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What is Life?: The Eternal Enigma [Hardcover]

Lynn Margulis , Dorion Sagan
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

14 Aug 1995
What does it mean to live, to be alive, to be a being both a part of the world but yet separated from it by our skin? This scientific and philosophical exploration delves into one of the oldest questions of mankind. Exploring the meanings of death, the origins of life, the biological connection between death and sex, the symbiotic evolution of the five organic kingdoms - bacteria, protoctists, animals, fungi and plants, the authors make the assertation that to answer the question "What is Life?" is a linguistic trap: the answer is not a noun, but a verb - life is a complex material process, constantly changing.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; First edition (14 Aug 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0297833278
  • ISBN-13: 978-0297833277
  • Product Dimensions: 29.5 x 21.1 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 579,391 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"A masterpiece of science writing. . . . You will cherish "What Is Life? because it is so rich in poetry and science, in the service of profound philosophical questions."--Mitchell Thomashow, "Orion --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Lynn Margulis is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of more than one hundred articles and ten books, including Symbiosis and Cell Evolution (second edition 1993). Dorion Sagan, general partner of Sciencewriters, is the author of Biospheres (1990). Together they are the authors of Microcosmos (California, 1996), What Is Sex? (1990), Garden of Microbial Delights (1995), and Mystery Dance (1991). --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars thought provoking, engrossing, rewarding to read 10 April 2001
By A Customer
I received this book for Christmas this year, read it in 3 days, and began to read it again. It is very thought provoking. The historical symbiosis of ancient species is quite an earth shattering idea, that i had read about before, but never have seen put so convincingly together before. The book discusses the origins of life, how that life interacted with otherliving things in a random way to produce a more complicated existance for themselves. It challenges a lot of beliefs, not in a dis respectful way, but by compiling the evidence and gentle persuading you that chance does have an element in evolution. I would recommend this book without hesitation
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Taking their title from Erwin Schrödinger's classic text of 1944, "What is Life?", Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan attempt to revisit the age-old question as to just what it is that constitutes that special property we call 'life'. They begin with Schrödinger's original question and having established a starting point for how, in their view, life ought to be characterised, they move on to present a grand survey of just how it might have arisen in the first place, how it has changed and evolved since, how it might be categorised now and then briefly to speculate how it might develop in the future. Along the way, they demonstrate not only how wondrous life is but also that it may be nothing like as fragile (or indeed special) a thing as we like to fool ourselves into thinking it is.

The mother and son team write well for both expert and lay reader alike, presenting between them a perfect blend of passion, good sense and scientific authority. And while this book is over 13 years old now, it hasn't really aged at all, which gives you some idea of how far ahead of her field Lynn Margulis' thinking has always lain. Many of the ideas that she and Dorion present in this book -- regarding early life, symbiogenesis and the division of all living things into five separate kingdoms instead of two -- are even now only just gaining common credence amongst evolutionary biologists. The book is both thought provoking and informative and is highly recommended to anyone interested in theories of early life on earth and in theories of evolution that aren't embedded in strict neo-Darwinism and the need for random mutations in the genotype to act as the sole agency for natural selection.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The product was very god. 2 Sep 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Everything very good.The Eternal Enigma' meet my expectations. The book is very interessing and the product was very good. tkanks.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
88 of 91 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a luscious book. 28 Aug 1997
By (David R. Nelson) - Published on
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. Her symbiotic theories of the origins of mitochondria and chloroplasts were also controversial when she put them forward, however, she was right then and she may be right now. I would not find much fault with her support of the Gaia theory even if it is not elevated to textbook status. To take a specific example, the suggestion that coccolithophorid algal blooms generate dimethyl sulfide and this causes cloud cover to form and cool the planet has not been supported by satellite observations reported this year. Yet, the Gaia hypothesis is greater than this one example, and there is something to be said for backing an idea if you think it is

The final blow in the Kirkus review is that few readers would persevere through the whole text.
This is hardly relevant to the quality of the book, but more to the quality of the reader. There are many books that are highly praised, yet are seldom read from cover to cover. One that comes to mind is Godel, Escher, Bach, an Eternal Golden Braid, winner of the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. How many of us have started that book, only to become stalled part way through?

