By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Addy Pross
Narration by: Derek Perkins
The chemistry of life takes on new meaning in the book, “What is Life?”. Chemistry professor and author Addy Pross argues that two RNA strands meet in a primordial swamp, replicate themselves and, over time, create the complexity of life. Pross believes the origin of life can be explained and scientifically proven by “systems chemistry”. Pross chooses to classify his explanation as “ahistorical” for two reasons. One, it is historically and therefore scientifically impossible to recreate the environment of life’s origin. (This is a true statement of any historical event but particularly a history that goes back 4.5 billion years.) And two, there is no way of knowing the location of life’s beginnings. If one cannot recreate or locate, Pross chooses to speculate. In fairness, Pross supports his speculation with some chemical science experiments that reinforce his belief.
Pross uses some chemistry jargon but generally writes at a level understandable to us of the hoi polloi. Two essential requirements of life are cellular replication and metabolism. By replication, Pross means cellular ability to duplicate itself. By metabolism, Pross means cellular energy to catalyze and sustain duplication. Without those inherent qualities, life as we know it cannot exist.
Pross then offers a chemical theory of life. Pross argues that chemicals constitute the essential elements of life. Pross explains that chemicals come together and separate as cells, based on their stability. Stability can be thought of in two ways. One, water that turns into ice becomes highly stable as long as the temperature is below freezing. A second and more important kind of stability is illustrated by water in a river that changes every moment but remains a flowing river. Pross explains that animal cells are changing every moment; i.e. the animal of today is a different animal tomorrow because of cellular life and death brought on by perennial chemical interaction. Strong attraction of particular RNA strands create stability in cells that automatically replicate themselves. Weak attraction discounts cellular formation, stability, and replication. Those RNA strands that have strong attraction create an energy that automatically compels duplication.
Replication and metabolism become part of the same chemically actuated process. Pross refers to modern experiments with two RNA strands that interact in a way that both replicates and metabolizes to create a stable state of being. Pross argues that “life is a self-sustaining kinetically stable dynamic reaction network derived from the replication reaction”.
Pross introduces the subject of complexity. Through eons of time, this self-sustaining chemical reaction forms cells that are the building blocks of life. As each chemical reaction strengthens, a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest’ paradigm is activated. Based on using the same source of raw material, from which the chemical metabolic energy originates, weaker chemical combinations (cellular formations) become extinct while stronger chemical combinations become dominant. Richard Dawkins’ eternal genes are born.
Pross uses everyday examples to help explain a chemical theory of the origin of life. For a non-scientist, Pross artfully explains his belief in the origin of life. One might think–so what?
Pross is saying biology is merely a subset of chemistry. For one thing, his view of chemistry opens a field of research that offers a first stage event (two strands of a duplicating and metabolizing factoid) that could create artificial intelligence that competes with a life we think we know.
Whether it is correct or not remains for others to prove. Pross, like all adherents of science has his supporters and detractors. (For a critical analysis see Dutch biologist–Gert Korthof’s publication dated 10/6/14. http://wasdarwinwrong.com/korthof99.htm )