In response to:

In the Soup from the December 3, 2020 issue

To the Editors:

I enjoyed Tim Flannery’s review of The Genesis Quest by Michael Marshall [NYR, December 3, 2020], but find his concluding comments in one sense too optimistic and in another too pessimistic.

He is overoptimistic in drawing the conclusion that “we are on the brink of creating life from nonliving matter,” at least if he means creating it from prebioticly available components. There’s actually still no consensus on any of the fundamental questions, e.g., how the building blocks of RNA (the first carrier of heredity) formed, how they were joined together (the results with clay notwithstanding), how the building blocks of protein got strung together, and how RNA and protein wound up together inside membranous compartments. Nor is there agreement even on whether these steps came before or after a metabolic system somehow emerged to generate new parts. Most of the competing ideas proposed over the years are still on the table, and each camp continues to neglect the work of others. I know whereof I speak—I’ve been in the field for twelve years, go to all the major conferences, and try to follow the literature from all camps. (An outstanding, up-to-date overview of the origin-of-life field can be found in a series of “primer” talks organized by the Astrobiology division of NASA—available on YouTube.)

Flannery goes on to say that “there is something rather deflating about much of the science that has gotten us this far,” and that “the cumulative effect is to reduce our understanding of what life is to chemical interactions.” At one level, life is indeed reducible to a network of chemical reactions. For some of us (maybe mostly chemists), this perspective neatly unifies the animate and inanimate worlds. For everyone, it should enhance the sense that life is a remarkable phenomenon, for at least two reasons: (1) The particular set of reactions involved has a continuous history going back over 3.5 billion years. (2) These reactions are localized in an exquisitely organized structure. As noted above, we have virtually no understanding of how this organization emerged. It’s entirely possible that it arose only once in the whole universe. These observations should lift, not deflate, our appreciation of being here.

Roy A. Black
Affiliate Professor
Department of Chemistry and Bioengineering
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington