Science in Christian Perspective



Table of Contents
The Physical Foundation of Biology. Walter M. Elsasser. Pergamon Press, New York, 1958. 219 pp. $4.75.
"How Life Began. Irving Adler. New American Library (A Signet Key Book), New York, 1959. Paperbound, 128 PP. 35c.

The Physical Foundation of Biology. Walter M. Elsasser. Pergamon Press, New York, 1958. 219 pp. $4.75.

Reviewed by W. R. Hearn, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Iowa State College.

It is no longer considered unusual for a physicist to write a book on biology, so this book is not unusual from that standpoint. The author is Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of California at La Jolla. His approach is entirely theoretical, start ing -with an analysis of, automota ("robots"), communication devices, and computing machines as pure mechanisms, and arguing for a non-mechanistic theory of biological systems primarily on the basis that living organisms do not appear to contain structures for information storage analogous to those of mechanical computers. He introduces the term "biotonic" for laws governing life processes which include but gD beyond the mechanistic, statistical laws of physical cbemistry. He rejects the cruder vitalism of the past md insists that there is no reason whatever to deny the validity of the laws of quantum mechanics in orgaisms; but at the very beginning he announces that he intends to reopen the old preformationist-epigeneticist controversy (See Chapter 2 of R. E. D. Clark's Darwin: Before and After for a brief history) on a highly sophisticated plane, and, surprisingly, that he is casting his lot with the more vitalistic epigeneticist. That is, he does not believe that the total complexity of the adult organism is "coded" mechanically in any structure within the fertilized ovum which gives rise to it.

It is difficult to decide whether or not the author has adequately justified his thesis. In the first place, the book is more electronic engineering than biology, and although the treatment is non-mathematical, the unfamiliar terminology makes the going rather slow for a biochemist or biologist. The author seems aware of this and defines and illustrates each new term carefully, but the style is ponderous and tedious-resembling that of a lawyer laboring to build a case before a jury rather than a scientific exposition. "We shall now turn to . . . ", "As indicated in the last chapter . . . ", "These questions will not be considered in detail at this time, but will be gone into later . . . ", or equivalent expressions are in such profusion as to be distracting from the argument itself.

The author omitted almost entirely any discussion of biochemistry, partly on the grounds that the specific details of metabolism are of no significance for a purely theoretical biology. This seems regrettable and may have led to some unwarranted conclusions On p. 10 he argues against the likelihood of chemical structures being used for information storage in the cell because in Zlivo experiments show that the amino acids of protein molecules are exchanged or "turn over" at a definite rate, so the protein would therefore be subject to the degradation of its information content by random disturbances analogous to "noise". But one of the outstanding- chaacteristics of the DNA of cell nuclei is that it does not seem to turn over once it has been formed-and it is the DNA that most biochemists consider to be the transmitter of hereditary information in reproduction. Of course, Elsasser's argument that there is not room enough for all the necessary information in macromolecules might be valid anyway. Also, on page 124, the experimental basis for a one-to-one correspondence between genes and enzymes is actually much stronger than the author implies. It is more difficult for a biochemist to evaluate the arguments about the non-storage of information in the brain, which are acknowledged as being derived from Henri Bergson and to which much of the book is devoted. The point seems to be that the brain does not function as a highly complex computer with a memory device and a scanner to handle mechanically stored information, but functions on an entirely different principle involving reverberating sequences of pulses in an immense number of interconnecting circuits.

Anyone who defends a mechanistic view of biological phenomena should be willing to take this book seriously as a criticism of that point of view. A mechanist does not deny that life is different from non-life or that man is different from animals-he merely refuses to assume at the outset that the difference will be found to be non-physical; a vitalist does make such an assumption, but Elsasser is not a vitalist in this sense. He claims to have begun as a mechanist, pushed mechanism to its limits, and then found it inadequate for living systems, particularly for a system as complex for its size as the human brain. After all, the brain contains 1010 neurons, while the most complex electronic computers of the foreseeable future will hardly have a number of elementary components greater than 106 and they will have to be very huge indeed! In thinking about the relationship of this kind of vitalism to mechanism, the author's analogy is helpful: organismic (biotonic) dynamics may be to mechanistic process roughly as quantum mechanics is to classical physics.

