Tag Archives: Evolutionary biology

HOW MOLECULAR FORCES AND ROTATING PLANETS CREATE LIFE: THE EMERGENCE AND EVOLUTION OF PROKARYOTIC CELLS – Jan Spitzer (2021)

How Molecular Forces and Rotating Planets Create Life Jan Spitzer

I thought I understood a thing or two about biology, and, more specifically, its genetic and general molecular side as well. I’ve read a couple of introductory level university course textbooks, like Biology, Evolution and Human Nature by Goldsmith & Zimmerman (2001), which was already pretty heavy on chemistry for somebody without an academic background in hard sciences, and a few more specific books, like the excellent The Flexible Phenotype by Piersma & Van Gils (2011) and Alex Rosenberg’s brilliant, rigorous Darwinian Reductionism, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology (2006).

I also thought I had a bit of grasp on origin of life theory, since I read Nick Lane’s excellent The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution and the Origins of Complex Life (2015), a book I can’t say I understood completely, but enough so to enjoy it a lot.

Last year, I was absolutely gobsmacked by Contingency and Convergence: Towards a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind by Russell Powell, a 2020 publication in the Vienna Series of Theoretical Biology, and so when I checked what else was published in that series, I didn’t hesitate to buy How Molecular Forces and Rotating Planets Create Life: The Emergence and Evolution of Prokaryotic Cells by Jan Spitzer – I was intrigued by the subject matter because of Lane’s book, and if I’d survived that, how hard could it be?

Well, it turns out this was harder, much harder, yet I probably enjoyed it even more. Part of that enjoyment is witnessing other people’s genius, but the main reason I enjoyed it so much was because it provided entirely new and much more detailed insight in the miracle that is our existence.

Before I get to a more detailed discussion of the book, please consider the following drawing – a typical representation of a bacterial cell I found somewhere on the public domain.

prokaryote cell

This is the way most people are taught about cells. We tend to think we *understand* cells this way – at least, if we study some more of these drawings – including ones that zoom in a bit – and the accompanying chapters on cell biology carefully.

Now consider this fragment from Jan Spitzer’s book, and, for starters, compare the way the cytoplasm is represented in the generic textbook drawing with what Spitzer writes about it.

From a purely chemical point of view, a bacterial cell is exceedingly complicated. The cytoplasm contains in round numbers ~2,500,000 protein molecules of ~1,000 different kinds, ~200,000 transfer RNAs of ~50 kinds, ~1,500 short-lived messenger RNAs of ~400 kinds. (…) The number of ribosomes can vary between 2,000 for a slow-growing population and 70,000 in a fast-growing population. These biomacromolecules are hydrated by a relatively concentrated (~4%) electrolyte – a multicomponent buffered solution of simple ions, particularly potassium ions and phosphate, and other low-molecular weight metabolites from biochemical pathways (…). All this chemistry of long DNA double helices (partly condensed or coacervated by cationic proteins and amines), RNAs, and their protein complexes, all in their correct three-dimensional conformations, and all exhibiting their molecular motions – from bond rotations to large conformational motions and rotational and translational Brownian diffusion, taking place on timescales of many orders of magnitude, from femtosecond infrared motions to physiological motions at milliseconds, seconds, and hours – all this molecular motion is crowded and enclosed within the hydrophobic cell envelope. The cell envelope contains a lipid bilayer membrane, studded with a large number of integral hydrophobic proteins that sense the physicochemical state of both the external nutrient environment and the internal cytoplasmic side of the membrane and adjust the molecular and ionic traffic across the membrane accordingly. (…) The overall chemical system is in cyclic disequilibrium, where cells approximately double in size and then divide on the physiological timescale of seconds to hours.

Additionally, in all this, also the positions of all those different molecules matter, as there is no “bulk aqueous reservoir where chemical potentials (concentrations) are independent of position”, and so the cell system is “thus vectorial”, with aqueous nano-channels and nano-pools of dissolved ions and molecules.

It is yet another example of the huge gap that exists between what people – even highly educated people – think they know, and how the world actually is. It makes books like Spitzer’s humbling and full of wonder – even if that wonder is abstract, dry, and highly complex. Do we truly appreciate the wonder of life enough?

There’s one important caveat: however detailed that quote might seem, it only scratches the surface too. Or, to quote Spitzer again: “Today the molecular crowdedness of a living cell is an uncontroversial and well-appreciated fact, but its overall spatiotemporal complexity remains poorly understood.”


Just to be clear: I’m not the target audience for Spitzer’s book. Certain parts – when he got into the nuts and bolts of detailed chemical stuff – were way too advanced for me. I’d say about 1/3rd of the text was too technical for my current brain. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t understand Spitzer’s general message – it only meant that I could not contradict him on the technicalities. The fact that the main text is only 170 pages, but about 1/3rd of the full volume is academic credentials (20 pages of notes, 26 pages of references, a 5 page index) is indicative of its intellectual rigorousness.

I think one of the reasons that makes this book successful is that Spitzer approached it as a hobby. He has had no academic career in biology, but he is a physical chemist (PhD) and a chemical engineer (MS) with expertise in thermodynamics and aqueous colloids, who worked as a industrial R&D manager, on synthetic latexes and emulsion polymerization processes. The fact that he is retired and has no skin in the game allowed him to write freely and thoroughly. More information on Jan Spitzer and his ideas can be found here.

