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16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but Confusing, 14 May 2013
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This review is from: Creation: The Origin of Life / The Future of Life (Hardcover)
Adam Rutherford's account of the origin of life is interesting but confusing. He very frequently presents confusing statements of the certainty of scientific knowledge. For example on page 56 he writes ` we know that..the planet was probably largely molten..contrary to previous thinking we now think' and then tells us on the next page that the source of the earth's water `remains controversial'. Similarly on page 97 on the language code of life, he uses phrases like `rather plausible', `we now have a grasp', `we have credible roots', interchangeably. This terminology is too loose - we can `know that ..probably' anything. As genetics researcher Nick Lane in his review of the book (Observer 6 April 2013) says `we know less than we think'.

In chapter 4 Rutherford shows that a unique definition of life is difficult to state - `the boundary between chemistry and biology is arbitrary' (page 72). How then can we explain what we can't define? In chapter 6, any theory of the genesis of the code of life appears to be highly speculative.

Rutherford sets out lots of data, but his overall interpretation is weak. He covers too much ground, from Darwin to cell theory, to meteor bombardment, to RNA and DNA, ribosome and ribozyme codes, some of the latter in such detail that it makes the points difficult to follow, and an overall synthesis difficult to assimilate.

He lauds `Darwin's idea' as `self evidently true, demonstrably true, experimentally true' (footnote page25 Book 1 plus more in this vein on page 26). But this typical position closes off intellectual development of Darwin. Darwin insisted that mutations are random, but selection logical. It is entirely possible that the reverse could hold, ie that mutations are adaptive, as more recent neo-Lamarckian research suggests, and selection a random process of predation, chance, catastrophe etc. Similarly, saltation may be a better explanator than mutation. And as Rutherford admits on page 14 of Book 2, the species barrier is `one of the great questions in biology'. It is the crossing of this barrier that Darwin addresses, and his continuous incremental theory does have a problem in explaining a discrete process of speciation. If as Rutherford points out, the definition of a species is reproductive isolation, ie organisms that can reproduce to yield fertile offspring, then crossing such a discrete barrier by a slow incremental process is problematic. How does the first organism in a new species find a mate capable of fertile reproduction?

Rutherford does treat the genetic work of Gregor Mendel, but doesn't make the explicit connection that Mendel's work on dominant genes rescued Darwin's theory from blending of new mutations back into the host population. He doesn't mention W D Hamilton's theory of the `selfish gene' as a response to altruism as a challenge to Darwin at all. By page 45, Rutherford is telling us that the evolutionary story is `almost always only ever hypothetical' and claims of species descent are `often overstating what we can know'.

The second half of the book is an outline of synthetic biology and a defence of GM crop research and is less cataclysmic than the build up leads us to expect. It doesn't really match up to its claim as an account of `the future of life'.

The book exemplifies a problem with popular science writing by media scientists who know the people who are doing science but aren't doing it themselves. They are writing for an audience who are unqualified to answer back, who are being told rather than being engaged in debate. Rutherford does this with panache, with almost schoolboy enthusiasm in what sometimes reads like a brain dump. But the didactic unilateralism of the exercise is somehow unsatisfactory. Isn't there something for us to think about, rather than being told?
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 23 Aug 2013 09:07:55 BDT
Thoroughly good review !

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Aug 2013 10:00:28 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 23 Aug 2013 10:01:09 BDT]

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Aug 2013 10:04:40 BDT
Thanks

Posted on 27 Jan 2014 20:20:52 GMT
Barbskev says:
I am loving this book but have read the first half of page 56 several times and think I must be thick; it doesn't make sense to me.
'Closer to the hot sun, the temperature is higher, which makes it harder for gases to condense and accrete. It's for this reason that the inner four planets of the solar system - Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars - are terrestrial, made of rock, whereas the outer four - Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune - are gaseous ....' You'd expect the opposite wouldn't you? Can anyone explain?
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