1993-08-08: Life Itself

Life Itself

Its Origin and Nature (1981)

by Francis Crick (-)

This book gives an overview of the origin of life, particularly the genetic code found in almost all living things on Earth.  It also presents a description of Crick’s theory of Directed Panspermia (seeds everywhere) which supposes that life originated elsewhere, and was deliberately seeded across the cosmos.

The description of the replication processes of life is somewhat interesting, though with many false analogies to illustrate what it is not.  This made the book seem poorly written, or edited.  The panspermia argument seems weak and unconvincing; even Crick doesn’t seem convinced.

Nonetheless, there are some nuggets.  In chapter 1, “Times and Distances, Large and Small” he has some remarks about the size of the universe:

To me it is remarkable that this astonishing discovery, the vastness and emptiness of space, has not attracted the imaginative attention of poets and religious thinkers.  People are happy to contemplate the limitless power of God – a doubtful proposition at best – but quite unwilling to meditate creatively on the size of this extraordinary universe in which, through no virtue of their own, they find themselves.  Naively one might have thought that both poets and priests would be so utterly astonished by these scientific revelations that they would be working with a white-hot fury to try to embody them in the foundation of our culture.  The psalmist who said, “When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou has ordained; what is man, that Thou art mindful of him?…” was at least trying, within the limitations of his beliefs, to express his wonder at the universe visible to the naked eye and the pettiness of man by comparison.  And yet his universe was a small, almost cozy affair compared to the one modern science has revealed to us.  It is almost as if the utter insignificance of the earth and the thin film of its biosphere has totally paralyzed the imagination, as if it were too dreadful to contemplate and therefore best ignored.

In chapter 15, “Why Should We Care?” he has some remarks about Western culture (responding to some hypothetical criticism):

I would base my position on the very remarkable situation in which the human race finds itself after five or ten thousand years of civilization.  The Western culture in which most living scientists were raised was originally based on a well-constructed set of religious and philosophical beliefs.  Among these we may include the idea that the earth was the center of the universe and that the time since the creation was relatively short; the belief in an irreducible distinction between soul and matter; and the likelihood, if not certainty, of a life after death.  These were combined with an excessive reliance on the alleged doctrines of certain historical figures, such as Moses, Jesus Christ and Muhammad.

Now, the remarkable thing about Western civilization, looked at in the broad sense, is that while the residue of many of these beliefs are still held by many people, most modern scientists do not subscribe to any of them.  Instead, they have a quite different set of ideas underlying their view of life: the size and general nature of the universe; the reality of evolution and the importance of natural selection; the chemical basis of life and in particular the nature of the genetic material; and many others.  Some of these theories have the names of scientific “prophets” associated with them, such as Newton, Darwin and Einstein.  These men are held in high regard, yet their ideas are not regarded as beyond criticism, nor are their lives considered to be especially praiseworthy; it is their works that are valued.

A modern scientist, if he is perceptive enough, often has the strange feeling that he must be living in another culture.  He knows so much and yet he is acutely aware of how much remains to be discovered.  he feels keenly that we need to understand the profound mysteries and also that with time, effort and imagination we can do so.  This gives a feeling of great urgency to his quest, especially as he is not ready to accept uncritically traditional answers which lack scientific support.

While there is little active hostility to his point of view – creationists are a nuisance, but so far only a minor one – he is nevertheless puzzled by the response to his work.  A considerable fraction of the public shows a keen interest in the discoveries of modern science, so that he is frequently requested to give lectures, write articles, appear on TV and so on.  Yet even among those who are interested in science – and many people are indifferent or somewhat hostile – it seems to make very little difference to their general view of life.  Either they cling to outmoded religious beliefs, putting science into a totally distinct compartment of their minds, or they absorb the science superficially and happily combine it with very doubtful ideas, such as extrasensory perception, fortune-telling and communication with the dead.  The remark, “Scientists don’t know everything,” usually identifies such persons.  Scientists are painfully aware that they don’t know everything, but they think they can often recognize nonsense when they come across it.

It is only in the last ten years that people have recognized many implications of the idea that man is a biological animal who has evolved largely by natural selection.  Even now very few professors of ethics approach their subject from this point of view.  Hardly anyone, observing the massive attachment of the public to organized sport, asks himself why so many people behave in this strange way, and even fewer wonder whether the widespread enthusiasm for football is perhaps partly a result of the many generations our ancestors spent in tribal warfare.

The plain fact is that the myths of yesterday, which our forebears regarded not as myths but as the living truth, have collapsed, and while we are uncertain whether we can successfully use any of the remaining fragments, they are too rickety to stand as an organized interlocking body of beliefs.  Yet most of the public seems blissfully unaware of all this, as can be seen the enthusiastic welcome given to the Pope wherever he travels.

Of course, many modern philosophers have accepted this general position, but the majority of them seem so devastated by the collapse of the old beliefs that they exude nothing but a rather dismal pessimism.  Only scientists seem to have grasped the nettle.  This is mainly because they are buoyed up by the tremendous advance of science, especially in the last hundred years.  While a scientist is sobered by the economic and political problems he sees all around him, he is possessed of an almost boundless optimism concerning his ability to forge a wholly new set of beliefs, solidly based on both theory and experiment, by a careful study of the world surrounding him and, ultimately, of himself and other human beings.  Only someone actively groping with the intricacies of the brain can realize just how far we have to go in some of these problems, but even in that case the feeling is that within a few generations we shall have got to the heart of the matter.

It is against this background that we must approach the origin of life.  We then see that it is indeed one of the great mysteries which confront us as we try to discover just how the universe is constructed and, in particular, to locate our own place in it.  It ranks with the other major questions, many of them first clearly formulated by the Greeks: the nature of matter and light, the origin of the universe, the origin of man and the nature of consciousness and the “soul”.  To show no interest in these topics is to be truly uneducated, especially as we now have a very real hope of answering them in ways which would have been regarded as miraculous even as recently as Shakespeare’s time.

Crick, in these remarks, reveals a lot about himself, and also points out a major division in modern culture: the attitude toward science.  He rightly shows that it is not integrated in a coherent set of beliefs for most people.  On the other hand, he evidently feels it ought to be, but offers no program to accomplish this.

My position is that people should be left to their own beliefs as much as possible; cultural pluralism should go this far.  However, such beliefs should be combined with tolerance and an ethics that can be broadly accepted, and independently justified for each person’s belief set.  Cultural pluralism must not include intolerance or active persecution.  Attitudes can’t be enforced, but behavior can and ought to be.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email