Title: The Spark of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup
Author: Christopher Wills, Jeffrey Bada
Publisher: Perseus Publishing
Plain English, not scientific jargon
Lively, visual descriptions about the environment of the early earth
Good for even complete beginners with no prior knowledge of the subject
Unbiased, fair exploration of various scientific theories about the origin of life
Helpful for the average reader trying to understand a complex subject
Many religious conservatives would have us believe that science cant tell us anything about the origin of life and that this is a good reason to believe that life has a supernatural origin. This argument is usually made on the basis of work done in the 1950s, as if no progress has been made since. The truth is that a large amount of research has been done on the nature life. Some scientists are working from the bottom up, trying to figure out how self-organizing and self-replicating molecules can become living things, while others are working from the top down, trying to figure out what the basis for all current life is.
All of this is on the cutting edge of scientific research not even all scientists can be expected to understand everything that is going on, so its certainly a bit much for the average person to keep straight. This doesnt mean, however, that the average person cant be informed about the research and have a basic understanding about the work being done. We just need a source of information that breaks it down for us, and thats what Christopher Wills and Jeffrey Bada deliver in their book The Spark of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup.
A biologist and a chemist, they arent writing for professionals and experts, but they also dont talk down to their readers. With clear and interesting prose, they explain a lot of important concepts from biology and chemistry, helping readers come to terms with very complicated research.
They also help readers see strengths and weakness in several different theories about the origins of life. They arent promoting a single pet idea; instead, they cover several ideas like extraterrestrial origins and hydrothermal vents, explaining how these ideas might be promising as well as their most significant flaws. They hold to the more traditional view that life probably began on the surface, but they also dont avoid pointing out some of the weaknesses in this view.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is their application of Darwinian natural selection to the context of non-living, self-replicating chemicals that would have preceded the development of life. Most people will only imagine Darwinian processes applying to living beings, but the ability of the well-adapted to survive and replicate better than the ill-adapted need not be so restricted. Its entirely reasonable to think that some self-replicating molecules stood a better chance at surviving and replicating than others, which would mean that natural selection was functioning in the origin of life itself.
Wills and Bada might be mistaken in their extension of this aspect of evolutionary theory to non-living chemicals, and their personalization of Darwinian evolution comes off as very strange, but it is an interesting idea that may shed new light on both chemistry and biology.