundary conditions for the development of all life on the primordial Earth.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with modern science is likely aware of the essential role of DNA and RNA in all life on this planet, as well as the progress made in describing the human genome. The full range of genetic structures that compose human life also infer a genomic role for the same structures and functions in every form of life and every living organism. All life on Earth ultimately developed along its many branches as a result of some genomic architecture which produced the stunning variety of life forms previously and currently occupying their particular niche in the ecosystems and regions specific to those forms.
Every living entity past and present shares the hallmarks of genetic structures, which ultimately owe their existence to a common ancestral and archaic microscopic heritage, from the earliest single-celled organisms to the multifarious sort which sprang up and passed away over hundreds of millions of years of evolution. While we truly still have only a vague understanding of precisely how life began, since it does exist today, and since there are innumerable indications in the fossil records of life forms that no longer exist or which endured through the various changes that occurred over centuries, we must suppose that, at some point, the conditions and resources necessary for constructing biological life existed in some form, and came together somehow to get the wheels of evolution turning, which resulted in a direct lineage to the earliest life forms.
Reverse engineering can be useful in figuring out how a device was made and may even give some indication of the process required; examining the progression of cosmological phenomena at different stages of development can give us insights into how the universe began and unfolded over billions of years, but the development of sentient life on Earth presses us to understand a great deal more than simple biology and chemistry, as well as the forces which shaped our own evolution as physical creatures.
Why would and how could sentience emerge from those earliest of microscopic life forms which first appeared on the primordial Earth? What possible forces or energies drove evolving life in its most humble and simple forms to eventually increase in complexity to the point where the developing conditions on ancient Earth became sufficiently advantageous for the survival of our predecessors and fellow living creatures?
There is still so much we do not truly and fully understand about these aspects of our current existence, and so much that is still uncertain about the future prospects for all life forms here, that devoting more of our attention and resources to the task of achieving a greater understanding should be a priority for the great minds of our time.
Zimmer takes on these questions and more in his fascinating explorations of his own ideas, as well as those of many other prominent and not so prominent scientists and researchers in a variety of disciplines. The first section of the book carries the title, “The Borderland,” in which the professor describes the early efforts of scientists studying radioactive components and radiation generally, trying to understand its effects. Several times they made incorrect assumptions about the nature of radioactive materials, as was the case with Marie Curie, who suffered terribly as a result of not knowing how detrimental exposure to them would become. The “borderlands” exist in every aspect of life, and promoting the unencumbered search for answers, expanding that search to the fullest scope within the realm of possibility seems urgent to me.
I highly recommend “Life’s Edge,” to anyone with an interest in “what it means to be alive,” and whose curiosity about life’s edges prompts them to ponder the questions about how it all came to be.