Half a century ago, before the discovery of DNA, the Austrian physicist and philosopher Erwin Schrodinger inspired a generation of scientists by rephrasing the fascinating philosophical question: What is life? Using their expansive understanding of recent science to wonderful effect, acclaimed authors Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan revisit this timeless question in a fast-moving, wide-ranging narrative that combines rigorous science with philosophy, history, and poetry. The authors move deftly across a dazzling array of topics--from the dynamics of the bacterial realm, to the connection between sex and death, to theories of spirit and matter. They delve into the origins of life, offering the startling suggestion that life--not just human life--is free to act and has played an unexpectedly large part in its own evolution. Transcending the various formal concepts of life, this captivating book offers a unique overview of life's history, essences, and future. Supplementing the text are stunning illustrations that range from the smallest known organism (Mycoplasma bacteria) to the largest (the biosphere itself). Creatures both strange and familiar enhance the pages of What Is Life?
Their existence prompts readers to reconsider preconceptions not only about life but also about their own part in it.
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(229mm x 152mm x 20mm)
University of California Press
Publisher: University of California Press
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US Kirkus Review »
The authors of Mystery Dance: The Evolution of Human Sexuality (1991) return to the fundamental biological questions, this time taking on the slipperiest of all issues. Wisely, they avoid any temptation to present a single, simplistic answer to the question posed in the title. Instead, Margulis (Biology/Univ. of Mass., Amherst) and her collaborator/son end each chapter with an answer from a different perspective: astronomical, physical, bacteriological, evolutionary, and so forth. While the range they cover is thus greatly extended, the reader will quickly begin to note certain limitations. For example, the book's initial chapter excludes viruses from the definition of life, on the ground that they do not metabolize; but very few biologists would be comfortable with such a clear-cut demarcation. At the other end of the scale, the illustrations quite deliberately scant what most of us would think of as "higher" organisms; the only vertebrates shown in 80 full-color photographs are a pair of human skeletons and a fish. Even granted that vertebrates comprise a small fraction of all species, the decision still seems eccentric. Equally eccentric is the pervasive niceness of the authors' viewpoint: Any tough-minded biologist would laugh at the quaint exegesis of Darwinian competition as the idea that organisms "knock up against each other and work things out." Likewise, the text is skewed in favor of such fashionable but still controversial notions as the Gala theory. And while the book is full of interesting insights, many of them will be obscured by a prose style that rarely finds a middle ground between the muddiest kind of technical language and self-consciously "poetic" overwriting. Visually very attractive, this book will probably find a place on many coffee tables; but it would be surprising if any but the most dedicated readers persevered through the entire text. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Lynn Margulis
Lynn Margulis is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of more than one hundred articles and ten books, including Symbiosis and Cell Evolution (second edition 1993). Dorion Sagan, general partner of Sciencewriters, is the author of Biospheres (1990). Together they are the authors of Microcosmos (California, 1996), What Is Sex? (1990), Garden of Microbial Delights (1995), and Mystery Dance (1991).