Friday, January 31, 2014

Milton: A Master of Run-On Sentences


     I'm about halfway through the collected works of John Milton. It's a project that's taking some time. Mercifully the poetry is at the front of the volume. That's good because most of Milton's prose writings have little intrinsic interest. Aside from a few exceptions they are religious polemics against the high church prelates of his day. Reading such things tends to lower one's estimate of the author. Especially as their tone is beneath even the usual level of political polemics. I'll see if the tone improves with the more political pieces later in the book. It's hard to imagine the author of things like Paradise Lost and Sampson Agonistes using "fart jokes" as arguments, but it's there all right.

     Be that as it may there is another problem besides crudity to Milton's prose. I've discovered that he may be the ultimate master of the run-on sentence in the English language. Just to give the flavour of things here's a quote from one of his essays, 'Reason of Church Government Urged'. Take a deep breath:

     "For not to speak of that knowledge that rests in  the contemplation of natural causes and dimensions, which must need be a lower wisdom, as the object is low, certain it is, that he who hath obtained in more than the scantiest measure to know anything distinctly of God, and of his true worship, and what is infallibly good and happy in the state of man's life, though vulgarly not so esteemed; he that hath obtained to know this, the only high valuable wisdom indeed, remembering also that God, even to a strictness, requires the improvement of his intrusted gifts, cannot but sustain a sorer burden of mind, and more pressing, than any sustainable toil or weight which the body can labour under, how and in what manner he shall dispose and employ those sums of knowledge and illumination, which God has sent him into this world to trade with."

     Yes, that's all one sentence, and it is not an exception. I think it makes grammatical sense, but I'm not certain. Reading this sort of things is about as fun and as "educating" as reading post-modernist nonsense. I hereby nominate John Milton as the patron saint of post-modernism.


Friday, January 17, 2014

CNT-f Faces Eviction


     The CNT-f is the larger of the two anarchosyndicalist/revolutionary syndicalist union federations in France. They have traditionally been called the 'CNT-Vignoles' after their headquarters at 33 rue Vignoles in Paris. They have survived a previous attempt to evict them in 1996, but now they are facing a fresh attack from the Mayor of Paris.

     The following is their statement on the events. The original French version can be here. You can follow events from either their website or from the site of their newspaper Combat Syndicaliste. These events seem reminiscent of the eviction of the Spanish CGT from their headquarters at 18 Via Laietana in Barcelona back in 2011. Hopefully this time around the good guys will win against the government.



     In a recent letter the City of Paris has come to unilaterally terminate the ongoing discussions about the continuation of the CNT in its historic location at 33 Rue des Vignoles. We were also "invited" to leave on the pretext of carry out 'rehabilitation' work.

     Previously in 1996 the then-Mayor Tiberi voted for the demolition of 33. She had to retreat in the face of mobilization of the local residents, associations and the CNT.

     We, paramedics, masons, primary school teachers, labourers, nurses' aides, truck drivers, teachers' aides, metal workers, architects, technicians, journalists, postal workers, etc. who form the CNT unions in region of Paris:

     We who in this XXnd arrondissement walk in the footsteps of the Paris Commune and those of the Bourses du Travail of the CGT in the beginning of the 20th century:

     We who at 33 Rue des Vignoles walk in the footsteps of our older brothers and sisters of the Confederacion Nacional de Trabahadores, anti-fascists, survivors of the Nazi camps, the Resistance and the liberation of Paris:

     We who continue the struggle for the emancipation of the working world at the beginning of the 21st century:

     We who to maintain this place in acceptable conditions while the City of Paris has done nothing for almost 20 years:

     We will resist again. Yesterday in the face of Tiberi it was the violence of bulldozers. Today with Delancé it is the violence of King Money.

     This CNT has called a public meeting for information, solidarity and support from all who want a living Paris, a revolutionary Paris.
15 hours: Information on the status of 33

18 hours: Concert with Serge Utgé-Royo

20 hours: Convivial meal

Monday, December 16, 2013



     The following brief biography was originally published at the website of the CNT of Puerto Real in Spanish. The original Spanish version can be found there under their 'Biografias' section.

     Joan Peiró, glass worker, anarcho-syndicalist intellectual, and Minister of Industry during the second Spanish republic, was executed by firing squad on July 24, 1942 at Paterna (Huerta Oeste, Valencia). He was born on February 18 in the working class district of Sants in Barcelona. He began work in a Barcelona glass factory at the age of 8 an d didn't learn to read and write until he was 22. He continued to work in the glass sector and along with other compañeros founded the Glass Cooperative of Mataró, a thing he never abandoned.

