The Feathered Onion; Creation of Life in the Universe by Clive Trotman. Chichester, West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. $19.95 soft cover; 254 pp; 7 page glossary; 17 page appendix; index.
Yes, another book on the origins of life. The Feathered Onion builds to a different conclusion than most other books on this topic by demonstrating the complexity of the earliest life forms on Earth.
The Feathered Onion is not about Evolution. As Trotman shows in his chapter "Friends and Relatives", Evolution is a given to anyone willing to acknowledge the similarities of life forms instead of contrasting the differences. Comparing humans to other primates the similarities are quite evident. Comparing humans to other mammals, birds, fish or reptiles the similarities may be fewer but still evident. Switching comparisons to invertebrates would likely invoke shouts from some circles as "foul" although the similarities remain. How about a comparison between humans and plants? Yes, still enough similarities to claim relatedness. How can this be? Trotman takes the reader through the workings of DNA, genes, and the chemistry of organisms to illustrate these points. To understand a human's similarity with invertebrates and plants Trotman takes us into the chemistry of life. As he points out many times in The Feathered Onion, life is nothing more than a series of chemical reactions and at that level one can't deny the sameness.
Trotman begins The Feathered Onion with an introductory chapter that covers the antiquity of the Earth, the universe and life itself. Many of the examples used will be familiar to readers acquainted with this topic. One can't discuss the age of the Earth without mention of Bishop Ussher's determination of Earth's origin at 4004 BC based upon Biblical chronology. Other work cited includes that of the Compte de Buffon who used a calculation based upon an assumed cooling rate of the molten Earth to modern solid form. Buffon's technique determined the Earth's age at 74,832 years. Lord Kelvin also used cooling rate calculations with different assumptions to get 100 million years. Others used erosion rates while some thought that increasing ocean salinity over time was the key to dating the age of the Earth. Most of these calculations still produced answers around 100 million years. The true antiquity of the Earth of around 4.4 billion years was revealed once radiometric dating techniques were developed in the 20th century.
An interesting idea is presented in The Feathered Onion concerning the process by which the Earth formed. Trotman states that it is entirely possible and perhaps even likely that the Earth was never totally molten from the beginning. He offers that since the Earth was produced by accumulation of smaller objects from space, all at temperatures approaching absolute zero, the proto-planet would have been cold until it was large enough to generate internal heat from radioactivity. Meteoric bombardment would have produced localized heating but the surface would likely have been more solid than molten. Is there any evidence of this? Trotman reveals that Zircons from Australia dated to around 4.3 billion years ago indicated that their formation was in association with liquid water and, "If water could survive, so might life" (The Feathered Onion, p. 5).
Trotman explains the methods used to determine the age of the universe in understandable terms. The current estimates are around 12 to 13 billion years. Understanding the immensity of time in Earth terms and the universe are key to the ideas presented in The Feathered Onion.
Having convinced the reader of the vastness of time, Trotman then moves to "Dating the Ancestors". Here we see a timescale developed as applied to living things. Most will be familiar with the absolute and relative dating methods of fossils covered here. Less familiar will be dating from DNA and proteins. This process is fraught with problems of calibrating the clock. The means for calibration are discussed in the following chapter. Statistics, genes, DNA, RNA, Codons and Introns, mutation rates, and protein formation all come into play in dating life's first appearance. Trotman uses hemoglobin as an example and shows that this protein necessary for oxygen exchange in blood has a long evolutionary history dating back to over 1 billion years. Hemoglobin has many forms that can be found in invertebrates and even in some plants. Fractionation of Carbon by living things lends more evidence for ancient complex life. You may recall that Carbon 12 is preferentially taken on by living things rather than the heavier Carbon 13 form. When ancient sediments are chemically analyzed for the ratio of these two Carbon isotopes, it is possible to determine if the carbon present originated biologically or strictly by chemical processes. Using this technique, life has left chemical evidence of its presence at least 3.5 billion years ago.
In "Life's Not Simple" we clearly see where The Feathered Onion is headed. Trotman helps the reader comprehend the unique properties of hemoglobin and its ability to absorb oxygen, store it and release it to cellular demand. This is a reversible chemical process of oxidation. Having established that this protein is ancient, Trotman reminds us that proteins form from complex chemical reactions catalyzed by enzymes that are themselves complex proteins. Proteins form with direction from the DNA in genes through intermediary messenger RNA. In Trotman's view, the 3.5 billion year chemical signatures of life processes that require complex proteins to form is evidence that a long period of evolution must have occurred prior to this time. Taken to the logical conclusion, life probably originated somewhere other than the Earth.
