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The Spark Of Life: Darwin And The Primeval Soup

3.8 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0738204932
ISBN-10: 0738204935
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Can you create life with just a taser and a bowl of soup? Most likely not, unless you give yourself a few hundred million years to experiment. Biologist Christopher Wills and marine chemist Jeffrey Bada show off the fruits of research looking for signs of life elsewhere and clues to the origin of terrestrial organisms in The Spark of Life. The writing is clear and every concept is explained well--Wills's reputation for translating scientific understanding into plain English is well-deserved, and Bada's insider status with NASA provides insight not found elsewhere. They examine the field of theories, from extraterrestrial origin to life spilling out of hydrothermal vents to deep-crust genesis, and find strengths and weaknesses in them all. Their own partisan stance has it that life began on the surface of our planet through Darwinian-like processes operating on primitive self-replicating chemicals. Though their arguments are fairly compelling, the jury is still out, and will probably remain out indefinitely; science often balks at providing explanations for unique events, preferring to stick to general principles. Still, we can see that the problem is valuable because the search for an answer turns up all sorts of unexpected scientific finds: RNA-catalyzed reactions, Martian environmental problems, and natural selection of nonliving chemicals all showed up amid these debates. While it won't settle the issues, we can be glad that The Spark of Life explains them so clearly and primes us for the research still to come. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Few scientific mysteries are as fascinating as the origin of life. Wills and Bada's book measures up to the subject's high interest. Both biologists, they ably relate the course of research since Stanley Miller and Harold Urey famously created amino acids in a test tube in 1953. The biochemistry of the primordial goo has since become better understood, as has the physical environment of the early earth. Wills and Bada's dramatic account of the forces at work during Earth's first billion years--huge tides due to the nearby moon, volcanism, a turbulent atmosphere, and an ocean of a composition that can only be postulated--makes the emergence of self-replicating molecules, let alone reproducing organisms, seem improbable indeed. Researchers attack the problem both from the bottom up, by trying to synthesize a system with self-replicating properties, and from the top down, by discerning how the biochemicals of the cell (ATP, RNA, proteins, etc.) function together. A tour of the exobiological potential of the solar system caps this lively presentation. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (March 8, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0738204935
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738204932
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,306,694 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Frank Paris on September 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Where are all the reviews? Come on, people! This is a great book! It is the best popular book I've ever read on the biology of the origin of life. It starts out with a historical survey of the efforts to deal with this problem. When I first picked up the book, I thought this section was only in there to pad out the page count. But I was dead wrong. Not only is the writing style lively and entertaining (without being too cute), but the authors show how an understanding of the historical development of the effort helps to understand where the science of this problem is today. You know how they stay that God is in the details? Well, it is actually in the nitty-gritty details in this section of the book that makes this historical introduction valuable.
Anyone interested in the problem of the origin of life knows about Stanley Miller's experiments of sending electric sparks through a mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water vapor and how they produced an incredibly complex mixture of organic compounds, including many of the amino acids of life. But never have I read such a detailed description of the experiments. I usually gloss over descriptions of Miller's experiments, mainly as it turns out because the descriptions are boring without knowledge of the details. But the authors of this book show how extremely interesting the details of these experiments actually were and why they were so important, even though it turned out that Miller's assumptions of the composition of the primitive atmosphere were wrong. This level of detail sets the tone for the entire book, which really delves into the details.
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Format: Hardcover
I read a lot of material on the origin of life. Having run across Jeffery Bada's writings in some books, as well as on his web page, in the peer-reviewed journal `Science', and in popular science journals such as `The Sciences', I regarded Bada as an honest scientist: one who presents an even-handed accounting of material and evidence. I have always found his fairness and willingness to express his skepticism to be quite refreshing, especially since the topic of the origin of life can have major philosophical and religious ramifications (many scientists present only the positive evidences, hide the conflicting evidences, and do their utmost to shove their materialistic philosophy down the reader's throats). Bada holds firmly to a purely-natural origin of life, but he does not allow his worldview to bias his work - he is true to scientific evidences foremost. I expected the same from him when I heard of his book. When I read "The Spark of Life", I was not disappointed. Bada - and apparently the lead author, Christopher Wills, as well - present the reader with an honest coverage of the details, along the lines of, "According to this theory, ..., but keep in mind that....". As another reviewer noted, the authors present the reader with both sides of the argument and allow the reader to come to his or her own conclusion: the authors do not insist on telling you what you must think. For their maintenance of integrity in what can be a rather volatile subject, I commend the authors and "award" them 5 stars.
But the praise does not end there. They provide an up-to-date, broad, introductory coverage of the OOL field.
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Format: Hardcover
I have noticed that some biologists have a kind of arrogance about chemistry. "I don't have to know the chemistry!" To a certain extent, it's true that in some branches of biology you can have a very productive career without ever really knowing the chemical details that underlie the biology you're working on. However, a poor grasp of chemistry can also lead you to fall on your face in an embarrassing way, and that's what happens at one point (at least!) in "Spark of Life."
Authors who get the chemistry right in writing about the origin of life can extend previous theories in interesting ways. Christian de Duve, the Nobel Prize winner who wrote "Vital Dust" does exactly that, presenting the idea that protein-based life preceded an RNA takeover. The current enthusiasm for an RNA world as the original form of life on Earth is mostly being promulgated by people who don't really understand how nucleotides behave. As I said before, this includes a lot of biologists. Robert Shapiro's books (he gets it right, too) explain clearly how totally unlikely it is to have rich concentrations of RNA nucleotides lying around in puddles waiting to combine into nascent RNA polymers. On the other hand, this is a very likely thing to happen in cells that are using ATP and other triphosphates for energy storage. There they are, it's easy to polymerize them.
Getting the chemistry right doesn't guarantee you'll get the theory right -- Michael Behe gets the chemistry right, as well. But getting the chemistry wrong can lead down the path of error. I think if Lynn Margulis really understood the difference between Diphytanyl ethers and fatty acid bilayers, she'd see that Archaea are wildly different from "regular" Eubacteria.
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