     In 1907 he married Mercedes Olives, a textile worker, with whom he had three sons (Juan, José, Llibert) and four daughters (Aurora, Aurelia, Guillermina, Merced). As he explained his union militancy began in 1906, and he began to hold positions of responsibility from 1915 to 1920 as Secretary General of the Spanish Federation of Glaziers and Crystal Workers and director of La Colmena Obrero (organ of the unions of Badalona) and El Vidrio (publication of the federation of glassworkers).

     Because of his intellectual acuity he later became editor of the newspaper Solidaridad Obrero (1930) and the daily Catalonia (1937). Very influenced by French revolutionary unionism he began taking on positions of responsibility in the CNT after the Sants (1918) Catalan Regional Congress. Thanks to his capacity for work, organizing skills and prestige he held the highest offices in this organization.

     At the Congreso de La Comedia (1919) he defended industrial union federations which were rejected at the time (in favour of geographical During the 1920s he suffered the repression unleased by the state and the employers and was arrested and imprisoned inSoria and Vicoria. In 1922 he was elected General Secretary of the CNT. During his term the Conference of Zaragossa was held where the resignation of the CNT from the Red Internation Federation of Unions was approved and membership in the reconstituted AIT/IWA was accepted.

     At this same Congress, along with Salvador Segui, Angel Pestaña, and José Viadiu, Peiró defended the "political motion" which was widely criticized by the more orthodox sections of the organization. He settled in Mataró in in 1922, and in 1925 he guided the establishment of the glass workers' cooperative that he had previously intended to organize. Under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera the CNT was outlawed, their offices closed and their press suspended. Many militants were arrested and Pieró was imprisoned in 1925, 1927 and 1928. In the last year he was again elected Secretary General of the CNT.

     He criticized the UGT for their advocacy of  "mixed commissions" during the dictatorship and also Pestaña with whom, however, he agreed on other matters. He also criticized the more anarchist union sector, and despite the fact that he joined the FAI he was never militant in it. On the contrary he defended a more syndicalist mass organization and opposed the action groups that a minority of militants controlled. In 1930 he signed the "Republican Intelligencia" manifesto and received much interal criticism which led him to withdraw his signature. He defended industrial federations up to the 1931 CNT Congress in Madrid where he won mass support against the FAI theses.

     At this Congress he supported the presentation of the "Position of the CNT Towards the Constituent Cortez" proposal which defended the idea that the proclamation of a republic could mean an advance for the working class. The proposal was adopted with some modifications despite the opposition of some FAI sectors who saw it as support for bourgeois political machinations. Also in 1931, along with 29 other prominant CNTistas among them Angel Pestaña, he signed the Treintista Manifesto which analyzed the social and economic situation of Spain and criticized both the republican government and the more radical sectors of the CNT.

     The reaction to this led to the expulsion of Pestaña from his position on the national committee of the norganization and the schism of the Sabadell unions. These later gathered others who formed a bloc called the "Opposition Unions". Although Peiró participated in this split he had no outstanding responsibility, and he tried to build bridges to avoid the final rupture.

     Reunification occured in 1936. After the fascist military rising Peiró served as vicepresident of the Antifascist Committee of Mataró, sending his sons to the front. He defended the entry of the CNT into the governments of Catalonia and Spain and proposed a state form of a federal social republic when the war ended. Along with Garcia Oliver, Federica Monteny and Juan Lopez he was one of the four "anarchist" (my emphasis-mm) ministers in the government of Largo Caballero where he was Minister of Industry.

     In this position he drafted the decree of expropriation and intervention in industry and designed an Industrial Credit Bank. Many of these projects were annuled or diluted by Negrin. With the fall of the Caballero government he returned to Mataró and the Glass Cooperative. He also dedicated himself to giving lectures on his steps in government and publishing hard articles against the PCE for its actions against the POUM.

     In 1938 he re-entered the government now headed by Negrin although not with the rank of Minister but rather as Comissioner of Electric Energy. He upheld an "anti-defeatist" attitude and proposed a certain revision of anarchosyndicalism in light of the development of the revolution and the war. He crossed the French border on February 5, 1939, and was briefly held in Perpignon from where he went to Narbonne to reunite withy his family. Later he moved to Paris to represent the CNT on the Coalition for Spanish Refugees with a mission to free Spanish CNTistas fromFrench concentration camps and facilitate their transfer to México.

