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Emergence of Life on Earth: A Historical and Scientific Overview Paperback – February 1, 2000

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Editorial Reviews


"A rich source for the specialist and thought-provoking reading for the lay person." -- Gunter Wachtershauser, University of Regensburg, Germany

"Essential reading for people in disciplines ranging from philosophy to biology. It is simple the best general book that I know on the question of the origin of life." - -- Michael Ruse, author of Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?

"Fry has fashioned a masterful account of the history, philosophy, and science of the origin of life and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Her story weaves profound Western ideas of who we are and where we came from, from Aristotle to Gould, from Kant to NASA." -- Woodruff Sullivan, University of Washington

From the Back Cover

How did life emerge on Earth? Is there life on other worlds? These questions, until recently confined to the pages of speculative essays and tabloid headlines, are now the subject of legitimate scientific research. This book presents a unique perspective-a combined historical, scientific, and philosophical analysis, which does justice to the complex nature of the subject.

The book's first part offers an overview of the main ideas on the origin of life as they developed from antiquity until the twentieth century. The second, more detailed part of the book examines contemporary theories and major debates within the origin-of-life scientific community.

Topics include: - Aristotle and the Greek atomists' conceptions of the organism - Alexander Oparin and J.B.S. Haldane's 1920s breakthrough papers - Possible life on Mars? - The search for extraterrestrial intelligence - Recent discoveries of extrasolar planets

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Rutgers University Press; 1 edition (February 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813527406
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813527406
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,040,801 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on February 6, 2004
Format: Paperback
From the ancient Greek philosophers through Enlightenment science to today's high-tech world, how life originated has been a compelling question. Fry presents the thinkers and their ideas about this enigma with penetrating skill. Her recapitulation of the philosophical questions set in their historical perspective demonstrates the persistence of many concepts regarding life's history. "Spontaneous generation", now considered a quaint idea, dominated the view of theologians and natural scientists alike. Even when empirical experiments demonstrated the falsity of the notion, versions of it remained, deflecting other proposals.
Fry shows how Darwin's idea of natural selection over vast periods of time allowed tracing a view of life back to simple, microscopic life forms. Darwin's famous "warm little pond" may have been an incomplete picture, but it demonstrated a break with established notions. Complex life evolved from simple life, not fully blown from a soiled shirt. Only in the 20th Century did technology and the discovery of unanticipated life forms in extreme conditions allow a look at the chemical basis of life before complexity could emerge.
Fry carefully and skillfully examines all these steps, giving each thinker his due while placing him in historical context. There's more than one surprise here for those who don't know the lives of researchers such as Pasteur, Eigen or Oparin. As she reveals the progress of thinking on the subject, Fry examines the roots of various proposals, their advances and their shortcomings. Was life's beginning protein-based? Are amino acids the foundation or the product of life? Did RNA precede DNA or the reverse? Science proceeds on a step-by-step basis and Fry describes that halting, but useful process far better than most.
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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Dorion Sagan on November 19, 2003
Format: Paperback
Trained in philosophy, but more than conversant in chemistry and biochemistry, Iris Fry does the scientific community a splendid service in offering this comprehensive and up-to-date look at the scientific work being done on life's origins. She points out that it is ultimately a metaphysical matter, resting on faith--but on faith backed up by the splendid track record of scientific empiricism--that life evolved, most likely on Earth, from inanimate matter. But as you read this detailed and wonderfully referenced work the odds of life appearing otherwise appreciably diminish, and a picture, soberly stated and carefully argued, of a metabolic (pre-genetic) origin prior to genes subtly insinuates itself into your rational consciousness. My favorite part of the work is the reference to Jeffrey Wicken whose critique of Manfred Eigen's hypercyle theory leads me to suggest that a selfish RNA world would no more be likely to encumber its streamlined replicants with bodies than an Olympic sprinter would be to run a three-legged race. I am not sure about her Kantian interpretations and she misses some important work on the origins of life, such as Clifford Matthews hydrogen cyanide world; she also does not (in my opinion) sufficiently ground life's early cyclical processes in cyclical nonequilibrium thermodynamic systems. But you can't have everything--where would you put it?
I love the fact that she is a philosopher and outside the various factions she surveys. This means she has no axe to grind and you can trust her as a fair guide among the competing views which, she points out, will increasingly come together as science moves forward. Best read along with Freeman Dyson's revised, 1999 edition entitled Origins of Life.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Jill Malter on May 18, 2005
Format: Paperback
This is an excellent overview of the research on the origin of life. It starts with historical material, including the refutation of ancient "spontaneous generation" theories by Pasteur. We then get to the Darwinians. Haeckel in particular felt that inanimate matter made a transition to a living system in an evolutionary manner. In the 1920s, Oparin and Haldane speculated on the organic components and atmosphere that might have been present on the early Earth. And Fry tells us of the Urey-Miller experiment of 1953.

Next we find out about the contributions of Sidney Fox, who suggested a model that started with abiotic material and then generated amino acids, condensed them to form "protenoids," and then formed cell-like "microspheres." This was a "protein-first approach." That is contrasted with the "gene-first approach" and accompanying experiments by Spiegelman, Orgel, and Eigen.

There is a discussion of the "RNA world" and whether or not there was a world of earlier self-replicators. And Fry gives arguments for and against the ideas of Freeman Dyson (with the emphasis on primitive cells), Stuart Kauffman (with the emphasis on "catalytic closure") and Gunter Wachtershauser (with the emphasis on Iron Sulfide chemistry).

Fry is at her best discussing the need to ask if life originated by a series of likely steps, by design, or by one or more unlikely steps. She makes it clear that long required sequences simply can't form by pure chance. There must be some natural ordering (such as in snowflakes) as well as incremental improvement (in an evolutionary manner). And if we are left with some theories that require some incredible luck and some theories that do not require such luck, we'll obviously prefer the latter. She discusses de Duve's ideas here.
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