What is Life? The Next Fifty Years:
Speculations on the Future of Biology

Michael P. Murphy + Luke A.J. O'Neill (editors)

Cambridge University Press 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996 http://dannyreviews.com/
In 1943 Erwin Schrödinger gave a series of lectures titled What is Life?. In 1993 a conference was held to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of that event. What is Life? The Next Fifty Years contains the papers from that conference. The list of contributors is awe inspiring: it includes Stephen Jay Gould, Manfred Eigen, Roger Penrose, John Maynard Smith, Stuart Kauffman, Lewis Wolpert, Christian de Duve, and Jared Diamond.

Most of the contributors use the Schrödinger work as a starting point for launching into their own pet themes. Eigen is the only one who attempts a general overview of the future of biology, but he also has a political barrow to push. Gould begins with a historiographical critique of Schrödinger's work as a modernist manifesto, but ends up presenting his own biological credo. Wolpert contemplates the future of developmental biology, asking whether the egg is computable and if we could ever create angels or recreate dinosaurs in Jurassic Park fashion. And Diamond mentions Schrödinger completely tangentially in a piece on the evolution of human inventiveness.

Maynard Smith and Szathmáry draw parallels between the origins of the genetic code and of human language. De Duve offers a very brief argument for the priority of proteins (peptide catalysts) over nucleic acids in the origin of life. While Schrödinger's most successful prediction is generally considered the idea that "aperiodic crystals" would play a key role in the creation of "order from order", three of the papers focus instead on his "order from disorder" theme. Kauffman discusses self-organisation in open, far from equilibrium systems, using abstract autocatalytic systems and boolean networks as examples. Kelso and Haken address very similar ideas under the name "synergetics", looking at patterns in brain and behaviour, while Schneider and Kay look at the thermodynamics of biological systems quite abstractly.

Penrose spouts his usual "quantum consciousness" nonsense, tacking completely unsupported claims about computation and neural microtubules onto some irrelevant physics. A short piece by Thirring argues for an ontological hierarchy of physical laws. And Ruth Braunizer, Schrödinger's daughter, concludes the volume with some personal reminiscences about her father's life.

The Next Fifty Years is a volume very much in keeping with the spirit of Schrödinger's work, both in its treatment of grand themes and in its application to biology of ideas from physics. It contains some excellent summaries of some exciting areas of biology, pitched at a popular level, and should command a wide readership. This edition is expensive, however, and I hope Cambridge University Press will issue What is Life? The Next Fifty Years in their Canto paperback imprint, alongside the original Schrödinger work.

October 1996

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%T What is Life? The Next Fifty Years
%S Speculations on the Future of Biology
%E Murphy, Michael P.
%E O'Neill, Luke A.J.
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1995
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN 052145509X
%P xi,191pp