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Vital Dust: The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth Revised ed. Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465090457
ISBN-10: 0465090451
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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Christian De Duve shared the 1974 Nobel Prize for Biology or Medicine with Albert Claude and George Palade for their discoveries concerning the structural and functional organization of the cell. he is Professor Emeritus at the Medical Faculty of the University of Louvain, Belgium, and Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus at the Rockefeller University in New York. He is also the author of A Guided Tour of the Living Cell and Blueprint for a Cell.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 362 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Revised ed. edition (December 22, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465090451
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465090457
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,137,041 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Ever since Charles Darwin postulated the beginnings of life in "some warm little pond" science has probed into origin mechanisms. As it became clearer that life is a molecular phenomenon, researchers have delved deeper into chemical processes to work out life's start. De Duve joins that quest with a detailed examination of these mechanisms and the environments in which they come about. In his explanation of life's origins, it becomes clear that the mechanisms leading to life are common. Earth, therefore, is not alone - "the universe is awash with life". If conditions are right, and many of the processes can't go forward unless the environment permits them to, life at some level is sure to begin. "Life is one", he stipulates, but likely in many places.
De Duve's narrative is highly detailed in the opening sections. The conditions and operations he describes are fundamental to life's development. How carbon-based molecules interact in ways that led to replication, then selection, are carefully explained. While many of the early steps were random, perhaps even chaotic, "superior" [because they survived and replicated better] molecular structures became more common. While he notes there are preferred environments for this process, they aren't tightly limited. Change of environment formed selection pressures which even early life could respond to without difficulty. While at first glance this description may appear an account of many chance events, De Duve points out that life started on a "deterministic" path almost from the beginning. The rules of chemical reactions limit what chance can impose. Yet, once the start has been made, similar rules force the process of life forward.
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Format: Paperback
Duve's thesis is that life springs naturally from the universe. As he concludes: "Life is either a reproducible, almost commonplace manifestation of matter, given certain conditions, or a miracle. Too many steps are involved to allow for something in between."
The best part of the book is early on, when Duve exercises his expertise in biochemistry and discusses how life must have come into existence and made the first moves toward complexity. This is difficult but rewarding reading, and a section I think I will be returning to.
The final chapters, discussing the future of mankind, environmental issues, and the nature of consciousness, are almost entirely derivative, consisting of rehashed thoughts of others rather than original concepts or explanations.
Still the book is well worth it just for the understanding of how life might have come to be and how it developed into what it is today. Recommended.
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By A Customer on February 18, 1999
Format: Paperback
The meat of this book is the first 200 pages which describe in depth the origin and evolution of single celled organisms. I used to wonder why there seemed to be so little evolution till multicellular organisms evolved but this book shows that this is an illusion; most biochemistry was "invented" by single celled organisms. Particularly interesting are the description of why and how eukaryotes evolved, and the discussion of the origin of sex. The later evolution is covered in less detail but is still a good read. The best book on evolution I have read, and better than "Microcosmos" by Margulis and Sagan.
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Format: Paperback
This book is structured along the time line from anaerobic times to multi-celled organism. In addition to its primary topic of how life evolved from plants and bacteria to multi-celled, it also discusses the external environment's role in "driving" the evolution of life. Dr. de Duve uses a most wonderful writing device by citing MODERN organisms (Giardia), things we can study TODAY, to illustrate ancient organisms and our cellular metabolism. He established the unbroken chain from waaaaay back when to now.

I wanted to know how we 'learned' to 'make' mitochondria, and other very important symbionts. His chapter Oxygen Crisis in combination with The Guests Who Stayed explained it. His chapter on Membranes gave me a whole new view of the importance of membranes, another huge body of knowledge that I must study-up.

Please do pay attention to his wonderfully helpful "end matter," bibliography, glossary and Further Reading. Do read carefully his comments about Further Reading: it ranges from books on cosmology (another of my enthusiasms), through biochem, molecular bio, cell structures, evolution... all the way to Philosophy. It shows the common thread through all these fields of science. The suggested reading includes his own illustrated book, "A Guided Tour of the Living Cell," ISBN: 0716750023. It's a Scientific American product so you can rely on excellent illustrations.

"Vital Dust" is comprehensive in scope without being superficial (unlike so many trade books on science), and written by a real scientist (not journalist) and Nobel Prize winner "for [his]discoveries concerning the structural and functional organization of the cell." A pdf of his Nobel lecture is downloadable from the Nobel [...]

This book has plenty of detail as well being thought provoking and well-written, but an undergrad bio, or biochem background would help you get more out of it. Even so, it warrants several readings.
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