In the remainder of this text, I will try to summarize Spitzer’s main points, and conclude with a list of quotes & fragments of knowledge that struck me and that I wish to keep record of. Most of those should also be worthwhile to readers with an advanced interest in science, but you might need a dictionary depending on your prior knowledge – I know I needed one. As a coda, there’s a shortened version of a reading list Spitzer himself provides in his introduction.

For a review by someone with an academic background in these matters, I refer you to the Small Things Considered blog. It has a good, fairly detailed outline of the book. It is the only review of the book I found online, so I hope I contribute a bit to Spitzer’s dissemination with my own review – especially for those that are looking for more information about it without easy access to academic libraries.

Do I recommend it? I loved it, but if you’re not academically trained in these matters ymmv, so much is clear – if you’re adventurous, like a serious challenge, and want to keep your mind limber, go for it, I’d say. It’s also crystal clear that this is mandatory reading for anybody with a serious academic interest in the matter.

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THE EVOLUTION OF MORAL PROGRESS – Allen Buchanan & Russell Powell (2018)

The Evolution of Moral Progress Buchanan PowellWhile reading the brilliant Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind, a 2020 book by Russell Powell on what evolutionary science can tell us about the possible nature of consciousness emerging in bodies on other planets, I was in awe of Powell’s meticulous reasoning skills. The book was an intellectual feast because of the rigorous thinking on display.

What struck me most was the interdisciplinary prowess: Powell is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, and aside from a PhD in Philosophy also holds a Master in Evolutionary Biology and a professional doctorate in Law. It is rare to encounter a mind that can argue that well and commit complex thoughts to paper in a manner that is both logical & clear. Obviously the first thing that I did when I finished Contingency and Convergence was see if Powell had written other stuff, and that let me to this book, co-authored with Allen Buchanan, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Duke and professor of the Philosophy of International Law at King’s College.

For starters, let me quote the Oxford University Press‘ description of The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory:

“Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell resurrect the project of explaining moral progress. They avoid the errors of earlier attempts by drawing on a wide range of disciplines including moral and political philosophy, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, history, and sociology.

Their focus is on one especially important type of moral progress: gains in inclusivity. They develop a framework to explain progress in inclusivity to also illuminate moral regression—the return to exclusivist and “tribalistic” moral beliefs and attitudes. Buchanan and Powell argue those tribalistic moral responses are not hard-wired by evolution in human nature. Rather, human beings have an evolved “adaptively plastic” capacity for both inclusion and exclusion, depending on environmental conditions. Moral progress in the dimension of inclusivity is possible, but only to the extent that human beings can create environments conducive to extending moral standing to all human beings and even to some animals. Buchanan and Powell take biological evolution seriously, but with a critical eye, while simultaneously recognizing the crucial role of culture in creating environments in which moral progress can occur. The book avoids both biological and cultural determinism. Unlike earlier theories of moral progress, their theory provides a naturalistic account that is grounded in the best empirical work, and unlike earlier theories it does not present moral progress as inevitable or as occurring in definite stages; but rather it recognizes the highly contingent and fragile character of moral improvement.”

If you want a much more thorough summary of the book, I can vouch for the accuracy of this one by Jeroen Hopster from the University of Utrecht. (Buchanan & Powell’s book is liberal to a certain extent, definitely not Marxist, should it being reviewed on a Marxist site worry you. Readers hostile to Marxism should not be detered from reading Hopster’s review either, the summary is politically neutral.) There is also this review by Prof. Em. Allen Gibbard, and one by Michael Brownstein and Daniel Kelly here, the latter starts with an outline, but also offer interesting caveats to some of the book’s theories. These authors are much more in the know as I am on the subject matter, and they call the 422-page book “marvelous” and “likely to become a landmark”.

In the rest of the review, some thoughts on the book, an intermezzo on the supposed power of literature, and, as usual in my non-fiction reviews, I’ll end with a collection of interesting information tidbits I want to keep an account of.

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CONTINGENCY AND CONVERGENCE : TOWARD A COSMIC BIOLOGY OF BODY AND MIND – Russell Powell (2020)

First a general overview & appraisal of the book, and after that there’s a fairly lengthy section with quotes and paraphrases of nuggets of wisdom I want to keep on record, and those could be interesting for you too.


For starters, the summary on the back: “In this book, Russell Powell investigates whether we can use the patterns and processes of convergent evolution to make inferences about universal laws of life, on Earth and elsewhere. Weaving together disparate philosophical and empirical threads, Powell offers the first detailed analysis of the interplay between contingency and convergence in macroevolution, as it relates to both complex life in general and cognitively complex life in particular. If the evolution of mind is not a historical accident, the product of convergence rather than contingency, then, Powell asks, is mind likely to be an evolutionarily important feature of any living world?”

Or, as the MIT website states it in short: “Can we can use the patterns and processes of convergent evolution to make inferences about universal laws of life, on Earth and elsewhere?”

The book doesn’t presuppose a lot of working knowledge: Powell takes care to explain all the concepts and the history of science & philosophy one needs to understand his arguments. As such it is perfectly self-contained, BUT, mind you: this is hardcore stuff, it is not a popular science book at all. It has 280 pages of carefully and tightly argued text, there’s not a lot of redundancy, not even on the sentence level, and as such keeping a search engine at hand while reading this is no luxury. Continue reading