26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on March 22, 2008
The Emergence of Life by Pier Luigi Luisi is a thoughtful book. It is not a book where to find easy answers on how the life appeared on Earth. Rather, on the contrary. The author scholastic and erudition is impressive on subjects from fundamental physics and chemistry up to polictics and language. Luisi included topics as difficult to define as self-organization and emergence, not only in the biological and biochemical context, but also in social behaviour and economics, for example. The text is crystal-clear, based mostly on arguments from others, but also by the author's personal thinkings based on a life long scientific carreer (over 300 scientific publications), first at the ETH-Zurich (Switzerland) then at Rome 3 (Italy). The book is strongly based on scientific support and thoroughly referenced (over 500 scientific references, including papers of scientific journals and books), and includes an excellent subject index. Graphs and figures are of good support to understand the text. I really recommend it for readers interested on the non-trivial hypotheses of life arousal on Earth. A point (?): Luisi does not include any religious discussion in his book. I was very pleased with his well balanced way of thinking.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2012
In "The Emergence of Life", Pier Luigi Luisi gives an overview of synthetic biology, a field in which he has some 40+ years experience. In a sense this almost reads like a long review article, although Luisi's personal preferences and philosophy are presented most prominently. Luisi defines life on the basis of 'autopoeisis': "a system can be said to be living if it is able to transform external energy into an internal process of self-maintenance and production of its own components." Autopoeisis was a view of life first put forth by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the 1970s. A main point of Luisi's account is that this view was regrettably ignored in favor of nucleic acid reductionism. Luisi is optimistic, however, that the current trend towards systems biology is reviving many of the views of the Chilean school. It is worth noting that Varela was heavily involved at the interface of biology and Buddhism, and it appears as though Luisi has been as well - which might be one reason why some biologists are reluctant to embrace the word 'autopoiesis', even if they agree with the fundamental tenets.
Given this perspective, the book is quite critical of reductionist RNA-world accounts of the origin of life. While self-replicating RNA molecules might sound elegant, as Luisi puts it "in fact, we simply do not know how to make long polypeptides by prebiotic means". Luisi is more favorable towards 'compartmentalist' studies of synthetic biology that focus on micelles, liposomes, and vesicles in an attempt to create a 'minimal cell'. Much of the book is an overview of the research that has been done in this regard. It is full of references, and if you are not particularly keen on learning such details you might find it somewhat dry.
One criticism I had of the book is that it is almost too synthetic in perspective. At many times I got the sense that the argument reduced to what is easier in the lab is a better explanation for the origin of life. Personally, I am not all that interested in these early attempts to create proto-life in the laboratory, and am not convinced that they can tell us all that much concerning the enormous parameter space that must have been available during the Earth's history. Basically, I don't feel that I learned all that much about the origin of life, rather than that it is quite difficult and enormously contentious.
A second minor criticism I have of this book is that it doesn't really do a great job in incorporating fields like physics and information theory. To give just one example, Luisi references Schrodinger's famous book 'What is Life?' but doesn't really talk about the negentropy ('free energy') view of life. This is too bad, as it would have provided a natural bridge between the chemistry and the higher level concepts of autopoeisis. In fact, I will note that neuroscientist Karl Friston has been leading a revival of sorts of Schrodinger 'free energy' view, and it has some pretty clear similarities to the autopoeisis account. This book doesn't get into the physics quite enough for my tastes - for example, I found the chapter on emergence a little weak. However, there is no doubting that Luisi's speciality, synthetic biology, is extensively covered.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 18, 2008
I found this book to be an excellent review of the scientific literature that relates to the chemistry of the origin of life. The author brings forth the concepts and the relevant experiments to those concepts. His diagrams and graphs are a great help towards understanding. I used it as a textbook this past year for an introductory course in which one has at least a college sophmore's knowledge of chemistry and biology. I will be using it again. The more valuable aspect for me was the review of the literature.