     He tried to flee after the Nazi invasion but was arrested when he went to Narbonne. e was returned to Paris where the French authorities issued a deportation order so as to remove him from Gestapo action and thereby go to the unoccupied zone and from there to México. He was, however, arrested again by nazi troops and taken to Trier (Germany). In January of 1941 the Francoist Ministry of Foreign Affairs  requested his extradition. This happened on February 19 of the same year in Irún, violating French and international law. He was transfered to the custody of the Security General in Madrid where he was interrogated and suffered maltreatment (he lost some teeth).

     The start of the trial was exceptionally delayed, and he was transfered to Valencia in April 1941. In December of that year a summary trial opened at which Peiró had statements in his favour from institutions and people of the new regime (military, falangists, clergy, judges, prison officials, businesmen, rightists and even a future minister under Franco, Francisco Ruiz Jarabo).

     Even so his repeated refusal of the government proposal to be head of the Francoist unions determined his sentence. In May of 1942 the prosecuter presented his charges. A month later Peiró was assigned a defence lawyer by the military. On July 21 the death sentence was pronounced. On July 24, 1942 he was shot along with six other CNTistas at the firing range of Paterna. Some of his published works include The Path of the National Confederation of Labour (1925), Ideas About Syndicalism and Anarchism (1930), Danger in the Rearguard (1936) and From The Glass Factory of Mataró To The Minister Of Industry (1937) and Problemas y Cintarazos (1938).




Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Spanish Syndicalism (1) CGT Strike in Unipost


      The following is a translation from a Spanish language article at Rojo y Negro, the organ of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union the CGT. I have had to rather "freely translate" as the particulars of Spanish labour practices are quite different from here in the Anglosphere. Any mistakes are my own responsibility.


     The stoppages will be for 24 hours (from 00:00 to 24:00) and Saturdays, Sundays and holidays are not included. The schedule is as follows: December 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 27 and 30 and the 2 and 3 of January 2014. If the dispute is not settled we reserve the right to call further stoppages which will be conducted according to applicable legal provisions.

     There are two principle objectives of this strike. On the one hand the breaches of agreement on the part of management, salary cuts and non-payment of summer bonuses. (Such bonuses are a regular part of Spanish labour On the other hand an end to layoffs.

     Thus the CGT, having consulted both general assemblies and workshop assemblies, has decided to carry out the strike to show important solidarity with the workers to carry it out.

     We want to thank those who have expressed their support in favour of your decision and we want, secondarily, to encourage the rest because everyone together will have more force and power to achieve the objective marked out.

     We also inform you of the suspension of the December 2 hearing by the High Court about the pay cut that we applied for in August 2013. It was going to address three charges of non-compliance and misappliance, one of them not cited by the works council, on procedural grounds. To avoid a full trial it was decided to postpone the hearing until January 28, 2014. On that day the hearing will hear the complaint of unpaid summer bonuses. At the same time some unions have been in negotiations with the company and have reached a possible agreement to agree to the suspension (of the This is something the CGT does not agree with given the negotiating intransigence of the company.


Monday, December 02, 2013


Teresa Mañe Miravent - Mother of Federica Montseny

     The following is a translation from Spanish. The Spanish original is available at the Biografias anarquistas section of the website of the CNT Puerto Real. Any errors of translation are entirely my responsibility.

     Born on November 29 1865 in Cubelles (Garraf, Catalonia) - until recently believed to be in Vilanova  i la Geltrú- the educator, activist and anarchist propagandist Teresa Mañe Miravent, better known under her pseudonym Soledad Gustavo. Her wealthy family ran the Garden Hotel in Vilanova i la Geltrú, known as the "Three Girls Hotel" as the three daughters of the family were busy attending to customers. Her father was a staunch supporter of federal republicanism and was proud of the relationship he maintained with Pi i Maragall. Teresa began studying teaching in 1883 in Barcelona and in 1886, with the help of the freethinker Bartomeu Gabarro of the Federalist Democratic Centre, opened the first secular school in Vilanova. She was a member of the Confederation of Lay Teachers of Catalonia. During this period she collaborated in El Vendaval with the federalist republican tendency. Through contacts with freethinkers she met José Pujals Lunas, Teresa Claramunt, Tarrida del Mármol, Pere Esteve and other leading anarchist militants. She participated in propaganda tours and public events and collaborated on the libertarian publications they edited (La Tramontana, El Productor, La Tormenta, etc.). In 1889 she won a prize at the Second Socialist Contest in Barcelona for her work 'Free Love' and became a spokeswoman for anarchist ideas along with Ricardo Mella, Anselmo Lorenzo and others. Through a poetry reading at a secular funeral she met Juan Montseny whom she later married in a civil ceremony on March 19, 1891, shortly after such marriages were legalized.

