What is Life

A review of What is Life by Rob Mason

What is Life? is a book by Ed Regis: an American philosopher, educator and author who specializes in books and articles about science, philosophy and intelligence.  

What is life?: the question remains unanswered and the more technological telescoping we do, the more difficult it is to find a unifying theory for life.
Ed Regis emphasizes the work of Erwin Schrödinger who proposed in a 1944 paper that life’s spark is not a mystery but rather a knowable, even reproducible, phenomenon involving physics and chemistry.  The Austrian physicist helped spread the now-commonly held notion that life began with chemical reactions in a pre-biotic soup and produced a self-replicating and self-nourishing cell. To live you must do three things:

  • reproduce,
  • mutate,
  • and metabolize.

Self-replication is carried out by the genes encoded in every organism’s DNA. Mutation occurs as the entity adapts to the nastiness of its environment. Metabolism is the efficacious making, storing, and eating of food. All these actions happen in a cell which is inside a membrane which is in an environment, a highly cooperative-competitive relationship.

Chapter two explains how Schrodinger's book, What is Life,  has been a huge success and encouraged many geneticists on their careers including James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. Schrodinger challenges the the notion that at the core of life was a vital principle, that element is often referred to as the, "life force," "vital spark", "energy" or "élan vital", which some equate with the soul. Arthur Schopenhauer called it 'Will." Eastern traditions posited an imbalance or blocking of qi (or prana). However Schrodinger wanted to show, by relying on some recent findings in biology and physics, that life, albeit something special and indeed a unique phenomenon in nature, was nevertheless no more mysterious in principle than the inner workings of a windmill or alarm clock.

Schrodinger was one the first in the life sciences to announce that the gene was a message written in code.  The genes, he said, "contain in some kind of code-script the entire pattern of the individual's future development and of its functioning in the mature state.  Even today, the idea that the basis of life is a code, a language, is a radical notion. A gene or "the genes" are a segment of DNA that is passed down from parents to children and confers a trait to the offspring. Genes are organized and packaged in units called “chromosomes.” 

Although DNA contains vital information that gets passed on to each successive generation, its specific role is more of an information storage complex. RNA plays the principal role by acting as a messenger carrying instructions from DNA for controlling the synthesis of proteins.  Just like DNA, RNA (ribonucleic acid) is vital for living beings.  

All living organisms store genetic information using the same molecules — DNA and RNA. Written in the genetic code of these molecules is compelling evidence of the shared ancestry of all living things.
Marshall Warren Nirenberg (April 10, 1927 – January 15, 2010) was an American biochemist and geneticist. He shared a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968 with Har Gobind Khorana and Robert W. Holley for "breaking the genetic code" and describing how it operates in protein synthesis. As described in ‘What is Life’ :

  • That the genes were DNA
  • That the structure of the DNA molecule provided the physical basis for heredity
  • That the message expressed in DNA could be decoded by means of the correspondence between RNA and amino acids

These discoveries formed one of the great advances in the history of biology in that life and its processes could be understood and they could be understood rationally in terms of known science.

Chapter 5 is about the subject of metabolism and as Ed Regis points out, this subject is terra incognita to most people in terms of its technicalities.  Sure, we all have a vague idea of what it means: the chemical processing of food that occurs within a living organism in order to maintain life. However, Ed Regis explains that, “In general, metabolism is the process by which a human being maintains itself as a living entity.  It does this by bringing in raw materials from outside itself, reassorting their chemical constituents, breaking down certain molecular structures and building up others from their component molecules, thereby converting the foodstuffs into substances required for the persons continued existence, as well as for their energy supplies. Your metabolism is responsible for the fact that you could eat breakfast, wait awhile for it to “digest,” and then go out and jog five miles.

That metabolism could in fact be the biological essence of life was plausible in the sense that the body’s motion and activity, its incessant molecular reshuffling, all of its chemical getting and spending, depended upon the conversion of nutrients into energy.  When metabolism stopped, death ensued.”