4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
Essential reading, 11 May 2013
If I had a bright young teenager who wanted to find out about the universe and his place within it, I would ask him to read 4 books: A Brief History of Time, Thinking Fast and Slow, Orientalism, and this extraordinary book by Adam Rutherfood.
In the first half, "the origin of life", the author has set himself an ambitious task - interweave the entire history of life with the history of biology as a science in a seamless and novelistic narrative which can be understood by any well educated person. He achieves this task admirably. There is humour, sex, violence, a mix of pace and tone... The book starts with a dramatic "mise en scene" - the miraculous biological reaction of the human body to a paper cut - which grips the reader and engages them in a journey which leads them further and further back in time, past the birth of animals, past the birth of cells, past the birth of the language of DNA, to the very conditions which created life. And no novel would be complete without a pleasing ring-composition; so Rutherfood finished by delivering us back to the paper cut from which we began. Nor would it be complete without a moral. Rutherfood seeks throughout to build and reinforce his central thesis - we can now explain so convincingly how life might have spontaneously occurred from the conditions of our early planet, that explanations which rely on divine intervention are unnecessary and almost certainly wrong.
As someone who had a micro-biologist as a father, it is hard to determine to what extent the narrative of "the origin of life" would be easily followed in all its detail by someone unfamiliar with the workings of cells. Nevertheless, I find it hard to imagine a clearer explanation in little over 100 pages.
The "future of life" follows logically from the first half of the book, describing as it does the post evolutionary state in which we find ourselves - not because natural selection has stopped, but because it is likely to be outpaced by the progress caused by the genetic meddling of human scientists. This is the story of "synthetic biology", which has emerged as a trade from the basic research that produced the knowledge which Rutherfood has so carefully laid out in "the origins of life".
I have to say that I found this half of the book less gripping than the other, simply because Rutherfood has nothing like the same amount of material at his fingertips. Here he is describing the progress, and the barriers to that progress, which have sprung up in the last 20 years - the first attempts to create new life forms from scratch, and the army of concerned individuals who are trying to stand in their way. But while the results of this new science are still limited (a fact which Rutherfood recognizes repeatedly), the potential is fascinating and terrifying in equal measure.
There is no question that for Rutherfood, the heroes of his second narrative are the brave scientists who are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge and human capability by splicing genes into cells, and even reinventing the language of DNA. Others who read this tale may begin to question whether they have as much confidence as he has in the unknowable results of synthetic biology.