That’s Life

The Origins of Life

by J.D. Bernal
World, 345 pp., $12.50

I suppose that nowadays most people accept, as so obvious that it hardly requires a second thought, the final dethroning of man from the position of focus and summit of the universe, which he for so long, and so confidently, had given himself. We would hardly raise an eyebrow were we to find a new series of books on “The World Natural History,” including among its early volumes a long and quite detailed study on the natural history of the Garden of Eden. Of course, this climate of thought is astonishingly recent. Until a very few decades ago the scientific view of life was completely dominated by the denial that living systems could spontaneously arise from non-living ones. Indeed it would have been claimed that Pasteur had experimentally disproved the possibility of spontaneous generation. He kept a nutritive broth in conditions in which no external living agents could get access to it, and he showed that nothing living appeared within it; hence he concluded that life could not arise spontaneously. Pasteur was of course looking for something obviously recognizable as alive, such as a bacterium or yeast. As the search for the origin of life has gone deeper, we have had to ask more penetrating questions about what is and what is not alive. I shall argue that these are some of the most important issues raised by the book under review.

In the older, “classical,” view life remained a basically mysterious ingredient in nature. Apart from any questions of how living things in their more complex manifestations could be understood, how could one suppose that life appeared in the natural world in the first place? We might suggest that living things reached this earth by traveling through space from other parts of the universe, perhaps as spores or some other resistant particles; but this only shifts the problem of origin geographically to another place, without doing anything to solve it. We are left with nothing more to say than that life is some sort of freak—possibly one produced by God, which we might dignify with the name “special creation,” or possibly just the result of some excessively improbable concatenation of natural events, which occurred for no better reason than that, if enough time goes by, the most unlikely things will happen. In any case, life remains something very, very special.

In the late Twenties and early Thirties the basic thinking was done which led to the view that saw life as a natural and perhaps even inevitable development from the non-living physical world. Future students of the history of ideas are likely to take note that this new view, which amounts to nothing less than a great revolution in man’s philosophical outlook on his own position in the natural world, were first developed by Communists. Oparin of Moscow, in 1924, and J.B.S. Haldane, of Cambridge, England, in 1929, independently argued that recent advances in geochemistry suggested that the conditions on the surface of the primitive …

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