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What Is Life?

4.4 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0684810874
ISBN-10: 0684810875
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

There is much art as well as science in this beautifully illustrated treatment of topics relating to the genesis, organization and diversity of life forms on Earth. Margulis, a well-known professor of botany at the University of Massachusetts, and her son, Sagan, who previously collaborated on other works (Origins of Sex; Microcosmos) present a wide-ranging compendium that samples key facets of biology in conjunction with philosophic ideas and historical perspectives. The volume is configured for browsing. Numerous color photographs and charts convey a sense of wonder. While hugely informative, the text itself tends to the lyrical, sometimes lapsing into disconcerting private language. The issues emphasized reflect the authors' sympathy for a less dogmatically mechanistic and more phenomenological overview of what constitutes life, as exemplified by the Gaia hypothesis, which posits that the whole earth is a unified living organism. Library of Science, Natural Science, Astronomy and Reader's Subscription book clubs alternates.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

To the question, what is life?, world renowned biologist Margulis and science writer Sagan (her coauthor on Mystery Dance, LJ 7/91, and her son) respond: Life is matter that chooses. Mammalian cells are descended from the amalgamation of different strains of ancient bacteria. All life is connected to us through time and space. Species of organisms diverge into new kinds, yet earlier patterns never entirely disappear. Every species of plant, animal, and fungus perishes, and similar new taxa evolve from them or their kind. The human species may eventually disappear, but something else will evolve from our kind. We learn that we are not the only creative and original creatures but part of a global aggregation. Yet while we are not the only species to make evolutionary choices, we are the ones whose choices will make a difference as to what type of planetary ecosystem we leave for those species that follow. Beautifully executed with numerous photos and illustrations, this thought-provoking work is recommended for general readers and informed lay readers.?Gloria Maxwell, Kansas City P.L., Kan.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (September 18, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684810875
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684810874
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 8.8 x 12 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #334,312 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The two reviews of "What Is Life" by Kirkus Reviews and Gerard Le Blond were disappointing
in their negative tone. Having just read "What Is Life", I found myself wondering what these reviewers brought to the book they so casually dismissed. The author of the Kirkus review is a professional reviewer of books, probably with little appreciation of biology or evolution. His dismay that viruses were not included in the discussion is without merit. Viruses are parasites that cannot reproduce without a living
host. They are marginal at best to the question at hand. An author writing on the nature of computers would not find it necessary to spend time on computer viruses. The further criticism that only two vertebrates were included among the pictures reflects the author's parochial viewpoint. This decision should be applauded so that more pictures of a wider variety of life could be included. The pen and ink renderings by Christie Lyons were exceptional. Anyone who wants to look at bushbabys and cheetahs can consult National Geographic or any children's animal encyclopedia.

The quote "knock up against each other and work things out." is used by the reviewer to knock
down Margulis and Sagan's book. This line is taken from the last half of the first sentence in a five sentence summary of chapter six. These chapter summaries are intended to be playful and poetic, not dry and lifeless remarks. The implication that tough-minded biologists would laugh at this book is nonsense and should be completely dispelled by Niles Eldrege's forward.

The Gaia theory does permeate the book at many levels. The theory is controversial, but
Margulis has not been one to shrink from biological controversies.
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Format: Paperback
This book is an eye opener and a mind expander. As a science book for the general reader, I give it four stars; this is because Lynn Margulis is a maverick within biology today, and not all that she says is generally accepted science, and because its basic organizational principle, the division of living organisms into five kingdoms, is somewhat out of date. (Since the book came out in 1995, genetic data has made kingdoms subservient to the three "domains" of archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes.) For those with a more extensive background in biology, give it five stars for its capacity to open up broad new perspectives and to offer illuminating new details.
Lynn Margulis does not serve up any final answer to her title's question. There are a couple of ongoing themes: that wherever there is life, there is what she calls "autopoiesis", the definition of a boundary between self and other, together with the absorption and expenditure of free energy to maintain the self. (A process, as she notes, which not only doesn't violate the second law of thermodynamics, but actually accelerates the rate at which overall entropy increases.) A second theme is, that life's self-organization goes on at progressively higher levels of integration: from cells to colonies and to symbiotic unions that make one complex cell out of several; from complex cells to multicellular animals, plants, and fungi; from multicellular beings to societies and ecosystems; from ecosystems to the biosphere. Margulis believes that biology impoverishes itself by insisting, as Steven Jay Gould does, that evolution has no "direction," simply because no master designer is imposing a direction on it from outside.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was as enthralled as other reviewers with the amazing facts in this book. My favorite: bacteria don't age; they can die from accidental causes but "programmed death" started with eukaryotes. The authors show that death is necessary for organisms (like us) that practice meiotic cell division.
But this book is far more than a random collection of facts. Margulis and her collaborators do an amazing job of assembling an understandable model of life using parts carefully selected from a vast body of biological knowledge. While a one-sentence definition is still elusive, the reader builds up a picture of life's most pertinent characteristics, as exhibited by the truly astounding diversity of living things on this planet. By the time I finished, I was satisfied that the authors had answered the question.
You don't need to be a biologist to understand and enjoy this book. Its beauty is that the greatest scientific thinking on the most complex topics has been presented in common english, with necessary scientific terms explained as they are introduced. If you are intrigued by the question of life, I doubt there's a more complete, accurate, understandable, and enjoyable answer available than this book.
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Format: Paperback
This book is written with great intelligence and subtlety. I'm an engineer, and it has been about thirty years since my last biology class. I'm not even sure what compelled me to update my knowledge in this field. I suppose the title "What is Life?", got my attention, as I found this title to be somewhat audacious. Let's face it, "What is Life?", is the supreme question, and any author who ventures in this direction is walking a tight-rope of controversy.
I can honestly say I learned a lot from this book, as I've underlined just about every page. It has so many fascinating insights about the evolution of bacteria into living organisms. As the authors acknowledge, scientists today do not yet understand all the fundamental biological questions - but it sure seems they are headed in the right direction.
Quoting from p. 218, "The facts of life, the stories of evolution, have the power to unite all people". Although I doubt that we can ever "unite all people", I believe that this book will be appreciated by readers who are looking for modern and rational explanations to some existential questions, within the context of biology.
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