Aleksandr Ivanovich Oparin, a Russian biochemist, advanced theories on the origin of life based on the chemical components of the early atmosphere. At first his theories were met with skepticism, but later they achieved some measure of acceptance in the scientific community.
Oparin was born in the village of Uglich, near Moscow. His family moved to the Russian capital when he was nine, due to there being no secondary school in Uglich. Oparin stayed in Moscow and eventually attended Moscow State University, where he majored in plant physiology. He was greatly influenced by a plant physiologist at the university by the name of K. A. Timiryazev. Timiryazev had known Darwin, and the influence of this relationship can be seen often in Oparin’s writings.
Oparin’s theory was intended to extend Darwinian evolution back through time to show how simple chemical compounds, both organic and inorganic, could have formed into complex organic compounds, and how the first organism could have formed from these complex organic compounds.
Oparin made his first public presentation of these views in 1922 during the meetings of the Russian Botanical Society. Oparin’s theory relied on several ideas that were regarded with skepticism by his peers, for example, the method of nourishment acquisition he proposed for the first organism. Oparin claimed that the primordial organism was heterotrophic; that is, it obtained nutrients by consuming organic compounds. More popular was the theory that the first organisms would have had to create their own nutrients in a manner similar to that of modern plants.
He also proposed tenets in his theory that contradicted the view of life as essentially molecular and further claimed that living organisms cannot survive without receiving energy and nutrients from their environments. Both views were controversial. Despite opposition, Oparin was able to do much of his work as a result of advancements in organic chemistry, the likes of which were not available to earlier researchers in the field.
In 1935, the Soviet government created a biochemical institute in honor of Oparin’s friend and mentor A. N. Bakh. Oparin was instrumental in the founding of the Moscow-based institute and served as its director until his death. While at the institute, Oparin did much to advance the study of the origin of life. In 1957, the first international conference on the origin of life was held under his direction in Moscow, with 16 countries represented. The conference met twice more, once in 1963, and then again in 1970. It was during the 1970 meetings in Pont-a-Mousson that Oparin was named the first president of the new International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life.
Oparin also performed research in the fields of enzymology and industrial biochemistry along with his studies into the origin of life, but he remained focused on the last for the most part. On his 70th birthday, the book Problems in Evolutionary and Industrial Biochemistry was published in Oparin’s honor, reflecting his important contributions to that field. He received a multitude of awards during his life including the Order of Lenin, Hero of Socialist Labor, and the Mechnikov Gold Medal. Oparin died on April 21,1980.
Oral literature, or oral mediums, are stories that are or have been transmitted in spoken forms, such as a public recitation, rather than through the medium of writing.
Many societies, both pre-literate and literate, have a tradition of oral literature that includes short folktales, legends, myths, proverbs, and riddles. As well, many have a tradition of longer narrative compositions or epics, like the Odyssey and the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh creation myth. These oral compositions were added to over many centuries before they were committed to paper.
When compared to written literature, oral literature’s distinctive features include spontaneous outbursts of feelings; deep, traditional roots preserved through memory. Folklore and folktales are part of oral literature; it is literature that is not normally read in an academic setting but is more often told at informal gatherings, such as a wedding or a funeral. Those who practice oral literature or “story telling” are not always educated; rather, they tend to be the working person or the elderly member of a family to whom one may normally not pay attention. Many of these stories or oral histories are traceable to ethnic groups; others incorporate elements of more than one ethnic group.
Some prime examples of this type of oral history, or oral literature, that is still very prevalent can be heard in Central America, specifically in Belize and Guatemala, where there is an ethnic mix of Africans, Mayans, and the dominant ethnic group, the Spanish. The oral literature in Belize and Guatemala is rich in the overlapping of these peoples. The overlaps underline remarkable degrees of concurrence, not only in the folk legends but also the cosmology of Central America, despite ethnic differentiation. It is the appreciation and depth of such cross-fertilization that produces the collective consciousness of these peoples as one people tied together by their oral history and their oral literature.
Oral literature and oral histories are inevitably tied to the concepts of time and memory. At the level of oral literature and oral language, however, permanence depends solely on memory. Implicit in this concept of an oral literature is the recollection of time, not as a defining method of measurement, but in the sense and awareness of duration and also the differences between past, present, and future. B. L. Whorf’s study of Hopi oral literature provides powerful evidence of a universal connection between time and language and the advent of oral histories and oral literature.
Oral literature often incorporates elements of the past and the present with some mention of the future; such stories are rich with metaphors and often contain moral and ethical messages. Other times oral literature is simply a story that involves the recollection of a particular historical event, or a great message of passage, or an odyssey. Oral literature is often a simple trip through the recollected experiences of a storyteller, the sum of his or her life, loves, passions, and the ways in which an individual acts in a given situation. Oral literature is, in many cases, the only knowledge that a people have to understand their heritage and their ancestry, where they came from, where they have been, and where they are going.
The Yucatec Maya of the Belize River Valley are centuries removed from their great historical ancestors; removed by time, but not by memory. The oral literature of the Yucatec is rich with the myths and legends of the ancient Mayans who once ruled the entire Yucatan Peninsula. Their lives are tied to their past, both Mayan and later Spanish Catholicism. Such oral literature is bursting with memories and images of the people, their land, and the spirits of the jungle places. One such folktale is of the Alux, the guardian spirit of the archaeological site and the surrounding land. The Alux is a dominant oral character among the Yucatec Maya and is spoken of mainly in villages such as San Antonio and San Jose Succotz, in the Cayo District. Oral stories of the Alux are also told at Ambergris Caye on the coast of Belize. The Alux is also referred to as Duendecillo, and Donato and his brothers. Although only one foot high, the Alux has the appearance of a robust, arrogant Maya. The Alux is united to the Mayan farming community and the milpa, and is said to take care of the lands and the villages that are near the milpa. The oral story of the Alux is told by the Yucatec medicine people, while they fashion from clay and other fluids the Alux figure. The Alux serves a social function within the village; it is the reminder of the past tied together with the present and the daily struggle to work the land. Each variation on the Alux is the interpretation of the storyteller as he or she weaves the tapestry of life in the Belizean River Valley and the daily interaction with the land.
Oral literature can also be seen as the combination of personal history and the cultural history of an ethnic group, a region, and a smaller social unit: family and community. Thus, such oral stories are the ways and means of a society to understand and be united with its past and present and future.
Oral literature has its roots in the consciousness of the western experience and can be traced back to the Assyrians, Hittites, and especially the Greeks. The works of Homer are the commutation of the oral tradition that tells the story, in oral literature fashion, of the great Mycenaean empire, the Trojan War, and the odyssey of Odysseus. In ancient Rome, part of the oral literature was the combined works of Virgil, a collection of stories and adventures of Aeneas, the Trojan father of Romulus and Remus, the ancestors of the Roman republic.
Oral literature can be both stories that tell a history and the myths and legends that a people believe explain where and how they came to be. For example, in one Native American creation myth, White Buffalo Calf Woman gave the seven nations tobacco, maize, and the sacred pipe ceremony. Implicit in the oral literature of North American indigenous peoples are the understanding of the earth’s spirit and the place of the human being in this delicate balance.
Oral literature, oral histories, and the oral tradition is a rich fabric of personal stories, legends, morals, and oftentimes the history of a people that transcends time and place.
- Belize UNESCO Commission. (1991). Characters and caricatures in Belizean folklore. Belize: Author.
- Whorf, B. L. (1956). Language, thought and reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.