There’s a story, probably apocryphal, of how Winston Churchill gave a speech to the Free French, ill-advisedly in the tongue of Molière and Balzac. Quand je regarde mon derrière, boomed Britain’s great wartime leader, Je vois qu’il est divisé en deux parts. None of which appears at first sight to have very much to do with the fine and definitely bipartite Creation by the radio presenter, former Nature editor, Man in White and all-round egghead, Adam Rutherford.
As the best books about evolution have probably all been written, says Rutherford, the only option is to write a book of two halves – one on what happened before evolution, and the other on what’s happening now, that is, how evolution is being co-opted by us humans. Like Churchill, he takes the two-halvedness quite literally. Creation is presented as two books, each with its own front cover. You can start reading Creation: The Origin of Life. Or, if you prefer, turn it backwards, flip it upside down and read Creation; The Future of Life. The books are each independent from the other, and are individually quite short, but – just like the two halves of Churchill’s derrière – they meet in the middle, and form a cohesive whole.
Of the two halves, The Origin of Life is the less successful. To be sure, it fizzes with brio, and perhaps strays more towards the breathless this-is-the-sound-of-a-flea-sneezing-magnified-five-million-times style than is really comfortable to one as jaded as I. There is much of the required rehearsal of the structure of nucleic acids and so on – necessarily so. Where it falls down is the discussion of the environment of the earliest days of the Earth – which is no surprise, as this is a fast-moving, deeply complex and contentious field. The classic Miller-Urey experiment is discussed, but I felt that a little more time could have been taken to discuss a few more historical ideas about the origins of life, such as Cairns-Smith’s ideas on the nucleation of molecules on clay minerals, or the seminal early thoughts of the likes of Oparin and Bernal.
The Future of Life is altogether more successful and makes up for any deficiencies in its companion. Rutherford’s overview of the still-very-new field of synthetic biology is masterful. But it’s where he gets into the legal and moral issues surrounding genetic modification that he really gets into his stride, using a philosophical and much more authoritative style that suits him better than the plain reportage elsewhere. True, the tone is far more serious, but is the more effective for all that. From this book you’d never know that, in person, Rutherford is killingly funny (as well as devilishly handsome – why no author photo, hmm?) I look forward to whatever he has up his sleeve next – something longer, deeper, more considered.