The Emergence of Life – A Chapter by Chapter Review

So begins round two of my book reviews.  I bought The Emergence of Life: From Chemical Origins to Synthetic Biology by Dr. Pier Luigi Luisi pretty much without knowing anything about the author or the book. I honestly don’t know if this is a primer for the non-scientist or a hardcore science book that’ll have me reading with a CRC on my bedstand.

My initial glances indicate that this ought to be pretty good in terms of content accuracy though.  There are 29 pages of single spaced small font references for peer-reviewed work.  Everything from Stanley Miller on up through some 2005 references.

I am disappointed by one thing.  The Amazon page says this was published in 2010.  Well, the paperback edition was published in 2010, but the hardback is a 2006 publication.  Not quite as current as I would have liked, but acceptable.

I am impressed with the organization as evidenced by the table of contents.  The first chapter, has a subhead chapter dealing with creationists.  There is a section at the end of each chapter is a set of ‘concluding remarks’.  Following that is a section called ‘questions for the reader’, which was interesting enough to have me turn to a few of those pages and investigate.

These aren’t just ‘what did I talk about on page 3’ questions, but really some very thought provoking questions.  Is an apple that falls from the tree still alive?  Without reading the book, I can actually offer what I think.

Is an apple that falls from the tree still alive.  The first inclination is ‘sure, of course it i, why would you even ask that?’.  But if you think about it for a second, it really makes you wonder.

What does it mean to be alive?  Does the apple alone meet those requirements?

If you take the classical definition of life

  • made of cells
  • responds to the environment
  • maintains homeostasis
  • metabolism
  • self (or within species) reproduction
  • growth

If you consider these, then the apple itself is not alive.  It does not grow or reproduce.  It contains seeds, but it is only a part of the plant, not the whole.  It cannot reproduce, only the tree itself can reproduce.  Arguably, it does not respond to the environment.  I’m including chemical response to oxygen here.  If you don’t include that, then the apple does not respond to the environment.

It’s actually not a trivial question, “is the apple alive after it falls from the tree”.  The cells are alive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the whole is alive.

Of course, if you redefine life to exclude some of these topics, then you change whether the apple is alive or not, by definition.

I’m pretty excited about this review.

I think, as part of my review, I will answer the questions in the back of each chapter, in my own way.

I’ll start reading tonight and it may be a while… lots to do this weekend (see here for example).

Chapter links

Chapter 1 – Conceptual Framework of Research

Chapter 2 – Approaches to the Definition of Life

Chapter 3 – Selection in Prebiotic Chemistry

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