by Rishidev Chaudhuri
For the first week after I began taking a cell biology class I dreamed of deserts, vast sterile expanses of open heat with no living things, interrupted only by dreams of inter-galactic space and the structured infinity of mathematical forms. There is something profoundly disturbing and eerie about life at the molecular level. It is too purposive and awake to see it as inert matter – it is impossible not to anthropomorphize it or, more accurately, to attempt to make sense of its motives in the same way we do for people. And yet it is too alien to anthropomorphize in any useful way. Somehow, brute matter has figured out how to replicate itself and has exploded into a cacophony of form. Here proteins rush around cells carrying other proteins on their heads; other proteins slice and dice and reassemble yet other proteins. It is so easily seen as a parody of human ends. Looking into a microscope we are alienated from ourselves by our cells. We stare into a world of automata, a world made uncanny by the juxtaposition of its echo of and utter distance from our world.
To their credit, there is nothing explicitly malevolent about microscopic life or its components, even things as sinister as prions. The suspicion of matter that they induce is not the Gnostic horror of waking up and finding oneself trapped in a coffin that is actively conspiring to stay shut. And it lacks the single-mindedness of a thriving Schopenhauerian will to life. And neither is it the anguish of finding oneself alive in a universe indifferent to life; matter seems all too eager to become animate. If anything, we seem to find ourselves viewing matter in company with the early Buddhists, as life-creating but amoral. They, finding themselves doomed by nature to live (and suffer as an incidental effect), and for whom suicide was subverted by rebirth, sought to live so as to break the chain of causation and extinguish themselves.
Of course we don’t understand the strange frontier towns where inanimate matter begins to wriggle and repeat, though we have lots of interesting speculation about what might happen at those boundaries. In the molecular world of modern life, DNA stores information; this information is transcribed into RNA; and then some RNA is then translated into proteins, which carry out most of the functions of life. Among other things, proteins catalyze a host of reactions needed for life. In one possible origin-of-life scenario, RNA performs the functions of both DNA and proteins: it both stores information and catalyzes its own production and replication. Chains of RNA get longer and more complex, eventually beginning to co-operate with each other and to catalyze the assembly of amino acids into proteins. Eventually, the proteins take over much of the structural and catalytic work, and DNA, being more stable, takes over the information storage.