Genesis: the scientific quest for life's origins

Genesis: the scientific quest for life’s origins
Robert M Hazen  
Washington DC, US: Joseph Henry Press | 2005 | 339 pp | ?17.95 (HB) | ISBN 0309094321 
Reviewed by Mary Strickland

The book is particularly timely in the light of the current hot debate on intelligent design/creationism/Darwinism and how these should be taught, or not taught, in US schools. It outlines in a balanced way what scientists have learned about these matters and the controversies they have generated.  

Most people agree that life on earth arose nearly four billion years ago, but the chemistry and physics of how it happened still puzzles scientists. How did non-living chemicals become alive? While the question is simple the answers are very complex. 

Robert Hazen, who works in the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory in the US, has spent many years dealing with the fundamental questions of genesis of life, tracing the sequence of events that led to the complicated interactions of carbon-based molecules.  

He takes us through the astounding process of emergence, from the first tentative steps toward life in the unfathomable abundance of carbon biomolecules synthesised in the black vacuum of space, deep within our planet’s restless crust and down in the ocean depths.  

The search for life’s origins is no longer the exclusive property of biology, but involves cross-pollination with fields such as chemistry, geology, palaeontology and astrophysics, as illustrated by the establishment of the Nasa Astrobiology Institute in 1998. 

Many theories have been propounded and Hazen outlines most in his informative and entertaining style. As an insider in this field, he introduces us to the various people who have worked and who are still working in the field. These include Stanley Miller, Harold Urey, Harold Morowitz, Hatten Yoder, Bill Schopf, Dave Deamer, Glenn Goodfriend, Gunter Wachttershauser, Nick Platts and Graham Cairns-Smith. 

This book is intended for a general readership, but it would require some basic scientific knowledge to understand some of the ideas being propounded, and indeed it could be considered too technical in places.  

One good feature, unusual in popular science texts, is that there are 50 pages of notes linked to about 600 further reading references to allow the more advanced reader to enjoy the book at a deeper level. 

Unfortunately there are no definite conclusions because the science is very much a work in progress. Watch this space.