Origin of Life


by Monica Grady
Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2001. 96 pages.

In her brief but lavishly illustrated introduction to astrobiology, Grady starts at the very beginning: the Big Bang. She then lucidly discusses the conditions necessary for the emergence of life, considering both the early earth and the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system, as well as the search for life beyond the solar system. Writes the reviewer for Nature, "The broad expertise involved in astrobiology is always a challenge and even 'experts' will benefit from such an informative overview." Grady is Head of the Petrology and Meteoritics Division of the Natural History Museum in London.

Biogenesis: Theories of Life's Origin

by Noam Lahav
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 368 pages.

From the publisher, Oxford University Press: "Biogenesis provides an up-to-date and detailed discussion of the interdisciplinary study of the origin of life, including in-depth investigations into its history, assumptions, experimental strategies, theories, models, and controversies. Written both critically and objectively, the book explores topics including the history of the search for life's origin from the Greek philosophers to contemporary scientists; selected attributes of life which are connected to theories of biogenesis; the main features of our solar system and earth, where life is assumed to have originated; and the rationale and strategies of scientific theories of the origin of life."

Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth's Earliest Fossils

by J. William Schopf
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. 392 pages.

"This book chronicles an amazing breakthrough in biologic and geologic science," Schopf writes, "the discovery of a vast, ancient, missing fossil record that extends life's roots to the most remote reaches of the geologic past. At long last, after a century of unrewarded search, the earliest 85% of the history of life on Earth has been uncovered to forever change our understanding of how evolution works." Writes the reviewer for Scientific American, "Schopf ... has a good deal to say about scientists and the way science is done. It all makes for a book that bears out his assertion that 'science is enormously good fun!'"

Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology

by David Darling
New York: Basic Books, 2002. 224 pages.

In Life Everywhere, Darling offers a highly readable introduction to the burgeoning science of astrobiology, lucidly explaining its purview, goals, and methods, and offering his own predictions about what is in store. Darling, who has a DSc in Physics and a PhD in astronomy, relies not only on his own knowledge but also on extensive interviews with the movers and shakers in astrobiology. He also exposes the creationist roots of the "Rare Earth" hypothesis. "Darling's book serves as an enthralling introduction to the new science of astrobiology and the old, still exhilarating philosophical question of our place in the universe," writes Lynn Margulis.

Life from an RNA World: The Ancestor Within

by Michael Yarus
Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 2010. 208 pages.

“Yarus takes on an ambitious task,” reviewer Arthur G. Hunt explains, “to summarize the excitement and curiosity of RNA research for a broad audience that includes the informed lay public as well as life scientists. On top of this, he is faced with the unenviable but inescapable task of explaining some of the fastest-moving and -changing areas in science. But Yarus succeeds in explaining the remarkable nature of RNA, and how this singular molecule ties together the present and the very distant past.” A chapter addressing creationist objections to the RNA world and evolution in general is interesting but not as informative as treatments elsewhere.

Life on a Young Planet

by Andrew H. Knoll
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. 304 pages.

From the origin of life to the Cambrian explosion, Knoll draws not only on paleontology but also on the latest insights from molecular biology, ecology, and the earth sciences to produce a broad understanding of the emergence of biological diversity. Sean Carroll (the author of Endless Forms Most Beautiful) writes, "This is a truly great book. It is a remarkably readable synthesis of many diverse ideas selected from a breathaking array of disciplines. The narrative is engaging and entertaining — a travelogue through time that incorporates amusing and informative anecdotes from Knoll's travels to many far-off places." Knoll is Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University.

Life's Origin: The Beginnings of Biological Evolution

edited by J. William Schopf
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002. 208 pages.

Containing essays by leading figures — John Oró, Alan W. Schwartz and Sherwood Chang, Stanley L. Miller and Antonio Lazcano, James P. Ferris, Leslie E Orgel, and J. William Schopf himself — Life's Origin provides a lively look at the state-of-the-art in the scientific study of the origin of life. In his introduction, Schopf lists "the three great puzzles this volume addresses: What is the origin of life, when did it begin, and how?" and expresses his confidence that "[g]iven time, effort, and a continuing influx of imaginative students and fresh ideas, we can one day fully answer the what, when, and how of life's beginnings."