One of the most interesting chapters to me was "Thanks to Thermodynamics". Here we receive a simplified explanation of the laws of thermodynamics. Widely quoted and more widely misinterpreted and misrepresented by Creationists is the second law of thermodynamics. I am tempted to quote Trotman verbatim here but my space is limited so I will give you an abbreviated version of his explanations. The second law states that closed systems become more disordered over time. The Creationists like to say that life is well ordered and does not follow the second law - therefore they conclude that Divine intervention must have taken place. Creationist like to ignore the rule governing the second law wherein it only applies to closed systems. The Earth is not a closed system as it receives energy from the sun and this energy drives an increase in order here.
"Thanks to Thermodynamics" isn't about thermodynamics per se. The chapter is about the formation of life from chemical reactions. We also get to see another favorite Creationist myth reduced to absurdity - the argument for irreducible complexity. Creationists maintain that life is complex and there is a limit to how far life can be reduced, piece by piece, and remain functional. Trotman maintains that "the working definition of life implies cellular life, controlled by the equivalent of a nucleus, capable of reproduction and other activities." He further states that "the definition of life has simply been set to high" (op. cit. p. 121).
So where and when did life get its start? "Spreading the Message" discusses Trotman's favored source as an extraterrestrial one. He explains the cometary and meteoric means for complex organic molecules to arrive on the Earth from space. It is further shown that complex molecules do exist in space. It is probable that the Earth was not only bombarded with objects containing some of these from within our solar system but also from outside of it. The thread of logic is: organic molecules exist in the universe and have so for more time than our solar system has existed; these molecules could have arrived on planetary bodies somewhere in the universe and had sufficient time there to become primitive life forms; meteoric bombardment could have knocked off pieces of these planets that eventually could have seeded the Earth with life. This is a very simplistic summation of the message of The Feathered Onion without the background that Trotman has built to support this idea.
The concluding chapter, "Life: To Be Continued", examines the future of human evolution. Trotman offers that while it is quite easy to look back at Earth history and see how evolution proceeded it is not possible to project evolution into the future. As he points out, for example, what may appear as an increase in human intelligence over the last 100,000 years may appear as an evolutionary process. Projecting this increase forward in time produces the future human of Hollywood with a huge head and gigantic brain. The truth is that our apparent increase in intelligence over our distant ancestors is an illusion. Since acquired knowledge cannot change a persons genetic makeup, it is not heritable. Trotman's view of the future human is dim as there are certain base behaviors built into each of us to allow our survival. These are the behaviors that cause the pain and suffering in the world. Only societal conventions prevent humans from running totally amuck.
In summary, Trotman builds a logical case backed by a combination of hard facts and probabilities for life's origins somewhere other than on the Earth. The Feathered Onion is an interesting book to read and I can promise you that even if you do not agree with Trotman's final conclusions about the origin of life, you can not help but learn much more about the biochemical workings of life in all its forms.
Readability - High school and up with qualifications: readers will need to have knowledge of the biological and physical sciences and some mathematics.
On the Upside - Very readable with most technical topics translated for the general reader. Some chapters may be more technical than others but in general the explanations are readily understandable. The narrative is not bogged down with endless strings of references or citations to other works. This makes reading less cumbersome for the general reader. References can be found in the Appendix by chapter but most of these are references to secondary sources that again would be more useful for the general reader.
On the Downside - Trotman has done a couple of unconventional things that some might disagree with. He has not provided references to primary sources which is typically done in works such as this. This may be more bothersome to someone interested in following the logic from the source. The other unconventional approach was to omit a listing of people who contributed ideas to Trotman, especially those outside his area of expertise. Trotman explains this intentional omission by saying he did this so as not to accidentally leave one person out and do more harm than good by thanking the others. I'm not sure that many general readers even read these thank you lists but I do believe that contributors will. Neither of these detracts from the content of The Feathered Onion.
Overall Rating - Very good presentation with thought provoking ideas about the origins of life.