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The end of nature’s mystery

Michael Barrett, a leading research scientist, spends his days stripping life down to its chemical c

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. He then spent six days knocking together everything upon earth: millions of living species and even more now extinct ones. Yet it is not easy for biologists to believe in God the Creator; 50 years of extreme reductionism have removed much of nature’s mystery. We know all about the genetic code, and how the chemical composition of DNA can be translated into the panoply of proteins that shape cells and drive the chemical reactivity that defines each species. My job involves stripping tiny microscopic parasites down to their bare chemical components, which I compare to those of mammalian cells. I seek subtle differences that could allow us to construct molecules that interfere with parasite, but not human, chemistry. These experiments, we hope, will lead to the formulation of new drugs in our fight against disease.

Spending one’s time deconstructing life to its chemical components does, however, lead one to ask just what it is. If I took each and every chemical that comprises a cell and mixed them together, I would create nothing more than a chemical goo. There are, of course, organising principles that make life far more than the sum of its chemical parts. For some, an intelligent

designer could do this. Elsewhere, a relatively young discipline called systems biology aims to combine knowledge of the cellular chemical parts list with high-power computation to try to identify whether those organising principles themselves are no more than a mathematical consequence of self-assembled parts and time.

So far, for all our posturing, no one has come close to creating a living organism from a non-living, “abiotic” start. Craig Venter, famed for his profit-driven efforts to sequence the human genome, is making much fanfare about his attempts to “create” a new life form. In reality, however, all Venter is aiming to do is add a new, synthesised, genetic blueprint to a preorganised cellular system. This is an extreme version of the genetic engineering of microbes that has been going on for several decades now.

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, he conspicuously evaded an explanation of man’s position in the evolutionary tree. He also failed to touch on just how the whole thing got going. Naturally, he did have thoughts on the subject. “But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, &c. present, that a proteine [sic] compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes,” he wrote to his friend the botanist Joseph Hooker in 1871.

By the early 20th century the great British geneticist J B S Haldane had transmuted Darwin’s “warm little pond” into the so-called “primordial soup theory”, evoking a watery planet, warm and rich in gaseous chemicals such as ammonia, hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide. In 1953, the American Stanley Miller tried to

re-create such a primordial soup in the laboratory. He set up a series of test tubes containing water, many of the proposed gases and a supply of electric sparks to mimic the lightning-charged atmosphere of early earth. Remarkably, those simple gases were easily converted into some of the basic organic chemicals typically found in living organisms. Miller’s success led to the hope that it would be only a matter of time before simple biochemicals could be turned into the more complex molecular strings characteristic of living cells today. But decades of ever more sophisticated experimentation have failed to yield significant advances.

Proponents of the “abiotic” origin of life point out that the four to five billion years of earth history is rather longer than the 56 years since Miller’s experiment. Some scientists believe that life could have evolved anywhere in the universe and then been carried on comets from solar system to solar system, from planet to planet. Such astrobiological origins would lead to a vastly increased probability that conditions suitable to spark life were met somewhere.

As a biochemist, I retain faith in the notion that life evolved through spontaneous chemical reactivity. One theory points to life emerging during the Hadean Aeon in the hot depths of the ocean. This era covers the first half-billion or so years of Planet Earth’s history, when volcanic matter was constantly spewing up through the ocean floor, heating water and causing an extraordinary mix of chemical constituents. The problem with this idea, however, is that the molecules forming in such conditions diffuse throughout the ocean, so diluting them to negligible levels.

The British geologist Mike Russell and Bill Martin, an American evolutionary biologist, adapted the so-called iron-sulphur world theory to try to lead us from simple chemical reactions to entities recognisable as living cells. Iron-sulphur complexes are among the best chemical catalysts that we know today, and iron and sulphur are abundant in volcanic exhalations. Many of the proteins (called enzymes) that catalyse the reactions of cellular life today use little iron-sulphur clusters, buried deep within their structures.

According to Russell and Martin, iron-sulphur deposits within tiny cavities in Hadean rocks (think, for example, of the holes in pumice stone – only smaller) could have catalysed the for­mation of a multitude of biochemicals. In the enclosed environment of those cavities, these chemicals could accumulate. Some molecules can actually catalyse their own production. Many evolutionary biologists today believe that some time after the first chemical burst, the emergence of so-called ribonucleic acids (RNAs) provided a huge expansion in self-replicating and, critically, mutating chemistry. Today, we know that RNA can fold in ways to drive its own assembly, and to catalyse the formation of other molecular configurations as well. Complex novel chemicals could emerge. Among these would be the structures we know as lipids, which are capable of forming self-sealing membrane bags. These lipid bounded bags could then free the chemical reaction chambers from their rocky confines. The first free living cells would be born. The processes of Darwinian evolution would then select those that were able to survive and replicate the best.

The individual steps of Russell and Martin’s theory are feasible. But did they happen? Obviously it is difficult to obtain definitive proof for events that occurred billions of years ago. So we have to accept that many of the steps in this, and other origin theories, as is often said, “could happen given enough time and the right conditions”. Divine interventionists can rightly argue that the abiotic, chemical view is no more proven than the existence of their omnipotent Creator.

The unrelenting deconstruction of life’s mysteries to their chemical bare bones, however, leaves me believing that we really are no more than a bag of chemicals; our oldest ancestors no more than a string of self-assembling molecular building blocks; our very consciousness nothing more than the output of a chemically driven series of electrical impulses, selected ultimately, perhaps, to ensure the propagation of a seminal chemical reaction.

Michael Barrett is professor of biochemical parasitology at the University of Glasgow

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

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The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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