Origin of Life

by A. I. Oparin
New York: Dover Publications, 2003. 304 pages.

Inspired by Darwin and Mendeleev, Aleksandr Ivanovich Oparin (1894–1980) was one of the first scientists to propose that the origin of life on earth was preceded by a period of nonbiological molecular evolution. Origin of Life, published in English in 1938 and still in print, "purports to show the gradual evolution of organic substances and the manner by which ever newer properties, subject to laws of a higher order, were superimposed step by step upon the erstwhile simple and elementary properties of matter." Written for a popular audience, Origin of Life remains a classic introduction to origin-of-life research.

Origins of Life

by Freeman Dyson
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 110 pages.

In Origins of Life, the renowned theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, Emeritus Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, turns his attention to the origins of life, proposing (as the plural in the title suggests) a dual account: "life began twice, with two separate kinds of creatures, one kind capable of metabolism without exact replication and the other kind capable of replication without metabolism." The reviewer for Scientific American writes, "Dyson builds his argument with characteristic skill and clarity." Originally published in 1985, Origins of Life was extensively revised in light of subsequent scientific research for the 1999 edition.

Seven Clues to the Origin of Life: A Scientific Detective Story

by A. G. Cairns-Smith
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 114 pages.

In Genetic Takeover (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), Cairns-Smith argued, in full technical detail, that life was originally based on self-replicating inorganic crystals. Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, originally published in 1985, presents his hypothesis at the popular level, engagingly written with ubiquitous references to the methodology of Sherlock Holmes. Seven Clues to the Origin of Life "is a summary of the best evolutionary thinking as applied to the origins of life in which the important issues are addressed pertinently, economically, and with a happy recourse to creative analogies," wrote the reviewer for Nature.

The Emergence of Life on Earth: A Historical and Scientific Overview

by Iris Fry
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000. 344 pages.

Fry, a historian and philosopher of science, offers a unique scholarly perspective on the scientific issues involved in research on the origins of life. In addition to summarizing the history, all the way from Aristotle through Darwin and Pasteur to Oparin, Haldane, and Miller, she examines the contemporary issues and debates within the origin-of-life scientific research community. The reviewer for the Journal of the History of Biology praises The Emergence of Life on Earth for "raising important questions in a way fully up to date with current discourse in both history and philosophy, and integrating these approaches throughout the book."

The Origin and Early Evolution of Life

by Tom Fenchel
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003. 192 pages.

"This book," Tom Fenchel explains, "is about the development of life from its origin and until multicellular plants, fungi, and animals arose — corresponding approximately to the time period from 4 to 0.6 billion years ago." The reviewer for BioEssays writes, "The classical, recurrent themes are treated in a clear and interesting style of writing. The scope of the book is broad enough to be useful to advanced undergraduate or graduate students as well as to any reader possessing a college scientific background." A glossary and suggestions for further reading are included.

The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution

by Stuart A. Kauffman
New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 734 pages.

Can life self-organize? Kauffman answers yes in his presentation of a non-Darwinian explanation for the origin of life and early molecular systems. An answer to "intelligent design theory"! "An integrative book that will become a landmark and a classic as we grope towards a more comprehensive and satisfying theory of evolution", according to Stephen Jay Gould.

The Spark of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup

by Christopher Wills and Jeffrey Bada
Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, 2001. 320 pages.

"Life as we know it is assertive, demanding, and unstoppable," Wills and Bada write in The Spark of Life. But how did it get started? The authors defend the "primeval soup" model against its competitors, extending it with suggestions of their own. The reviewer for Nature writes, "They entertain by not only giving a lively description of the 'spark of life', but also by conveying the sparkle of its investigators and the nature of the scientific process. These two professors have written a book that reads like a novel, and one would be happy to have them educate one's children."

Vital Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative

by Christian de Duve
New York: Basic Books, 1996. 384 pages.

Dedicated simply to life, Vital Dust "seeks to retrace the four-billion-year history of life on Earth, from the first biomolecules to the human mind and beyond" in a wholly naturalistic framework, eschewing vitalism, finalism or teleology, and creationism. The first three parts of the book ("The age of chemistry", "The age of information", and "The age of the protocell") constitute a beautifully written introduction to research on the origin of life and the earliest forms of life. 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.