     The couple settled in Reus where Montseny came from, and they opened a coeducational secular school and both became teachers. Teresa's sister Carmen also lived with them in Reus, sharing all the difficulties of their anarchist activism until her death. Montseny wrote a pamphlet in defence of prisoner Paulino Pallas who had been arrested in connection with the September 24, 1893 bombing of the Cambios Nuevos in Barcelona. Montseny was arrested for this, and Mañe began a campaign for his release. Once released, however, he was rearrested in 1896 as part of the 'Trial of Montjuic'. From his cell in Montjuic Montseny wrote letters to the press, with various pseudonyms, proclaiming the innocence of the accused. Mañe was responsible for taking these letters from prison and mailing them to the press. She also made the necessary arrangements to achieve the release of all detainees. It was from one of his signatures to these letters that Juan Montseny became Federico Urales. Montseny was released but was exiled to London, along with Teresa Claramunt and Tarrida del Mármol. Mañe joined him in 1897 and found work as an embroiderer. In order to reopen their case they returned clandestinely on November 28, 1897. Montseny lived in Madrid and Mañe in Vilanova. In a short while she, along with her parents, Lorenzo and Antonia, and her sister Carmen they also moved to Madrid. While they lived there her parents died, and her daughter Federica Montseny was born in 1905.

     While in Madrid the couple edited La Revista Blanca (1898-1905) and later Tierra Y Libertad (1902-1905). Mañe performed the function of administrator even though this was not legally permitted to women at the time. In 1901 she spoke, along with Azorín and Urales in a series of conferences at the Madrid Ateneo on "The Future Society" in relation to anarchist ideas. In addition she actively participated in campaigns for the defendants in the Juarez Trials and the Mano Negro case. She participated in a tour of Andalucia in this defence camaign, staying at the home of Rosa Sanchez. The couple also actively assisted in the defence of Francisco Ferrer i Guardia wrongly accused of responsibility for the events of La Semana Trágica. When a legal conflict with Arturo Soria, the creator of the 'Ciudad Lineal of Madrid whom they accused of fraud and deception, broke out they left for Catalonia in 1912. Their intention was to found an academy in Barcelona's Horta district, but the boycott of local reactionaries led them to devote themselves to living on a farm in Cerdanyola. There Mañe did a lot of translations (Louise Michel, Cornelissen, Labriola, De la Hire, Mirabeau, Praycourt, Sorel, Marguey, Lichtenberg, Lavrov, Donnay, etc.) and copied texts for theatre companies.

     In Catalonia they once more edited La Revista Blanca and Tierra Y Libertad. They also set up various other publishing projects: 'La Novela Ideal'  which published two novels, eventually 600 in  total with a circulation of 50,000 copies; 'La Novela Libre' with more extensive stories and a circulation of 30,000 copies, the monthly 'El Munda al Dia' and a new journal 'El Luchador' which lasted until the civil war. Mañe was responsible for managing these journals while Montseny and her daughter wrote articles, novels, memoirs, etc.. Little by little the leadership of Federica became evident, and Mañe faded into the background. During the Civil War colon cancer began to undermine her life. In 1939 the family crossed the border into exile in France where they parted from each other. Mañe, ill, broke her leg and was taken by ambulance to the hospital of St. Louis of Perpiñán (northern Catalonia) where she died alone of cancer on February 5, 1939.

     Teresa Mañe published numerous articles in La Revista Blanca and in its supplements and extras. Her contributions may also be found in other anarchist periodicals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: 'El Corsario', 'Los Dominical del Libre Pensamiento','El Obrero', 'Redención', 'El Cosmipolita', 'Justicia y Libertad', 'El Trabajo', 'La Tramontana', etc.. Of her works we can highlight 'The Future Society' (1889), 'Las Preocupaciones de los Despreocupados' (1891 with Urales), 'Dos Cartas' (1891), 'A Las Proletarias' (1896), 'El Amore Libre' (1904), 'Los Diosas de la Vida' (1904), and 'El Sindicalismo y la Anarquía: Politica y Sociologica' (1932) among others.