To the non-physicists planning to read this book, you will probably get more out of it if you have first read something like Schrodinger's little What Is Lifef, Gamow's chapter on "Brainy Stuff" in Mr. Tompkins Learns the Facts of Life, or John R. Picrce's Electrons, Waves ' and Messages. And to you physicists who plan to write another book on biology, may I humbly suggest that you take a good look at biochemistry first ?


 "How Life Began. Irving Adler. New American Library (A Signet Key Book), New York, 1959. Paperbound, 128 PP. 35c.

Reviewed by W. R. Hearn, Assistant Professor of Chemistrv, Iowa State College.

This reprint of an original hardcover edition published by the John Day Company in 1957 is a popular treatment of the nature and origin of life written for young people with little or no background in science. It presents a strictly mechanistic concept of the origin of life and also of early descriptions of the origin of life: thus the creation story in Genesis is grouped with the folk myths of Eskimos and Egyptians in which primitive man, a potter who made little animal and human statues as well as bowls and jugs, reasoned that the gods must have molded animals and men out of clay and then given them life by blowing breath into them. I suspect that this book will be distasteful to many A.S.A. members, and I confess that I read it through critically in a single evening, trying to find fault. However, I found the author's treatment to be in excellent scientific taste, and if I was disappointed at the beginning that no leeway was left for a teleological alternative I was also very pleased to see that the usual false "teleology-based-on-science" was left out at the end of the book. The only unrealistic statement of this type I found crept in on the last page after mention of the possibility of making artificial photosynthesizing systems: "Unlimited factory production of food would banish hunger forever." Who believes that when we already have food surpluses in this country and yet there are hungry people around the world?

I found Adler's selection of simplifications for scientific terminology generally good, as in "food makers and food takers" for autotrophs and heterotrophs, and "electron losers and electron snatchers" for reductants and oxidants (although I can't say much for "hydrogen's extra little hook" as an explanation for the formation of hydrogen bonds). After two short chapters introducing the world of living things, the story is interrupted with two chapters of fundamental chemistry (with explanations of structural formulas for organic compounds), and then the author bravely dives into the most complicated biochemical systems and their role in the origin of life. It seems quite remarkable that the young reader is effectively led in so few pages from a definition of molecules to a description of the path of carbon in photosynthesis!

I In the actual presentation of scientific views of the origin of life the difference between speculation and established fact is not always clearly pointed out, but I thought the overall picture was accurately presented. A certain amount of misleading over-simplification is probably unavoidable in scientific popularizing ("So much has been learned about viruses that in 1956 chemists even succeeded in making one."), but on the whole seemed to be rather carefully excluded from this book. The brief preface commending the book to young people to give them a better understanding of the world in which they live was written by Linus Pauling.

Is this a dangerous book for Christian young people to read? It probably is if it serves as their first contact with science! If we are not willing to prepare our young people to face scientific descriptions of the world by teaching them that such descriptions are necessary and valid but also necessarily incomplete, we will reap an increasing harvest of intellectual schizophrenia among them. We can no longer try to hide science from them or to deprecate it, but instead must help them to evaluate it from the viewpoint of their Christian philosophy. Adler's book is an honest one, and in being strictly mechanistic it shows all the barrenness as well as the fruitfulness of a mechanistic view of life. If science has rejected the idea of purpose and design in living things as a primitive anthropomorphism (page 11), does this mean that there is no purpose in life? Or does it merely mean that one must look elsewhere than in science to find that purpose? And how do we know that "the accidental mixing and combining of chemicals in the primitive sea" was really accidental? Accidental from our point of view? If so, then here is anthropomorphism no more sophisticated than that of Adler's primitive potter!

This is another book that convinces me that the A.S.A. has a real job to do in helping to make a Christian view of science a real part of Christian education, in local churches as well as in Christian colleges. Perhaps one of the most important things for us to do is to produce books on Christian philosophy for our young people, as well written as this one, and to make them as available.