The Emergence of Life on Earth: A Historical and Scientific Overview
From the Back Cover
How did life emerge on Earth? Is there life on other worlds? These questions, until recently confined to the pages of speculative essays and tabloid headlines, are now the subject of legitimate scientific research. This book presents a unique perspective-a combined historical, scientific, and philosophical analysis, which does justice to the complex nature of the subject.
The book’s first part offers an overview of the main ideas on the origin of life as they developed from antiquity until the twentieth century. The second, more detailed part of the book examines contemporary theories and major debates within the origin-of-life scientific community.
Topics include: – Aristotle and the Greek atomists’ conceptions of the organism – Alexander Oparin and J.B.S. Haldane’s 1920s breakthrough papers – Possible life on Mars? – The search for extraterrestrial intelligence – Recent discoveries of extrasolar planets
About the Author(s)
Iris Fry teaches at the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel Aviv University, and in the department of humanities and arts at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Her book The Origin of Life: Mystery or Scientific Problem? Was published in Israel in 1997.
Not spontaneously generated, February 6, 2004
From the ancient Greek philosophers through Enlightenment science to today’s high-tech world, how life originated has been a compelling question. Fry presents the thinkers and their ideas about this enigma with penetrating skill. Her recapitulation of the philosophical questions set in their historical perspective demonstrates the persistence of many concepts regarding life’s history. "Spontaneous generation", now considered a quaint idea, dominated the view of theologians and natural scientists alike. Even when empirical experiments demonstrated the falsity of the notion, versions of it remained, deflecting other proposals.
Fry shows how Darwin’s idea of natural selection over vast periods of time allowed tracing a view of life back to simple, microscopic life forms. Darwin’s famous "warm little pond" may have been an incomplete picture, but it demonstrated a break with established notions. Complex life evolved from simple life, not fully blown from a soiled shirt. Only in the 20th Century did technology and the discovery of unanticipated life forms in extreme conditions allow a look at the chemical basis of life before complexity could emerge.
Fry carefully and skillfully examines all these steps, giving each thinker his due while placing him in historical context. There’s more than one surprise here for those who don’t know the lives of researchers such as Pasteur, Eigen or Oparin. As she reveals the progress of thinking on the subject, Fry examines the roots of various proposals, their advances and their shortcomings. Was life’s beginning protein-based? Are amino acids the foundation or the product of life? Did RNA precede DNA or the reverse? Science proceeds on a step-by-step basis and Fry describes that halting, but useful process far better than most. While Fry’s descriptive prose reflects a thesis style, the wealth of information here overrides that limited criticism.
Among the modern thinkers on life’s origins, Fry provides the best summation available on the ideas of two men, Graham Cairns Smith and Gunther Wachtershauser. Both men have offered theories of chemical beginnings of life, the one suggesting clay crystals as replication models, the other utilising the iron-sulfur energy capacity of pyrite. These two concepts are united by Fry in light of the processes found associated with deep sea-floor vents.
Fry’s conclusion deals with the likelihood of life on worlds other than Earth. The dispute over whether the Antarctic Martian meteorite exhibits organic residues serves to show how limited current information actually is on pre-life chemistry. More research, more examination and more questions need to be posed. Fry’s book provides a solid foundation for the next steps. [stephen a. haines – Ottawa, Canada]