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Seven Clues to the Origin of Life: A Scientific Detective Story (Canto) Paperback – November 30, 1990

ISBN-13: 978-0521398282 ISBN-10: 0521398282 Edition: Reprint

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Product Details

  • Series: Canto
  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition (November 30, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521398282
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521398282
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #713,843 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


'I know of no other book that succeeds as well as this one in maintaining the central question in focus throughout. It is a summary of the best evolutionary thinking as applied to the origins of life in which the important issues are addressed pertinently, economically and with a happy recourse to creative analogies.' Nature

'... a splendid story - and a much more convincing one than the molecular biologists can offer as an alternative. Cairns-Smith has argued his case before in the technical scientific literature, here he sets it out in a way from which anyone - even those whose chemistry and biology stopped at 16 - can learn.' New Statesman

Book Description

The mysteries surrounding the origins of life on earth are written in detective story fashion by a world famous scientist in this popular version of Genetic Takeover, originally published in 1982.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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Ah yes, crystals of clay!
world class wreckin cru
It's a short book; you can read it in two or three days at a very leisurely pace.
Bruce Oksol
The topic and the ideas presented by the author enthrall my students.
Brenna Lorenz (

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Howard Schneider on November 26, 2000
Format: Paperback
This reference, intended for the general reader, treats the problem of the origins of life on Earth as a Sherlock Holmes mystery to be solved. The reader is introduced to organic chemistry and the workings of an E. coli, to show how difficult it is to get chemical systems to produce products such as RNA or DNA, and yet, how very complex a simple cell is. It is suggested that perhaps instead of thinking classically as DNA as the controlling element and core of the cell, ie, DNA-> RNA-> proteins, think from a supply perspective, ie, at the core of the cell are carbon molecules such as carbon dioxide -> subcomponents -> amino acids -> nucleotides & DNA, ie, DNA is not at the core, but is most outward layer, and probably evolved the last too. It is proposed that the ultimate ancestor of life on Earth did not use RNA or DNA as a genetic system, but with evolution, a 'genetic takeover' occurred whereby the now-familiar RNA and DNA systems emerged. The phenomenon of self-assembly of molecules, from soap bubbles to the folding of proteins to the formation of crystals is discussed. This leads to the proposal that the very early genes on Earth were in fact 'crystal genes'. The crystallization of supersaturated solutions is discussed, and it is noted how small crystals cause 'reproduction' and 'growth' of more crystal from the supersaturated solution. Geological processes on Earth produce huge amounts of clay minerals. Crystals all have defect structures, with the result no two crystals are identical. The first 'lifeforms' on Earth were inorganic crystal-based entities that reproduced and grew as such.Read more ›
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Atheen on February 3, 2003
Format: Paperback
A. Graham Cairns-Smith has created a small gem in his Seven Clues to the Origin of Life. The book, a discussion of the pre-biotic stage of the evolution of life, is concise, logical and lucid and explained in terms that would be comprehensible to anyone from the junior high student with a basic science education to beyond it. As Daniel C. Dennett writes in the journal Nature about another of the author's books, "Cairns-Smith is a brilliant explainer of difficult ideas, bringing to the task an imagination that is magnificently disciplined by detailed scientific understanding."
I had heard of the concept of a crystal template for the creation of organic molecules while studying mineralogy for a geology degree in the 1980s, so Cairns-Smith's topic had already intrigued me. When I found reference to this book in the annotated bibliography of another I was reading, I decided to look it over too. I wasn't disappointed.
Dr Cairns-Smith is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Chemistry Department at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. The main area of his research has been in simple non-nucleic acid genetic systems which might have been important in the earliest stages of the evolution of life, a topic on which he has collaborated with others and continued to publish in professional journals as recently as 1996. So he is eminently prepared to discuss the pre-biotic era of life.
Although the book is old for a work of science (1985), it is nonetheless still very much a leading idea in the subject of the early stages of life. Furthermore, the author cleverly puts the topic into terms that most of his readers will understand, even borrowing concepts from architecture/building, the nature of ropes, and the history of technology to do so.
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I found this book while doing some research in the aftermath of an online discussion of just how unlikely the formation of the first replicators (the first things that could undergo evolution) was.

In that discussion someone had remarked (after reading some creationist stuff) that it was just fantastically impossible for the first cell, or even the first nucleotide, to come together more or less by accident. I replied that of course no one serious thinks that the first replicator was a whole cell, or even a modern sort of nucleotide; it was presumably some very low-tech and inefficient thing, just barely able to reproduce itself imperfectly once in a blue moon. After I said that I realized that while it seemed perfectly obvious to me, and that all right-thinking people must agree, I didn't specifically recall any of the right-thinking people in question. So I went and did some research, and (among other things) I found this book.

In "Seven Clues to the Origin of Life", A. G. Cairns-Smith, a molecular biologist and so on at the University of Glasgow, lays out in an amusing and chatty way (including numerous Sherlock Holmes quotations) his argument that yes the first replicator really couldn't have been any of the replicators that we have today, or even anything very much like them. And he presents his own theory as to what they in fact were: inorganic clay crystals of a certain type that seem to have (or seem capable of having) both the requisite ability to do a kind of very low-tech replication, and the potential to have eventually provided the platform on which our current much higher-tech replicators (DNA and all that) got their start.
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