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Our emergent origin

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Gen-e-sis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins

by Robert Hazen

The title and subtitle say it all, really. This book is a fairly high level overview of what we know about the origin of life and some of scientists behind the search for answers. The author is a scientist working in the field and an active participant in some of the issues surrounding the origin of life.

The book is organized straightforwardly, starting with the question of what life is, progressing through the generation of organic molecules, and finishing with self-replicating polymers like RNA. Central to Hazen’s presentation is the idea of “emergence,” which essentially means the process by which unique and complex systems arise from simpler systems. The opposite of reductionism, as Hazen says. It’s a pretty simple concept, but difficult to quantify in meaningful ways. The book also features occasional “interludes” dealing with somewhat related topics like creationism and women in science. Hazen intertwines both quest and science throughout the book, giving us a glimpse at both the scientists doing the research and participating in the debate and the science they’re producing.

I’m hard pressed to find flaws in the book when I take it for what it is. Part of me wanted a less general view of things, but the other part of me knows I already read a fairly detailed book on the subject and got lost in the details. In the end, it does a pretty good job of giving the reader an overall view of the question of life’s origin along with details about the specific hypotheses involved. I also started off a little annoyed with the “quest” aspect of it, as I wasn’t reading the book for the scientists involved. That said, they turned out to be fairly interesting and even heart-breaking at times, as when Hazen describes a scientist (Glenn Goodfriend) succumbing to a tooth infection that had spread to his brain and Stephen Jay Gould going over his Cerion shells saying “20 more years is all I need” a few months before his death.

The science in the book is interesting to me, but I only understand it at a very basic level. Discussing it very thoroughly is beyond my ability. That said, I did find one thing interesting on a broader level. Hazen describes many experiments and theories that show promise and generate excitement at first, but later fail on some level. The book is occasionally anti-climactic. Hazen does mention that we learn plenty when experiments fail, as anyone interested in science knows, but it seems like he should have devoted more time to it. It’s something that seemed to pop up quite a bit early in the book and I wonder if an “interlude” on the subject wouldn’t have been a good idea. That’s my only real quibble, however. Hazen does an excellent job of presenting what science knows while making sure the reader understands that it’s dwarfed by what we don’t know.

If you’re interested in the subject, I whole-heartedly recommend this book. Hazen writes very well and communicates the scientific concepts in such a way to make them both understandable and interesting. And the next time some creationist says “evolutionists believe we came from rocks” you’ll have an understanding of the awe-inspiring process that lead to our precursors and realize just how stupid that statement is.

Categories: 26 in 52, Science
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  1. January 14, 2007 at 4:04 pm

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