A treat in store

For years I've eagerly awaited new pieces of news in the publishing world: (1) an evolutionary biology book willing to grapple with the huge hole in our scientific approach to the origin of life, and (2) a new book from Nick Lane, who writes some of the best popularized science I've ever found. Imagine my delight to see an email teaser this morning for Nick Lane's new book, Transformer. I can't actually get a copy until at least July 12, but I found an excerpt from the first chapter, including this:
If there is a view from modern biology, it is that genetic information structures the flow of energy and materials. To a first approximation, biology is understood in terms of information networks and control systems. Even the laws of thermodynamics, which govern the behaviour of molecules and their interactions and reactions, can be recast in terms of information – Shannon entropy, the laws of bits of information. But this view generates its own paradox at the origin of life – where does all this information come from? Within the realm of biology, we already have a simple explanation: natural selection sifts through random differences, favouring what works, eliminating what doesn’t, generation after generation. Information accumulates with function over time. We can quibble over details, but there is no conceptual difficulty here. At the origin of life, though, this view will not do. Place information at the heart of life, and there is a problem with the emergence of function, which is to say, the origin of biological information. . . .
Thinking about life only in terms of information is distorting. Seeking new laws of physics to explain the origin of information is to ask the wrong question, which can’t be answered precisely because it is not meaningful. A far better question goes back to the formative years of biology: what processes animate cells and set them apart from inanimate matter? The idea that there is a vital force, that life is fundamentally different from inanimate matter, was disproved long ago and is now only wheeled out as a straw man to burn – even though it’s an understandable illusion for anyone who has shared van Leeuwenhoek’s captivation with busy animalcules. Yet biochemistry – my own discipline, which deals with the flow of energy and materials through cells – has, with a few notable exceptions, been blithely indifferent to how this unceasing flux might have arisen, or how its elemental imprint could still dictate the lives and deaths of cells today, along with the organisms they compose. You and me.


E Hines said...

But this view [of information networks...] generates its own paradox at the origin of life – where does all this information come from?

It's helpful in this context to define what information is. If information is "what works and improves 'understanding' of the situation or improves 'performance'," than all this information began as random events, most of which failed and some few of which succeeded--and the first bit of natural selection occurred. With all those failed random events, by teir failures, contributing to information networks. Even at the start. None of which obviates those random events--they continue; they're just not part of increasingly informational natural selection.

And there's the captcha with its Pick Three drill. Still no big deal.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

The 'first bit' is a problem, as this article explores:


douglas said...

That does sound interesting, Tex.

Grim, that Guardian article is actually pretty illustrative of how 'office' politics and egos drive a lot of science, and not for the better.

I found particularly odd the example of the Senegal Bichir for the idea of "Plasticity". Amphibious lungfish raised on land only had more developed bones and walked better than their counterparts raised in water? This suggests developmental species changes? It sounds to my much like comparing the skeletons of humans that weightlift and those that don't, and thinking there's a change in the species going on, when it's just stress development of physical components. I think too many scientists today don't give enough thought to potential observational or analytical biases in their work.