As a biochemist with an interest in evolution, I found this book to be fascinating. The examples
are fresh. I had never heard of the Rio Tinto in Spain, with its unusual fungi. I did know about the 37 acre fungal clone in Michigan, but I did not know about the quaking aspen forest with 47,000 trunks that is a single organism, probably the largest on earth. One does not have to read far into this book to realize the breadth and depth of knowledge relevant to life's history. Trichoplax, a living minimalist animal is
presented as a glimpse of what the first animals might have been like. Thermoplasma acidophilum, an archeabacterium with histones (found almost exclusively in eukaryotes) suggests we need to consider the ancestors of these types of bacteria as precursors of modern eukaryotes.

One area that is particularly strong in this book is the early history of life. A 10 page timeline scrolls across the top of Chapter 3, giving one of the most detailed summaries of important events in life's progression. Margulis is of course the authority on symbiosis of cells to generate more complex life forms, and Chapter 5 on this subject is one of the best in the book. If you are looking for answers to some mystical or metaphysical notion about life, or if you want a quick definition, do not read this book! If you
want to gain some insight about life from an expert in the field, then read What is Life. This is a luscious book.

David R. Nelson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Dept. of Biochemistry
University of Tennessee, Memphis
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars So you thought you knew biology! 24 Dec 2001
By Royce E. Buehler - Published on
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.
But ultimately, according to Margulis, life can't be defined because it keeps on defining itself, and coming up with new definitions. It is better to step back from our skewed view of primates and vertebrates as the most typical living beings, and look at the broad range of specific ways of being alive that evolution and symbiosis have produced so far. So her book is largely organized into chapters describing the history and nature of each of the five kingdoms, in chronological order: bacteria, protoctists (single celled organisms with nuclei), animals, fungi, and plants.
Did you know that it takes two eggs and three sperm to make a flowering plant? That the cell walls of fungi are made from the same material as lobster skin? That photosynthesis evolved independently several times among bacteria?
As stimulating as the book's parade of facts about the wild profusion of ways of being alive is its parade of speculations: that cilia and flagella are the remnants of spirochete bacteria which took up residence in other cells; that the first fertilization event was the result of a failed attempt at cannibalism; that species-jumping genes from fungi taught flowering plants how to make fruit. Another startling hypothesis surfaces every few pages. Some of these speculations are seriously defended, some are tossed out for what they're worth, but they're all fascinating.
I do wish the footnotes had been more extensive. It would be good, for example, to read up on Kwang Jeon's ameba experiments, in which those amebas that didn't die of a bacterial infection wound up incorporating the bacterial genes - and after a few years of lab reproduction, became unable to survive without them. That experiment is the most vivid support Margulis gives for her thesis that genetic material continues to be regularly exchanged across kingdom boundaries; but it's not among the items for which she chose to provide citations.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beyond biology 8 Jan 2003
By nborson - Published on
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.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a Great Book 16 Mar 2002
By Karl Hanson - Published on
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.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dr. Margulis - You Go, Girl! 11 Jan 2002
By Nichole Long - Published on
"What Is Life?" is an illuminating & expansive reconstruction of the bacterial evolution of life on Earth. Combining rigorous science, mythology, history, poetry, stories, sketches, wit, captivating writing, & arresting photography, Margulis & Sagan examine Professor Margulis' theory of endosymbiosis.
Needless to say, Dr. Margulis has left me speechless. I cannot post here an adequate review of this book because I can't find the words to express what this book has done to my beliefs.
Others have done it much better. For the best review, read Piero Scaruffi's 1999 review titled "Lynn Margulis, Dorion Sagan: What is Life? (Simon & Schuster, 1995)." Scaruffi does Dr. Margulis justice. Like many other readers, on the other hand, he is unfair to Dorion Sagan as his mother's co-writer. Nothing conveys to the ordinary reader the wonder & vast scope of the world of science better than stimulating prose. With it, I am able to "get" very quickly otherwise confounding stuff. Thanks to Sagan, I am able to learn all over again long-forgotten facts like the structure & function of DNA & RNA. I like Sagan's off-hand style & acidic wit. His eccentricity makes his science books fun to read.
Dr. Lynn Margulis - Maverick Microbiologist Extraordinaire!
Dorion Sagan - You Rock!
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