Synopsis Of The Second Chapter Of Signature In The Cell by Stephen Meyer
ISBN: 9780061894206; ISBN10: 0061894206; HarperOne
When the 19th century chemist Friedrich Wohler synthesized urea in the lab using simple chemistry, he set in motion the ball that would ultimately knock down the then-pervasive ‘Vitalistic’ view of biology. Life’s chemistry, rather than being bound by immaterial ‘vital forces’ could indeed by artificially made. While Charles Darwin offered little insight on how life originated, several key scientists would later jump on Wohler’s ‘Eureka’-style discovery through public proclamations of their own ‘origin of life’ theories. The ensuing materialist view was espoused by the likes of Ernst Haeckel and Rudolf Virchow who built their own theoretical suppositions on Wohler’s triumph. Meyer summed up the logic of the day
“If organic matter could be formed in the laboratory by combining two inorganic chemical compounds then perhaps organic matter could have formed the same way in nature in the distant past” (p.40)
Darwin’s theory generated the much-needed fodder to ‘extend’ evolution backward’ to the origin of life. It was believed that “chemicals could “morph” into cells, just as one species could “morph” into another “ (p.43). Appealing to the apparent simplicity of the cell, late 19th century biologists assured the scientific establishment that they had a firm grasp of the ‘facts’- cells were, in their eyes, nothing more than balls of protoplasmic soup. Haeckel and British scientist Thomas Huxley were the ones who set the protoplasmic theory in full swing. While the details expounded by each man differed somewhat, the underlying tone was the same- the essence of life was simple and thereby easily attainable through a basic set of chemical reactions.
Things changed in the 1890s. With the discovery of cellular enzymes the complexity of the cell’s inner workings became all too apparent and a new theory that no longer relied on an overly simplistic protoplasm-style foundation, albeit one still bounded by materialism, had to be devised. Several decades later, finding himself in the throws of a Marxist socio-political upheaval within his own country, Russian biologist Aleksandr Oparin became the man for the task.
Oparin developed a neat scheme of inter-related processes involving the extrusion of heavy metals from the earth’s core and the accumulation of atmospheric reactive gases all of which, he claimed, could eventually lead to the making of life’s building blocks- the amino acids. He extended his scenario further, appealing to Darwinian natural selection as a way through which functional proteins could progressively come into existence. But the ‘tour de force’ in Oparin’s outline came in the shape of coacervates- small, fat-containing spheroids which, Oparin proposed, might model the formation of the first ‘protocell’.
Oparin’s neat scheme would in the 1940s and 1950s provide the impetus for a host of prebiotic synthesis experiments, most famous of which was that of Harold Urey and Stanley Miller who used a spark discharge apparatus to make the three amino acids- glycine, alpha-alanine and beta-alanine. With little more than a few gases (ammonia, methane and hydrogen), water, a closed container and an electrical spark Urey and Miller had seemingly provided the missing link for an evolutionary chain of events that now extended as far back as the dawn of life. And yet as Meyer concludes, the information revolution that followed the elucidation of the structure of DNA would eventually shake the underlying materialistic bedrock.
Meyer’s historical overview of the key events that shaped origin-of-life biology is extremely readable and well illustrated. Both the style and the content of his discourse keep the reader focused on the ID thread of reasoning that he gradually develops throughout his book.