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on 23 October 2014
I’ve been familiar with some of Adam’s work with the Guardian newspaper for a number of years, though this is the first book of his that I’ve actually read. It has to be noted that there are really two books here in one. The big trick the publishers pulled was to not put the two parts consecutively, but to flip one upside down and then putting them back-to-back. So you end up reading from front to centre, then turning the book round and doing the same again. The upshot of this is that, reading on public transport as I do, people kept giving me funny looks as they thought I was reading upside down.

The Origin of Life

The name kind of says it all. Only it doesn’t. Before we get to the origin of life, we first need a bit of preparation. This is ultimately the story of the history of life. But it is a story told in reverse, with the culmination being the story of the very beginning of life. So we begin not at the dawn of time but with a discourse on a very modern understanding of cell biology. This is something of an overview, familiar to many, but necessary if one is to locate the rest of this half of the book (and indeed the other half) in its rightful place.

So we get a very quick rundown on our understanding of evolution which runs broadly along the lines of many an account you will probably have read. He soon moves to a very important question....

What is life? It’s a necessary question and one that is deserving of a discussion. Adam recaps some of the definitions we should all be familiar with from our school days. Yet it certainly differed a bit from my school as I had always understood that while there was no set definition, viruses were a considerably grey area. Interestingly, though they are pretty much looked over here, they do appear in The Future of Life (see below). The answer arrived is runs along the lines of, “[we may not be able to pin it down, but we know it when we see it]” which makes for an interesting viewpoint given how the rest of the first half of the book develops, as the origin of life looks considerably different from what we would commonly recognise today.

From here we hone in on DNA as being the signature of life, but Adam presses further to suggest that RNA is probably a much older form. This not an unusual idea, but the non-scientifically trained reader may start to go a little cross-eyed at this point. So while Adam does a very good job of presenting his subject in accessible way, the topic at hand is intrinsically a bit tough.

We then get a look at the more basic components of life before finally getting to the question in hand: how did life begin? The answer is, of course, we don’t know. What we have is a series of possible answers and Adam gives us his view on some of these. The view he advocates is that the building blocks developed simultaneously rather than sequentially. These combined to create RNA which was then subject to what we would now call a process of Darwinian evolution. He goes into more detail than I have space for here, talking of experiments which show that this is a possible route.

Yet saying ‘it is possible’ is about as far as one can go. Adam looks at a few other hypotheses, such as the “warm little pool” and panspermia (the idea that life arrived on a comet or meteorite). It’s interesting, particularly with regards to the latter, that Adam is rather dismissive yet he doesn’t apply the same scrutiny to the idea he advocates as he does to the one he rejects. So while both are possible, and both might possibly wrong, the case is not adequately made in this book for why one is preferred over the other.

The Future of Life

So we come to the second part. You can read them independently or in reverse order, but I would be surprised if the majority of readers picked this one first. As has been noted by some other reviewers of this book, this half doesn’t quite have the same great flow to it that the first half did. For some time, I trundled through, thinking it was a bit hodge-podge with Adam just looking at bits that, while interesting, didn’t give an overall narrative as he had done with the origin of life.

Part of this is the newness of it all. Much of the science he describes has only been pioneered in the last 10 years or so, long after I ended any formal education in biology. So Adam describes an area of science that is very much in its infancy but which has already come on leaps and bounds in its short lifetime. Though he rightly points out that genetic engineering is really what nature does anyway, and which Gregor Mendel did with his pea plants in the 19th century. It’s that our capabilities to manipulate genetic code is now much more direct, made possible through other forms of engineering, and so enabling the kinds of experiments that Adam describes.

When considering the future of bioengineering, one name should instantly spring to mind to anyone who follows science: Craig Venter. To some he is a hero, to others a villain. He competed with Francis Collins (who is curiously not mentioned by Adam) to be the first to map the human genome project. Collins did this on a not-for-profit basis, but Venter is very much on the side of profiteering from biological research, to the extent of trying to patent genes. Adam goes into some discussion of exactly what patents and copyrights have been applied for, with a level of critique in his writing, though he doesn’t quite go so far to as advocate the public availability of all research. But he does go someway in this direction.

