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The Human Nature Review The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 365-366 ( 9 September )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/fry.html

Book Review

The Emergence of Life on Earth: A Historical and Scientific Overview
by Iris Fry
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000

Reviewed by Paul R. Gross *, co-author of Higher Superstition and co-editor of The Flight from Science and Reason.

In 1997 Iris Fry, historian and philosopher of science working in Israel, published in Hebrew The Origin of Life: Mystery or Scientific Problem? There were good reports of this work; but the fraction of all its potential readers who are competent in Hebrew is small. That difficulty is now circumvented: Rutgers University Press has produced a handsome, expanded version based upon the original volume, but now in English and in paperback.

The author undertook to cover a dauntingly broad range of the issues-scientific and otherwise-surrounding the origin of life AND its scientific study. This is not to imply that there is such a thing as non-scientific STUDY of the origin of life; but there certainly are a great many influential, passionately-held, non-scientific convictions on the subject. Many of those are actively hostile or arrogantly dismissive toward the science. In fact, there was no “study,” no objective inquiry, of the origin of life until very recently. Through most of human history we all KNEW either that (a) it arises spontaneously, all the time, as in dirty rags, or (b) it was or is created in an act of will on the part of gods or other super-agents. Only post-Darwin and post-Pasteur have the origin of life and the extraterrestrial prevalence-of-life arisen as honest questions. As a formal research discipline, the origin of life is an infant aged fifty. It has already, however, a good list of heroes, skirmishes, defeats and victories.

The long, full history, then, must be a part of any attempted GENERAL treatment of the state of the science. It is done in the opening chapters, like the rest of this book, fairly and conscientiously. The recent science, however, has its own, complex history. Some knowledge of that internal history is indispensable to an appreciation of achievements and the prospects for answers. We do not yet know how life came to exist on Earth, or if there is something like it elsewhere in the universe - although the chances for a plausible answer to the first seem very good now, and the likelihood of the second is high and getting higher with every discovery of an extra-solar planetary system.

One of two virtues of Fry’s account is that it makes a sympathetic understanding of the current science possible by taking up, systematically and seriatim, the major schools of recent and contemporary thought. It locates them in time and with relation to the adjacent sciences of life, geophysics, and astronomy. The other virtue is that the science is presented competently and without superficial glosses. There is sufficient detail and more than adequate bibliography, so that a general reader with some science background has a chance to judge the quality of competing theories and the strong arguments stirring the field. Those have to do with primitive Earth atmospheres and abiogenesis of organic compounds, the possible deposit of same by incoming cometary and other extraterrestrial debris, a metabolism-first or a gene-first, pre-biotic chemical evolution, an RNA-first world or a proteinoid-coacervate world, or a solid-state catalytic world, panspermia or all the way up from low molecular weight monomers right here, on planet Earth.

There are then, necessarily in so broad a review as this of the state of inquiry, the two questions most recently mooted. First, with the help of creationist venture capital, is the new-style “intelligent design” argument - William Paley resurgent - and its political movement. The second is the possibility -- defended and attacked with increasing heat these last five years, of a former if not a current microbial life on Mars. These issues close the book: there has been, so far as I know, no other readable account of these arguments in the specific context of scientific research on the origin of life.

Iris Fry’s effort succeeds. It is not a simple matter to set forth, even in general terms, and then to compare (for example) the metabolism-centered origins hypotheses of Dyson, Kauffman, Wächterhäuser, and Morowitz; but Fry does it, respectfully and with justice to each. The book deserves to be read. And, although the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology is intellectually independent of how Earth-life arose, or even of how we define “life,” this literate recounting of the research effort to find out must be useful to every student of evolution.

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© Paul R. Gross. 

* Paul R. Gross joined the faculty of the University of Virginia in the fall of 1986, after serving nine years as President and Director of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Earlier faculty positions were held at New York University, Brown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Rochester, where he chaired the Biology Department and served as the University Dean of Graduate Studies. Dr. Gross was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of 1982. From 1986 through 1989 he served as Vice President and Provost of the University of Virginia, occupying the Robert C. Taylor Chair in the Department of Biology. He served as Director of the Center for Advanced Studies from 1989 to 1995, and Director of the Molecular Biology Institute and the Markey Center between 1990 and 1994. Dr. Gross retired from the University of Virginia and returned to Cape Cod in 1996. Now affiliated with Harvard University, he writes and lectures on science, society and culture.


Gross, P. R. (2002). Review of The Emergence of Life on Earth: A Historical and Scientific Overview by Iris Fry. Human Nature Review. 2: 365-366.

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