Review: Life’s Edge

Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive, Carl Zimmer. New York: Dutton, (forthcoming) 3/9/2021.

Summary: An exploration of how scientists attempt (and have failed) to define what life is and the quest to understand how life arose.

Philosophers talk about the meaning of life. Carl Zimmer offers us a glimpse into the world of scientists who are trying to define what is life. What is the definition of life and when can something be defined as alive? What about particles like viruses and prions that appear dead until they interact with other living matter? And how did life originate here, and has it in other places in our solar system and beyond?

Zimmer takes us on an exploratory tour of this question that begins in the Cavendish Laboratory in 1904 with John Butler Burke who believed he had created the missing link between inorganic and organic life when he released grains of radium into a sterile broth and discovered under a microscope that shapes were there and were dividing. He called them radiobes and he believed that the radium provided the “vital flux” to turn the constituent elements into blobs of protoplasm. Eventually, he was disproven by other scientists after enjoying fleeting fame.

Zimmer takes us through the history of research on life from van Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries of microscopic life, to the growth of neural networks in laboratories. We go with him to pools near the mouths of volcanoes where some think organic life developed to discussions with researchers studying vents in the ocean. We enter caves to learn of the homeostatic relationship between hibernating bats and parasites who live off them and can kill them if they draw too much energy from the bat. We read of research demonstrating the lifelessness of soil samples on Mars and a meteorite from Mars that may evidence signs of life. I learned that red blood cells have no chromosomes and cannot divide and multiply like other cells.

Zimmer recounts the efforts of scientists to re-create the conditions under which they think life arose, whether it is in forming a strand of RNA or figuring out how to form a lipid membrane of the sort that surrounds every cell. Some scientists believe that the constituents of life have to come together fast, within 10,000 hours, because of the entropic forces that would destroy the constituents. That leads some to believe that they will achieve this in the next ten years.

In the end, he comes back to the question of the definition of life, cataloging the many scientists have proposed. He introduces us to Carol Cleland, a philosopher of science who thinks the whole enterprise is flawed and that what is needed is not a definition of life but a theory of life that helps us understand what life is.

As one reads Zimmer’s account, one realizes what is so fascinating in this quest to understand life and how it is possible. Zimmer introduces us to so many forms of life and the wonder of a planet teaming with life from microbes to every other form of life including ourselves. Some religious believers dismiss this whole quest to understand life and its origins with a wave of the hand saying, “God did it.” I’m not so quick to dismiss these quests. I realize some see nothing beyond the physical reality. Others, and I include myself here, would recognize in every scientific discovery the wonders and wisdom of God. If someone replicates the physical processes by which life arose, I will be delighted rather than distraught. My faith doesn’t rest on the gaps in our knowledge remaining gaps.

Zimmer gives us a glimpse at the reality of science. He shows us both the amazing things we are learning about the world, and the questions that remain, some on which multiple generations of scientists will work. He shows us the mistakes, and the ways that continued research and the rigorous peer review processes of science correct those mistakes. He shows us the big questions and what we still don’t know. This is great science writing!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Is There Purpose in Biology?

is there purpose in biology

Is There Purpose in Biology?Denis Alexander. Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the idea purpose in biology, the association of purposelessness with the randomness and chance of evolution and whether this is warranted, and how a Christian perspective may both be consistent with what may be observed, and how Christian theology may deal with questions of pain and suffering in evolutionary processes.

One of the common conclusions advanced with the support of evolutionary theory is that there is no inherent purpose evident in the natural world. Much of this is predicated on a process in which life arises through chance and randomness, and that any apparent purpose is illusory.

Denis Alexander, a researcher in biochemistry and Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, argues in this book that this is not necessarily a warranted conclusion. First, though he is careful to distinguish between Purpose and purpose. He will not be trying to show evidence of metaphysical Purpose in biology, but that the processes of evolution do evidence purpose in the sense that outcomes were not strictly random, either at a genetic or macro level, but are constrained in certain directions consistent with “purpose.”

Chapter 1 begins with a survey of the use of the language of Purpose and purpose in biology through history from the Greeks up through the beginnings of science, and the subsequent denial of purpose as the theory of evolution became established. Then chapters 2 through 4 get “into the weeds” of evolutionary science.

Chapter 2 argues that the direction of evolution toward increasing complexity over time may be reflective of purpose and also that body size and plan is subject to “allometric scaling” and cannot simply occur in any form or size. Convergence where different species in different lines under similar conditions evolve similar structures, is another example of this. Chapter 3 observes that similar constraints exist at the molecular level. Chapter 4 then looks at the genetic level, and the idea of random mutations. It turns out that mutations are not purely random but seem to occur at particular places on chromosomes. Likewise, forces of natural selection are not random, but also constrain outcomes in certain directions. These chapters are fairly technical, but offer a good glimpse of the current state of the discussions in evolutionary biology, as opposed to popular caricatures.