Saturday, November 30, 2013


The Dark Side of Christian History

The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe: Morningstar and Lark, Orlando Florida, 1999 ISBN 0-9644873-4-9

     This is the sort of book that I had to force myself through. It was not so much the purported subject matter but rather the author's not-so-well-hidden agenda. This is not an overview of the crimes of the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches except insofar as these can be slotted into Ellerbe's real purpose. This purpose is to argue against Christianity and for pop-religious New-Age "spirituality" with a thin veneer of corrupted feminism. The author makes her intentions abundantly plain in the Introduction for fostering "sexism, racism, the intolerance of difference and the 'desecration' of the natural environment". It would be hard to find such a crystal clear expression of trendy leftism outside of the academy. Social class is conspicuous by its absence. So is the concept of hierarchy in general, the role of government and individual freedom (beyond sacred differences deified by a subculture). There is a vague bow to "self-determination" but no indication that this might extend to the infidels outside of the politically-correct charmed circle. It almost certainly doesn't.

     The author genuflects in her introduction to the fact that there were "alternative Christianities" in the early centuries of the Church. As might be expected from the blindfolded world view of the 'New-Age' she lavishes particular praise on the Gnostics. She also mentions the Essenes. As might be expected her knowledge of these theologies is incredibly superficial, probably drawn from other neo-mystic books that bear the same resemblance to reality as Stalinist propaganda does. The Gnostics, in the majority of cases amongst their crazy-quilt writings, were far more "anti-nature" than any orthodox theologian could ever be. Despite the lies of the orthodox their beliefs were quite ascetic, and their "hidden knowledge" consisted of an over-elaborated mythology the knowledge of which was supposedly the key to escaping the inevitably corrupt world. I know...consistency and facts are part of that great evil "science" that also has to be abolished for the dreaded New Age to dawn. Ellerbe gets well into this later.

     The author goes on to belabour the misogynist nature of early orthodox Christianity. No doubt true, but the Christological content of the early disputes is simply ignored. It's of no interest to her purpose. The economic interactions of Church and state in the Roman Empire are slighted in favour of ideological argument (or assertion). This assertion continues through the first part of the book, and the author's only digression from passing over heresies other than her favourite ones is a condemnation of the Church's disapproval of Origen's idea of reincarnation. There is little doubt that this is part of the author's ideology/theology. We also get a discussion of sex, free will and compulsion/authority though, once more, innocent of what the people at the time considered important. History is supposed to be history, not an ideological "read-back".

     Ellerbe then passes on to medieval times. She states rather than proves that it was the influence of the Church that led to the decline of the West in this period. Sort of extending Gibbon way beyond his wildest ambitions. She goes so far as to say that the practice of "bleeding" in medieval times was due to "the Monks". Go figure ! She mentions many of the "sins" of the medieval Church and misses many more. No doubt Christianity was not a "creative force" in this period, but the author implies that it was responsible for the vast picture of western decline. Barbarian invasions are, of course, irrelevant. The reality was that Christianity and its influence were contradictory , as the Marxists are fond of saying. Some of its actions were beneficial and some were malevolent. Such fine distinctions, however, escape the author.

     The author cites the monumental corruption of the medieval Papacy, something that is well established. The very corruption of the Renaissance Popes, however, was progressive in its own way. The logic of the times also dictated that the Papacy become a secular power, and many of its crimes were for "reasons of state" rather than the abstract motivations that Ellerbe likes to move in. In the end the Church was pretty much a mirror of the secular powers that it alternately fought and allied with, no better nor no worse. The atrocities that happened were typical of the age and might have been worse under some other sort of ideological "guidance" such as that of a more Gnostic Church. Ideology at the time was very much subservient to power politics.

     Ellerby passes a severe judgement on the Protestant Reformation. She denounces the common Protestant theories of free will (or lack thereof) and original sin without recognition of the disputes within Protestantism about such matters. She dates, strangely enough, the concept of an unitary God as opposed to a multiplicity of saints from this era. The veneration of saints is identified with the pantheistic, many faced. view of divinity that she favours. Yes, it is a bit of a stretch. She also notes the supposed rise of a more severe asceticism  which presumably is connected to the ideas of predestination and denial of free will. Once more remember the Gnostics that she has a superficial acquaintance with for how it could have been worse.