At this point, I probably ought to add a disclaimer that the company I work for publishes a considerable number of books and journals in scientific research, some of which Adam may subscribe to or own. So I acknowledge that the profits made from these publications contribute to my salary.

Adam is, unsurprisingly, an advocate of the trials of GM crops. He gives us a potted history of the anti-GM movement which has an interesting link over to one of my former hangouts, the Rothamstead Experimental Station in Hertfordshire. Some may take issue with the way he tells the story, with Adam being resolutely pro-science whilst advocating reasonable safeguards.

There is no real neat ending here, as this is very much a fledgling science. Adam presents us with some possibilities, but I would not be surprised if we look back at this in 25 years’ time and find that the field has developed in ways that are unexpected or have gone down different routes from the early sketch that we are given here.

So in conclusion, this is a very good book written about a fairly tough subject. It is not the most abstruse topic for those who are reasonably scientifically literate, but for those who specialise more in the arts then this may prove tough. But I would struggle to find a better book to recommend on the most modern advances in biology. Told with good humour and in a lively style, Adam remains a gifted communicator and I look forward to any future publications he may author.
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on 7 May 2013
Recommended. I very much enjoyed Rutherford's walk through the origins and future of life.

I particularly enjoyed flipping the book over to read from each 'half' of the work one bit at a time (though one could also read each half in its entirety just as easily), I felt that each part complemented the other perfectly.

The author's style is friendly without being colloquial, informed without being dogmatic and he seems to know just how far to delve into a topic to keep the material interesting. I particularly appreciate that Rutherford, like any good scientist, writes about implications, predictions, likelihoods and consensus, rather than just describing current theories as if they are hard facts.

I finished the book knowing a lot more about this rather elusive concept, 'life', but even better, I got a good sense of why we think the things we do about the origins and future of life.

Thoroughly enjoyable, informative and entertaining.
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on 13 April 2013
I used to love Biology at school, even though very often the way it was taught was stuffy, with the science coming across as stagnant. Creation completely smashes that myth into pieces, presenting the history of how we discovered the inner workings of life, and how we're starting to build on this knowledge to create new, synthetic life. Rutherford has a very engaging writing style, and his enthusiasm for the subject matter is infectious - you can't help but feel exciting as you tour through things like the discovery of DNA, and some of the controversy surrounding GM. He presents what are, at times, quite difficult concepts in an easy-to-understand, friendly manner that makes you want to learn more. It would be the perfect, complimentary companion to students taking GCSEs or A-Levels in Biology, and for older readers, does a spectacularly good job of rekindling interest in the subject. In short: get this book, you won't be disappointed.
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on 14 April 2013
Though there are many books about evolution, and the development of life on this planet, Rutherford finds a niche with his book 'Creation', and it covers ground not tackled in a popular science book before. From thermal vents 4 billion years ago to bleeding edge genetic manipulation techniques that could potentially tackle problems in medicine, renewable energy and long-haul space exploration, the book is fascinating, with tough and complex biological theory explained with elegance and clarity. Highly recommended for inquisitive minds who like intelligent writing and gripping stories.
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on 14 May 2013
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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on 5 June 2014
A brilliant 2-in-one book, describing what we already know about abiogenesis - and we do know quite a lot - and then how the technology may develop in the future..

Although we will never find fossils to prove it, the book explains how the process could have worked - reducing it to something perfectly possible, not requiring the supernatural.
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I really wanted to like this book (or these books, if you prefer), but was let down so frequently that it was all I could do to finish it/them.

