Transcendent Life? | December 12, 2011 Issue - Vol. 89 Issue 50 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 50 | p. 3 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: December 12, 2011

Transcendent Life?

Department: Editor's Page
Keywords: chemistry of life, molecular biology, genetic information, Michael Polanyi

A reader recently wrote to ask whether she could purchase an article—specifically the cover story in the Aug. 21, 1967, issue—from the C&EN Archives. The answer, of course, is that she could, for $10.*

C&EN Deputy Editor-in-Chief Maureen Rouhi got the e-mail, and she brought the article to my attention. Its title is “Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry,” and it is a 13-page, lavishly illustrated (for C&EN) philosophical essay by Michael Polanyi, one of the seminal scientist-philosophers of the 20th century. It is not the kind of essay I associate with C&EN.

I spent most of that evening reading and rereading Polanyi’s essay and thinking about it. He makes two central points early in the essay, the first concerning DNA. “A DNA molecule essentially transmits information to a developing cell,” he writes. “Similarly a book transmits information. But the transmission of the information cannot be represented in terms of chemical and physical principles. In other words, the operation of the book is not reducible to chemical terms. Since DNA operates by transmission of (genetic) information, its function cannot be described by chemical laws either.”

He also writes, “I differ … from most biologists, by holding that no mechanism—be it a machine or a machinelike feature of an organism—can be represented in terms of physics and chemistry. This principle precludes the possibility of biology ever becoming a molecular science.”

I think it is clear that advances over the past 40-plus years show that Polanyi was wrong—biology has become a molecular science. What fascinates me is trying to understand why he was wrong, because he was a very sophisticated thinker.

In an argument that is far too complex to reprise here, Polanyi makes a strong case that the origin of any particular genetic sequence, and, by extension, the origin of life itself, cannot be explained on the basis of chemical and physical principles alone. However, when he uses the analogy between DNA and a book to state that transmission of genetic information “is nonchemical and nonphysical,” he is mistaken. Genetic information is encoded in DNA’s structure, and although we might not be able to determine the provenance of that information through chemical and physical principles, transcription itself is a profoundly chemical process that we now understand in quite some detail.

Likewise, when Polanyi compares biological structures to machines and insists that both are irreducible to chemical and physical principles, he is arguing at the level of cells and organs. With the structure of a molecular machine like the ribosome in hand, its form and function are, in fact, wholly described by chemical and physical principles.

Polanyi writes: “The machine is a machine by having been built and being then controlled according to principles of engineering. The laws of physics and chemistry are indifferent to these principles; they would go on working in the fragments of the machine if it were smashed.” He continues: “Returning now to living beings, we may start by observing that to speak of life as something to be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry is strictly speaking absurd, for physical and chemical processes do not determine by themselves any finite system.” In the realm of molecular machines operating within the well-defined confines of living systems, this assertion simply isn’t true. If a ribosome were figuratively smashed, some aspects of its chemistry would cease to function; as a machine, its “engineering principles” are indistinguishable from its chemistry.

If this seems somewhat esoteric, Polanyi’s arguments, or ones very similar to them, continue to resonate with some nonscientists who object to aspects of the scientific endeavor to fully understand life (C&EN, June 4, 2001, page 56).

I’ll return to another interesting aspect of this 1967 issue of C&EN in next week’s editorial.

Thanks for reading.

*Starting in January 2012, ACS members can download 25 journal papers, book chapters, and C&EN Archives stories for free each year.

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John O'Connor  (December 15, 2011 2:23 PM)
To Mr. Baum,
Relative to the reversal of the flow of the Chicago River and the construction of the Sanitary and Ship Canal, I thought these historic illustrations might be of interest.
Robert Buntrock  (December 21, 2011 9:01 AM)
Polanyi was indeed a great philosopher but I wonder if he would be changing his tune given recent developments in research. He and others do contiue to be cited by those who are anti-eveolution, anti-origins (which they confuse with evolution), and even anti-science. Looking forward to the next instalment.
Dan Callahan  (April 21, 2014 9:23 PM)
Baum - My understanding of the argument put forth is that the properties of the chemical bonds are independent of the message they communicate. The message is not dependent upon the chemical/molecular bonds themselves. The message is independent of the medium or “above” the bonding imperatives; similarly, you can communicate "I love you" with skywriting or with shells arranged on a beach, or w/ Morse Code or in hexidecimal (or you could whisper it in multiple languages). If evo-devotees are looking for a physico-chemical reason why biological forms come-about, they will not find it. Similarly, if you want to understand the meaning behind a Shakespearean play, you would not study the ink and paper that it was written on. You would need to understand English language and a good deal about English society and history.

Life is represented by the abstraction a layer well above the chemical/molecular bonding. Life is information. Without true information contained in the cell, you could not get beyond a crystalline shape or structure… or anything more complex than a snow flake. These patterns contain information but not complex information like that found in life. There is a fantastic video describing this here: (lower right hand corner of the web page).
(also looking forward to your next post).
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