Life: The Unfinished Experiment
The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology-Watcher
Nobody can accuse the great pioneers of molecular biology of being mere Ivory Tower specialists, unwilling to emerge from their laboratories to tell us their thoughts about the general significance of the advances in our understanding of living systems which their work has brought about. Salvador Luria, who in 1969 shared a Nobel Prize for his part in “The Virus Group” which laid so many of the foundations of molecular biology, is the latest in a line that includes Francis Crick, James Watson, Jacques Monod, and François Jacob. In a review of the books of the last two, I distinguished between “hard-line” and “soft-line” biologists. Monod, I suggested, belongs to the former type, Jacob tends toward the latter. Both are, of course, “materialists” in some sense of that obscure word, but the hard-liners give the impression that it is enough to say that “life is a molecule is a molecule is a machine”; the soft-liners sometimes allow themselves to express a certain hesitancy in the face of questions about such aspects of biology as evolution and goal-seeking behavior, let alone about such topics as values or the mind.
The merit of Luria’s book is that he leans sufficiently toward the soft end of the spectrum to feel called upon to approach the major problems of general biology in a more open-minded manner than the hard-liners find necessary. One has only to read a few pages to get the impression that the author is well read, civilized, sincere, inquiring, neither cocksure nor doctrinaire; a thoroughly nice guy. But the core of any criticism there can be of the book is that it is perhaps a bit too nice to be really good. After all, that title: “Life: The Unfinished Experiment”? A trifle inspirational perhaps, though not nauseatingly so. But is life an experiment? An experiment is designed by someone to answer some question. That isn’t what Luria means about life; he really thinks of it as a happening. For instance we find: “As recently as the turn of the twentieth century…the Western world expected a continuous if uneven transition to an era of peaceful progress. Two world wars and several genocides later mankind stands appalled at the capacity for mischief that has been developed.” Capacity for mischief—I ask you!
Of course such verbal infelicities are trivial compared to the serious points of Luria’s discussion. He brings out clearly many of the more recent insights into the nature of living things, which go beyond the orthodoxies of thirty years ago. For instance, he realizes that life must be discussed in terms which imply that activity is essential. It has been conventional to speak of life as a system of handling “information,” that word being used in the technical sense in which it means a measure of the difference between things. Luria states that “life is distinct from all other natural phenomena in one feature; it has a program.” And a program is a set of instructions to …
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