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Friday, October 2, 2015

Review of 'Life on the Edge' by McFadden and Al-Khalili

            The subtitle of this book is ‘The Coming Age of Quantum Biology.’  It is a book about science and I am particularly weak in my understanding of science.  Beyond that general disclaimer about me as a reader of science books, “Life on the Edge” is about the quantum realm and how it relates to biology.  The quantum realm is not fully understood, but where it is fully integrated in the conversation is physics, not biology.  I told a friend, a retire professor of biology at a major university, that I was reading a book on quantum biology.  A skeptical expression came over his face.  “Quantum biology?”  He asked.  My feeble efforts to summarize the book were unconvincing to him.
            So, that’s a couple of disclaimers.  I don’t understand science.  And I really don’t understand quantum science.  A third disclaimer is that I am a Christian pastor – a theist.  The authors make passing allusions to scripture.  There book is a science book, not a theology book.  But they cannot resist making theological assertions. 
            The first example comes on page 27.  They identify that prior to advancements in scientific knowledge, ancient people held that some kind of “vital force” or “spirit” animated nonliving things to make them alive.  “Vital forces” are terms the authors use.  Why they don’t just say “God,” I don’t know.  But that’s fine.  Here is what caught my eye on page 27.  They say, “We will [not] be claiming any kind of force, spirit, or magic ingredient animates life.  Our story is much more interesting than that.”  What?  I have heard scientists say that the only knowledge that is real knowledge is scientifically acquired knowledge.  This is the first time that beyond knowledge, I hear scientists claim expertise in the area of what is interesting. 
            So, just to summarize.  The authors assert that what they will discuss in their book, quantum theory as it relates to biology, is “much more interesting” than any type of theological contemplation.  And then they go on for over 300 pages of failure.  Because at the end, all they offer is a series of speculations that have not been proven nor gained widespread acceptance.  They say at the beginning, “It is worth remembering that even in this age of genetic engineering and synthetic biology, nothing living has ever been made by humans entirely from nonliving materials” (27). 
            The authors name as the biggest question in science as the question of how inert atoms and molecules found in rocks are transformed every day into running, jumping … living stuff.  That is the big question.  They also say, it has not happened, not by human efforts.  It has happened either by natural selection, a random process with no intentionality.  Or, it has happened by God’s intervention.  But real scientists aren’t allowed to point to God.
            By the way, I agree with that.  Once God is named as a cause, then something is happening and describing this happening is beyond what science is equipped to do.  Once God is an effective participant in the story, the story is beyond science.  Why that leads scientists to disregard God as if God doesn’t exist, I don’t know.  When they do that, they put all their trust, their faith if you will, in the scientific process of acquiring knowledge and understanding.  Natural Selection is the biologist’s god, not to be questioned, doubted, or challenged.  There is no question that cannot be answered by appealing to the evolutionary process that stands on the random process of natural selection.
            I am no young earth creationist.  I accept the evidence of a universe that is billions and billions of years old and the planet earth that is 4.5 billion years old.  I accept that living things are descended from common, simpler ancestors.  I have many scientist friends who over and over tell me this narrative is rock solid and the ground on which much of science stands.  My only problem with it all is when I hear a biologist describe it.  I find it very unconvincing. 
            The authors of “Life on the Edge” took their crack at describing the very beginning of life on earth in chapter 9.  What they share there is a narrative chalk-full of guesses and faith statements.  However, because that faith resides in a scientific milieu, it is not named and branded as such.  One thing that is clear to me after reading that chapter, something the authors would not want me to think, is this.  Life cannot happen without intention.  No undirected process will bring a nonliving thing to life, not even at the microscopic level, not even if we explain the event in terms of the quantum realm.  The authors are proposing just the opposite of what I just wrote.  But, I read the chapter closely.  There is no way, unless there is some evidence these two expert biologists do know, that life can come about through natural selection.  Natural selection is a survival process.  Prior to the first living thing being the first living thing, who or what is trying to survive.  And of course they end the chapter by saying everything they have just said is “highly speculative” (p.288).

            In the end, I find the book at many points difficult.  But that is my problem.  I have trouble understanding science most of the time.  The book is very interesting.  I might even say it is compelling.  But it is not convincing.  I cannot imagine a scientist, especially a biologist, reading this and thinking they’d want to consider the possibilities of quantum biology.  I am nonscientist, so I might be thoroughly misreading at that level.  At my level, I don’t find any of the ideas presented powerful enough to sway my thinking.  I am glad I read the book and I might recommend it to others.  But I nothing in my mind is affected by the argument made here.  

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