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the Complete Review
the complete review - science

Origins of Life

Freeman Dyson

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To purchase Origins of Life

Title: Origins of Life
Author: Freeman Dyson
Genre: Science
Written: 1999 (2nd ed.)
Length: 94 pages
Availability: Origins of Life - US
. Origins of Life - UK
. Origins of Life - Canada
  • Second, revised edition. (First edition published 1985.)
  • Based on Tarner Lectures delivered in Cambridge, 1985.

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Our Assessment:

-- : an interesting hypothesis, relatively well advanced -- but a complex sliver of a complex subject

       Note: Because of the technical nature of this book the editors felt it was inappropriate to give it a rating.

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       One of Freeman Dyson's most admirable qualities is the broad range of his interests. Though he acknowledges that he is no expert in biology his curiosity naturally extends to this subject, and in this volume he offers some thoughts on one of the many interesting questions in biology, the origins of life. He is consciously following Erwin Schrödinger's example, another physicist who wondered about biology, arguing that the value of Schrödinger's classic book What is Life ? is in that "it asked the right questions." Dyson tries to emulate Schrödinger in this regard, and he does so well.
       Dyson offers a hypothesis here -- not a theory, as he makes clear. He builds up to his hypothesis through the examples of his "Illustrious Predecessors" (so the title of his first chapter), each offering a piece to the puzzle of the origins of life as Dyson sees it. Defining life as consisting both of metabolism (in the German sense of Stoffwechsel -- i.e. any chemical process occurring in cells, not just genetically directed ones, as he carefully explains) and replication (carefully differentiated from mere reproduction), the big question that is posed is whether life began all at once, in an organism capable of both metabolism and replication, or life began twice,

with two separate kinds of creatures, one kind capable of metabolism without exact replication and the other kind capable of replication without metabolism.
       It is this second idea, the "double-origin hypothesis" that Dyson pursues here. Admitting that it may not be correct, he convincingly suggests that this hypothesis is a useful one in order to explore the matter.
       In his second chapter, "Experiments and Theories," Dyson offers a useful overview of the main lines of thought (and experiment) regarding the origins of life. In his simple survey of the three main theories (as espoused by Oparin, Eigen, and Cairns-Smith) and their supporting experiments Dyson manages to explain the different ideas well: the basics here are readily understood.
       In the third chapter, "A Toy Model," Dyson suggest a model for the origins of life. It is, as he readily admits, an idealized model, ignoring, as it were, many of the details. Nevertheless, it offers a good starting point for further study of the Oparin theory (which claims "cells came first, enzymes second, genes much later"). Taking as its starting point ten assumptions Dyson builds up a mathematical model that graphically illustrates how life could have started, representing "in abstract form the transition from chaos to organized metabolic activity in a population of molecules."
       While the mathematics used is not particularly complex it can, at first sight, seem daunting to the non-scientist. Dyson explains what he does fairly clearly; nevertheless, a certain familiarity with mathematical concepts is called for. The argument -- of what the Toy Model does -- is, however, simply stated, and Dyson explains the consequences of his model well. While it may be hard for the layman to judge the validity of Dyson's assumptions (i.e. whether or not they are tailored to fit his objective), the model does offer a plausible explanation of how life might have come into being.
       Dyson admits that a great deal of work must still be done in this field, but his model appears to be an interesting avenue to explore. In his final chapter, "Open Questions," he addresses some of the questions that the Toy Model suggests, as well as more general questions regarding the origins of life. It is a useful summary, well presented.
       An interesting book, clearly written and well argued, it can certainly be recommended. Readers should, however, be aware that it is fairly technical, and also fairly specific, dealing with a relatively small (though fascinating) scientific question. Those not familiar with modern biology, and comfortable with mathematics, might have difficulty getting much out of the book. However, it is certainly recommended to scientists, and especially those interested in the question of the origins of life.

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Origins of Life: Reviews: Freeman Dyson: Other books by Dyson under review: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       Freeman Dyson is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, he has written numerous works. He is also the father of Esther, who gets a lot of press of her own. In 2000 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion -- a payday worth almost a million dollars.

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