     In Chaper 8, The Witch Hunts: The End of Magic and Miracles" the author really hits her stride. Whatever she imagines the "witch craze" was actually a reversal of early Church opinion which opined that most of what was called "witchcraft" was ignorance and superstition. Pretty true actually, though such "witchcraft" was considered orthodox when properly covered with a Christian veneer. The campaign against "witchcraft" was never so extensive as the author imagines.

     The Inquisition played a prominent role in the "witch hunt". Whatever the author says however, the main motive behind this was self-interest and bureaucratic expansion. The so-called "witches" only came into the purview of the 'Holy Office' during its decline when it was running out of real victims. The author (deliberately ?) refuses to examine the extent of the Inquisition's dealing with "witches" and how they compare with its total business. She relies only on anecdote and insinuation. Whatever Ellerbe's sympathies the mass of Inquisitorial victims were "heretics" rather than "witches" if for no other reason than that the estates of heretics were a better source of plunder. I guess, however, that this would spoil the author's narrative of a contest of ideas as opposed to one of interests.

     In Chapter 9 Ellerbe makes her purpose quite clear again with the title 'Alieniation From Nature', Uh huh ! She makes the ideological assertion that a Christian view of the world as "sinful" (once more a step down from her beloved Gnostics) led to some sort of "separation" that became a leitmotif of western society. Oh well, I guess that the vast majority of people who lived in rural areas until recent decades were "obviously" alienated because of this presumed ideology. Just to be obvious the author u8ses this opportunity to sing a little paean to pre-Christian paganism. This was supposedly "non-alienated". Yes, I'm sure !

     The author moves on to the modern age in Chapter 10, 'A World Without God'. In this chapter the author outdoes any of her Jesuit opponents by attempting (and failing in my opinion) to twist facts and logic to say that the modern science that has disproved so much of dogmatic religion is itself a mere development of said religion. Yes, it is quite a stretch, and an accusation that sticks much more to New-Age religiosity than to any secular viewpoint. But if logic and facts are "bad things" and (cough, cough) "alienating" then you can "prove" anything you so damn well please.

     Of course we come face to face with the usual chintzy mystic "proof" of such a thing via a misinterpretation of the quantum world that the author has only a child's version of. Sighhhh ! It seems to occur pretty well everywhere in such a world. The author quotes a person named E.H. Walker to this effect;

     "...the universe is 'inhabited' by an almost unlimited number of conscious, usually non-thinking (oh, non-thinking consciousnesses - mm), entities that are responsible for the detailed working of the universe"

     Once more, uh-huh. God, or gods if you like, as cosmic obsessive compulsives. Ellerby fails to see the humour is such a statement. For those who are interested you can look up this "authority" that the author quotes. For instance you can see his tax-dodge "Cancer Institute" via 'Charity Navigator' where the "fund-raising" expenses are quoted as $10,149,158, the cost of "Administration" (mostly his widow actually) as $457,040 and the tiny, little beast of "programs" at the end as $290,174. There again you can look Walker up on Wikipedia. This long time US military researcher no doubt did his research in an "ant-sexist, anti-racist respect for 'difference' and the natural environment" manner. It has to be true by the worldview of the author because he is "spiritual". I hope his victims in the Third World appreciate such a refined soul.

     I guess the reader can estimate how much I disliked this book. From the opening when she presents her opinion that controlling people through "dictating and controlling their spirituality is the most (sic) insidious and damaging slavery of all" her agenda is quite clear. In a backhand way this book presents a bare-bones account of the "dark side" of Christianity, but the historical facts are treated superficially because of the much more important (to the author) need to fit them into her ideology. It would have been better to present a more thorough history rather than spend effort in trying to hammer square pegs into round holes.

Monday, November 25, 2013



The RNA World: Third Edition. Raymond F. Gesteland, Thomas R. Cech and John F. Atkins eds., Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor New York 2006. ISBN: 0-87969-739-3

     In the beginning was the nucleoside, and the nucleoside was of the tribe of base and the tribe of pentose. And it was null and void, and then "let there be phosphate" was said in the beginning.

