How Did Life End Up With Us?
Each of the twenty-one chapters is this detailed and highly informative book begins with an elaborate question, and all but one of them also finishes with one, although these are, by contrast, mostly short and relatively terse. Only chapter 14 ends with a statement, which is ‘That’s a good question.’ O’Connor tracks and traces genetic strategy and potential purpose with the enthusiasm of the amateur (in the literal sense of the word), and although it is densely packed with facts, history, data, and knowledge, it is never a chore to read and maintains a cantering pace of curiosity. We always want to know the answer to the last question so keep on reading.
By chapter 10 it is as if O’Connor has mercy on us and slows down (very slightly) to allow us to get our breath back. There has been a torrent of information and a need to take stock. This is timely as the previous chapter was about sex and the following one on dying and death, with an insightful observation on the connection between the two. He is exploring the evolution of diversity:
“And if the advent of internally generated deaths came with the arrival of multicellular life forms, it can only mean that sexual reproduction was the agent of change. Sex leads to death… Nonetheless, that’s the only conclusion one can come to. And it must therefore follow that once something is reproduced, then its genes have little further need for it. The parent’s job is done, and logically the gene is more than happy to see its spent vehicles shoved out of the way so that new generations can refresh the species – and whole new species might also come along.”
There follows an investigation of Darwin and Wallace which might be fairly predictable, but the introduction to and exploration of the contribution made, and questions asked by Lynn Margulis is less so, and truly fascinating. After examining parasites, eugenics, and, critically, mutual benefits, we are led to what becomes the potentially more philosophical exploration of altruism. What is really absorbing here is non-sentient altruism – is such a thing even possible?
O’Connor suggests that not only is it evident everywhere, but it’s probably ‘a purer formof altruism than we ever manage.’
“Bacteria may be the most basic form of life forms but they’re utterly selfless when it comes to protecting their colony if it’s under attack. Among other defence mechanisms, they use mass suicide as a way of stopping invading viruses. If humans behaved like that, they’d become the stuff of legend.”
This led to a new perception of evolutionary genetic behaviour and one which pointed to co-operation, altruism, and mutual benefit even among different species – including us. Of course, the book ends with still more questions, not least because it’s the first of four. The word consciousness appears on page 222, and it must surely feature with increasing focus and exploration in future volumes. The ‘troubled waters in human existence’ and the price we have paid and will continue to pay by ignoring our genetic instructions and the ‘currents’ that have made us what we are seems to be where volume 2 might take us – and beyond, no doubt. Wherever it is, SS O’Connor’s infectious storytelling along with his unwavering optimism in the logic and power of co-operation will surely make it a truly joyful adventure, and one that I eagerly anticipate.