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The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language Paperback – November 26, 2000

ISBN-13: 978-0192862099 ISBN-10: 9780192862099

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (November 26, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780192862099
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192862099
  • ASIN: 019286209X
  • Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 0.5 x 4.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,015,296 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Life is a long, strange trip, and in The Origins of Life, John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry blast you through its three-and-a-half-billion-year history at breathtaking pace.

Life, we learn, is information, transmitted in ever more intricate ways across the generations. Self-replicating chemicals walled themselves into cells, organized themselves into regimented communities of chromosomes, swapped notes with other populations to become sexual, cloned themselves to form multicellular colonies called organisms, got together with other colonies to form societies, and, eventually, in the case of one particular ape, developed the ability to put this whole story down on paper.

For those evolutionists brought up on the theory of "red queens" and "self genes," Origins provides a complementary crash course in the practical nuts-and-bolts biology behind the headlines. The authors describe the technical problems involved in the transition from one stage to another, and explain the ingenious and often fortuitous steps that natural selection took to overcome them. For example, the rigid walls of the first cells gave way to more flexible membranes that could engulf food particles and incorporate "little organs" such as mitochondria. A "cytoskeleton" of filaments and tubules was needed to maintain the cell's integrity, and--presto!--this structure was the perfect motorway for intracellular traffic, ideal for shearing the cell apart during cloning, and provided the earliest means of locomotion, such as the tail of sperm.

With this attention to detail, the book requires careful reading--but it's worth it. Maynard Smith and Szathmáry's book makes you realize just how lucky you are to be alive. --Oliver Curry, --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

How did life on Earth go from individual molecules in hot carbon soup to viral spirals, to cells, to sex cells, to us? Smith and Szathmary's The Major Transitions in Evolution (1995), addressed to other evolutionary biologists, responded to this question by reviewing Darwinism through the lens of information theory. The authors' new work brings nonexpert readers an "account of the evolution of complexity," of changes in the ways "genetic information... is stored, transmitted and translated." Smith and Szathmary (professors, respectively, at the University of Sussex, England, and the Collegium Budapest, Hungary) apply their model to periods in the history of life, from the era of the first self-replicating molecules to the advent of chromosomes and thence to cells and cell walls, sexual differentiation and mating, symbiosis between species, animal societies and symbolic speech. Directing their interest in information transfer to biological processes and epochs, they cover topics ranging from the definition of life (why do we not call fire "alive"?) to the basis of tribal warfare. Moving speedily from epoch to epoch, fueled by a few important concepts (such as the division of labor) and explaining all the genetics they use, Smith and Szathmary show "just how difficult it has been to evolve complex organisms whose genes co-operate rather than compete." A chapter on sex offers several theories of how it arose; a later chapter examines the origins of our built-in ways of understanding and generating grammatical sentences in our native languages. Compact, dense, formidable yet accessible, this book exposes readers to the cutting edge in theoretical evolutionary biology.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

This is like a lighter, easier to read version of that.
This is a superb summation of evolution's workings and a must read for anyone wishing a start in the mechanics of life.
Stephen A. Haines
Very interesting and easy enough to follow with a little effort.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on December 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
Readers cruising through the wealth of books on evolution that have appeared in recent years will see one name [after Darwin] appearing almost universally. Either found in the text or the Bibliography, the name of John Maynard Smith stands ubiquitous. There's a good reason for such respect - Maynard Smith is both a capable scientist and strong presenter of science. This book, brief as it is, stands out as a prime example of his skilled writing hand. His collaborator, Eors Szathmary an Hungarian chemist, has clearly provided a wealth of resource information on many aspects of how life's mechanisms determined the path of evolution of early life. This is their second association, and it's a splendid result of the merger of two disciplines.
This work, like their previous book, puts to rest the idea that evolution by natural selection is a 'group' or species phenomenon. Evolution works at individual levels. An animal, cell or even a gene - how it operates, survives and replicates. For all these elements to function successfully and pass their behaviours on to succeeding generations, a wealth of mechanisms must occur without serious hitch. Maynard Smith and Szathmary take us through these biological steps with unsurpassed clarity. Yet with all this wealth of detail, the reader finds nothing obscure or confusing in their descriptions.
This book starts with descriptions of attempts to understand how life started. Now that it is understand that life's history is but a bit less than the existence of our planet, the beginnings of life must be a chemical phenomenon. Maynard Smith and Szathmary show how these reactions occurred and how they originated the steps leading to the complex life forms sharing the globe with us today.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Betty on June 22, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As stated in the preface, this book presents to a general readership the same ideas as the authors' 1995 book "The Major Transitions in Evolution." I found it still challenging, but richly rewarding. The most interesting questions in evolution deal with the evolution of new levels of organization. The authors identify only eight such transitions starting from cooperating collections of replicating molecules up through multicellular organisms, colonies of ants and bees, and finally human societies with language. Anyone interested in the question of how cooperation evolved in human societies needs to also understand how cooperation evolved in the other seven transitions. This appears to be the definitive work on that subject that is accessible to a non-specialist.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Isabella Chen on July 11, 2006
Format: Paperback
Fantastic book. Compared to many other books on evolution and biology, I found this to be one of the easiest to understand. It is simply and well written and gives the reader a good idea of the evolution of life. It allows the reader to understand how life could have arose out of physical and chemical processes and shows clearly how many of the things we consider to have arisen out of the mind of a great deity actually have an elegant developmental history that cannot be disputed.

The book explains, convinvingly, how each transition is solidly built upon the foundations of the previous transitions (replicating molecules/ populations of molecules in protocells to RNA as gene and enzyme/specialization to DNA and protien enzyme to Primate societeis/Human societies with language). Despite a few things we yet do not understand fully (for example, how a complex backbone for RNA can possibly evolve, given the absence of enzymes) the reader will be able to see that the authors' admissions of the absence of scraps of concrete evidence here and there (plausible theories and scenarios have been proposed) is a subject for furthur inquiry and experimentation, the 1% of evidence they do not have in the face of 99% of fact that has been proven through rigourous experimentation.

In response to a previous review about the book not giving an answer to how individual genes could have been activated to give cells the properties they have, the authors have proposed that individuals cells are likely to be influenced by their environment. In other words, cells know their place in a body and respond to their circumstances.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By John Duncan on April 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
This can be regarded as a more accessible version of The Major Transitions in Evolution, an earlier book by the same authors addressed to professional biologists. It is more accessible, and more readable, certainly, but it still demands some effort and attention on the part of the reader. As the authors candidly admit in their preface, they "fear it will not be an easy read", because "it contains a lot of facts, and a lot of new ideas". This is a fair assessment, but readers who do make the effort can expect to learn a considerable amount of modern biology from two of its most respected authorities.

Charles Darwin largely ducked the question of the origin of life, taking the realistic view that it was too difficult to handle at the time he was writing, and contented himself with accounting for how it could have evolved once it had started. John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, writing a century and a half later, could hardly avoid this problem, and their book starts at the very beginning by trying to define what it means to be alive and to explain how the first living organisms could have emerged from non-living inorganic matter. For them this was a matter of combining the chemistry of the production and use of energy with the chemistry of storing the information needed for producing a new organism identical with its parent.

Here they are confronted with a dilemma, the "error catastrophe": if the first organisms were too small they could not have fulfilled all the chemical functions they needed; if they were too big they could have reproduced themselves accurately.
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