     It is almost orthodoxy that prior to modern life whose genetic information is contained in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) there was a world in which RNA (ribonucleic acid) was the basis of life, both in terms of information storage and in terms of the catalysis that is presently done by protein enzymes. I'm presently reading a book with various aspects of this "RNA world". The subject matter is far ranging and presented by an assembly of authors. It's indicative of the progress of this field that even a book published in 2006 may be out-of-date in many things. Yet, some things still hold true, and many speculations remain just that.

Chapter 1: Setting the Stage: The History, Chemistry and Geobiology Behind RNA by Steven A. Benner, Mathew A. Carrigan Alonso Ricardo and Fabianne Frye

     This introduction is a review of RNA chemistry. It also states the two basic hypotheses of the RNA world. One is the "RNA first" theory where early organic chemistry would lead directly to oligonucleoside chains that were genetically capable. The other hypothesis is the "genetic takeover" theory in which RNA only later became the repository of genetic information when it "took over" this function from a previous self-replicating system. There is good evidence, working backward from present biochemistry, that RNA was an earlier form of genetic control. The second theory is more speculative.

     By also working backwards from molecular phylogeny it is also pretty well established that protein synthesis via translation was present in the early eubacteria living near 2 billion years ago. This means that the RNA world was a thing of the past by then. There is strong evidence that ALL present life descended from a last universal common ancestor (LUCA) that had well established translation system. There are, however, systems of duplicate proteins/genes which could have predated this LUCA.

     "Moving forwards" from the origin of Earth gives another perspective on the beginnings of genetic control whether by RNA directly or by genetic takeover.Many alternatives to our present DNA and RNA with different bases, different systems of polymerization or different sugar backbones have been synthesized and investigated.

     The authors of this chapter go into a number of possible catalytic and autocatalytic mechanisms using the concepts of nucleophilicity and electrophilicity. They begin with the synthesis of ribose from formaldehyde (presumably already present on an early Earth) via the formose reaction in which glycolaldehyde (3 carbon) is an end product. Another carbon of formaldehyde can pair with this to form a four carbon sugar as can another glycolaldehyde to form a pentose such as ribose with the production of another formaldehyde.

     Both formaldehyde and glycolaldehyde are naturally present in the interstellar medium. While much of this reaction is autocatalytic there is a problem.The ribose formed such a reaction itself takes part automatically in further reactions to form a complex mixture of products known affectionately as "brown goo". This has led several proposals of ways in which ribose could be stabilized. It has also led to theories about pre-RNA alternatives such as peptide nucleic acids or non-sugar backgrounds for the primordial genetic system.

     One way in which ribose may be made more stable is if the original reactants are phosphate esters of glycolaldehyde. The result is a pentose 2,4-diphosphate. An alternative mechanism is via stabilization via 'minerals'. The most quoted example is borate, B(OH)3 which forms a complex with two hydroxyl groups on ribose. Or with glyceraldehyde which can then combine with glocolaldehyde to form a pentose.

     Borate salts are often soluble in water and are found in deposits from evaporate water. [Think the Borax 20 Mule Team from Death Valley Days.]. Such evaporates may be found in dry valleys such as Death Valley or in a 'playa lake' (a high pH incompletely evaporated body of water). Could Death Valley really be "Life Valley" ? Borate deposits in China from Archean time show that such systems were present in Earth's past.

     One of the difficult points of this perspective of ribose synthesis is step 1, the reaction of formaldehyde to form glycolaldehyde. Once the latter is formed the reaction then becomes autocatalytic. Even though glycolaldehyde is present in space the reaction for its formation is kinetically unlikely. This, however, may not be an insurmountable problem given enough deep time.

     The necessity of water throws further complications in the way of nucleic acid synthesis. First of all the bases adenine, cytosine and guanine are all unstable in water at pH 7 and 37 degrees. Similarly the sugar-base bond and the phosphate ester bonds are prone to hydrolysis in such conditions. The modern genome survives because of continued enzymatic repair. Water, on the other hand, is generally considered necessary for nucleic acid base pairing.

     The authors suggest that an alternating dry-wet environment such as that of alkali lakes might be a possible place where RNA chemistry could become stable. They also mention formamide as an alternative solvent other than water. This liquid is also most likely to be found in a desert environment.

     This chapter ends by stating the authors' preference for an 'RNA-first' model as most consistent with our present knowledge. This is supported both by the ribose chemistry that they review and by information of models of other possible genetic polymers.