In chapter 5, Alexander shifts to theological discussion. He recognizes that in practice, people do introduce discussions of Purpose that reflect their worldviews. What he does is articulate an understanding of “top down” creation at work through evolutionary processes–not in the “gaps” but throughout, a version of theistic evolution. A significant aspect of this has to do with his belief in God’s “immanence” in creation, working in and through evolutionary processes.

Chapter 6 concludes the discussion by dealing with one of the problems of his proposal. To argue that God is involved “immanently” in evolutionary processes makes God in some ways responsible for the pain and suffering implicit for both animal and human species facing natural selection, or dying because of mutations leading to genetic defects or cancer. Alexander dismisses responses of “fallen creation” or attributions of suffering to sin, arguing for a kind of “freedom” in evolutionary processes that necessarily includes pain–that God no more compels creation than he does human beings.

I suspect there is material here in every chapter that someone will take exception to, including the basic theistic evolutionary position Alexander takes. Those who dismiss theism will reject Alexander’s case for purpose. Others will struggle with his theodicy. Some would argue that you can see not only purpose but Purpose in biological science in itself. I would contend that the strength of Alexander’s argument is that it is neither dismissive of evolutionary science nor of a God engaged with creation working out God’s purposes. He shows how the two are at least consonant with each other. He chooses a “messy” explanation to the problem of pain that leaves room for mystery rather than pat answers. For those not interested in an oppositional approach to evolution and creation, Alexander’s work offers a way, or at least hints of a way forward.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Faith Across the Multiverse

faith across the multiverse

Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science, Andy Walsh. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018.

Summary: Explores how science, particularly math, physics, biology, and computer science, might illuminate one’s understanding of the Bible and the God of the Bible.

In his parables, Jesus spoke of various natural phenomenon to help us understand the kingdom of God–seeds, birds of the air, lilies of the fields, yeast, sheep, and more. God invites Abraham to count the stars and questions Job about the creation. In Faith Across the Multiverse, Andy Walsh asks the question of how various observable phenomenon and theories in science might illuminate our understanding of God, the Bible and spiritual realities. He focuses his inquiry in the fields of math, physics, biology, and computer science, reflecting his background in several of these fields. His day job is Chief Science Officer at Health Monitoring Systems where he develops statistical methods for public health surveillance. His doctoral and post-doctoral work was in fields of molecular biology and immunology and computational biology. He writes a weekly science column for InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network blog.  It is also important to know that Andy is a fan of super-hero comics, particularly X-Men and he mixes these characters and stories, along with popular science fiction into his discussion of science and faith.

In the realm of mathematics, he explores faith as a choice of axioms, sin in terms of mathematical optimization and choosing an objective function to maximize. Most fascinating for me was his use of chaos dynamics as a possible way to understand sovereign grace in which various paths might lead to the same outcome, as is the case with “strange attractors.”

In the realm of physics, he follows John Polkinghorne in discussions of how the dual wave/particle character of light might give us insight into the incarnation of Jesus. He also explores how entropy might help us understand sin and death, and the transformative work of dying to oneself in Christ.

The biology of the genome, our immune systems, and even the constitution of ant colonies may shed light on the relational dynamics and nature of the church. The world of computer science, in which simple rules, procedures, and inputs may result in complex outcomes suggest how a single book, the Bible might be able to address the complexities of human existence throughout our history.

The book has the feel of being written for “science nerds,” kind of like the characters one encounters on The Big Bang Theory, who geek out on in-depth discussions of scientific theory, punctuated by excursions to the comic book store and debates over Star Trek versus Star Wars. Walsh writes, “One feature of the world that pains me and I believe pains God is the fact that so many feel they need to choose between science and belief in the God of the Bible.” I’ve worked with “science nerds” in graduate student ministry, and I can vouch that there many who think science and faith are mutually exclusive. Walsh’s careful explanation of scientific theories and phenomenon, which may be off-putting for some, establishes for the scientifically literate grounds for drawing the connections or “parables” of science and Christian belief. The effect of his discussion is both to suggest a consonance between science and Christian beliefs for the skeptic, and to shed fresh light from science on Christian belief for those who do believe. The frequent references to comic superheroes makes this all the more fun.

I suspect this book was not written for a social science-liberal arts-theology nerd like me. I’ll confess that I haven’t solved a math equation since college, and while I enjoy general science writing, the depth of explanations was a stretch for me, that made me flex some under-used mental muscles. I suspect my math geek, computer scientist son would love this book, particularly the portions on fractals and chaos mathematics. There are significant numbers like him out there, and many question whether there is even room for Christian belief in a world shaped by science and technology. Andy Walsh writes as one of them who hopes to remove the barriers between science and belief by sharing the ways his own research and other science reading has enriched his understanding of and love for God.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.