A new book challenges the gene-centric view of life by placing energy back at the centre of the story. It has some of the freshness and originality of "The Selfish Gene," but don't expect an easy readby Oliver Morton / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
After the depredations of Douglas Adams and Monty Python, it is a surprise that anyone can write about the meaning of life with a straight face these days. Life is not, after all, the sort of thing that has a meaning, any more than gravity or time does. Words have meanings, stories have meanings, and as humans are creatures of narrative our individual lives, too, can have meanings gleaned from or thrust upon them. It is hard, though, for any non-religious person to see life in general as a thing that should have a meaning, any more than it is easily seen as something that might have a colour or a scent. Meaning must surely rest upon an intention to communicate, and uncreated life lacks such intentions.
That said, there are meanings in life. When the structure of DNA was discovered, it was clear that the sequence of bases that tied the long molecules into double helices could have a meaning: it could define the sequence of amino acids in a protein. Ever since, life as revealed by molecular biology has been seen largely in terms of information—its storage, replication and translation into physical forms. And this has also tended to mask the fact that life, as well as being concerned with information, is also—and just as fundamentally—concerned with energy, its acquisition and its conversion into useful forms.
In part, this is because it is easier and more appealing to talk about the meanings of genes than the importance of energy transduction systems. Genes sound like graspable things—peas on an abacus of heredity—and come with a convenient infinite-staircase icon. And their nature and disposition matter to us. A gene is, in the phrase with which Gregory Bateson once defined the concept of information, a difference that makes a difference. As a result, it has been relatively easy for a popular science culture to arise in which all that is ever said about the wonders of modern biology is couched in the language of genes. Genes, depositories of meaning within life, become mistaken for the great meaning that isn’t there.
Nick Lane’s magnificent new book Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life acts, in part, as an antidote to the gene-centric view of life in which much biology and a great deal of its transmission to the public is entangled. Cells convert the energy they take in from…