First the good points. Despite his very brief career of actually doing science, Adam has a reasonable breadth of knowledge of evolutionary genetics and synthetic biology, and quite of a lot of experience, through his job as a media editor at the journal Nature, in pitching his discussions for the intelligent lay person. He does this job well, certainly. One should not underestimate this - there are many professional academics who cannot do this, and if people like Adam do not have a stab, who is going to? Full-time academics like Dawkins, Jones and Stringer who can really write are rare - and one wonders how on earth they find the time. So far so good.

However, IMHO Adam has let himself down, and he has been let down by his publishers. Let me explain.

The first problem is that Adam thinks he has to jazz up the narrative with wordy trickery. I lost count of the number of times that an obscure word or metaphor was helicoptered in where there were several more usual alternatives. I have to say this is regrettably a common criticism of popular science authors - showing above all that they do not have faith that the material they are discussing can hold the readers' interest without these little explosions of verbal dexterity. For heaven's sake, if the origin and evolution of life, and its potential to be recreated in the future are not already topics of HUGE interest, something is seriously wrong.

Secondly, I am sorry to say Adam has suffered from a lack of competent copy-editing and proofreading. Any serious author knows that (despite the sexing-up and hero-ising of authors generally) the production of a first-class book is the result of a collaboration between the author, a sympathetic and knowledgable editor, and a similarly qualified proofreader. A copy editor may (largely) be said to "correct errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, style and usage" while a proofreader "uses care, judgement, skill, knowledge and experience in checking that the work of author, editor and designer/typesetter is satisfactory" - to catch any final errors including but not restricted to typos. It is rare that an author's draft does not benefit hugely from quality advice and revision in order to clarify the message. By definition, both editor and proofreader need genetics expertise, otherwise they cannot help.

There are enough examples of sloppiness to really get under my skin. A typical case off the top of my head is the repeated use, in discussion of the "O" level chemistry of amino-acids, of the Victorian term "carbolic acid" (also known more commonly as phenol, C6H5OH) instead of "carboxylic acid" meaning the acidic -COOH group possessed by all amino-acids. This is possibly an easy slip to make in the white heat of authorship (but not one any author would wish to be reminded of) but to be missed by everyone down the line is shocking.

Naturally I can only speculate from a reading of the final published book. But that is all any of us can do.

Finally I would take issue with what some nameless PR hack has written to adorn the dustjacket: "Dr Adam Rutherford is a geneticist, writer and broadcaster...". Adam is not a geneticist. He WAS a geneticist for a short time and duly completed a PhD in genetics some ten years ago, but since then he has not carried out any research work in this field and appears to have just one publication dating from his PhD project on Pax6. It is very wrong to describe an author in this way as it does a disservice to those working research academics who do find the time to write books for the interested lay public - who really ARE geneticists (this does not include me, in case you think I am carrying out special pleading). I should stress this is absolutely not to criticise Adam for the career path he has taken and been successful in: science desperately needs popular and engaging characters to spend quality time with researchers, intelligently interpret their latest work and present it in a way that is grown-up but accessible.
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on 10 November 2013
Easily readable by the non scientific like myself and yet fantastically illuminating of a subject matter that is both incredible and complicated. I would HIGHLY recommend to anyone interested to discover more about DNA, origins of life, and the potential for synthetic biology.
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on 14 April 2013
For those of us who stay awake at night asking ourselves impossible questions, this book provides some fascinating and well researched answers, as well as posing all sorts of other equally impossible questions all over again. Well written and clearly set out, Rutherford continues to prove his geeky credentials... glad I bought this book and would def recommend to others.
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on 13 April 2013
This is popular science, yes, but not dumbed down science. Readable, engaging and accessible. I must admit to being wary of popular science books after reading the likes of Dawkins on one side or Matt Riddley (quoted above) on the other, who work from their politics before the scientific reality , this is the real deal. A great read deserving of praise. A Riddley quote should be enough to tell anyone to stay clear, for fear of libertarian silliness, but I beg you to persevere. Very worthy, very engaging. Worth a squirt.
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