VITAL DUST by Christian de Duve


Life as a Cosmic Imperative
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 A panoramic view of life on earth from a Nobel laureate in physiology and Rockefeller University professor emeritus. Key words in this 4-billion-year chronology are ``complementarity,'' ``spontaneity,'' and ``congruence.'' De Duve (A Guided Tour of the Living Cell, not reviewed) is no miracle monger regarding the development of life. Basic physio-chemical forces permitted the spontaneous coming together of primordial molecules: They fit by means of complementary parts--the key-and- lock principle that would play out in the double helix, antigen- antibody reactions and the cell-cell communication characteristic of multicellular organisms. All this prebiotic sorting and shifting led to what de Duve calls ``protometabolism,'' which would be fully congruent to the chemical processes essential to life. Fully half this text is taken up with the most ancestral forms: protocells and bacteria, the latter splitting into the heat-loving forms found in subterranean thermal vents and the ``eubacteria'' that, de Duve hypothesizes, emerged to conquer the world when climate changed and, through a mutation, were able to adapt to a cooler world. Other crises would follow: Photosynthesis would enrich the atmosphere with toxic oxygen. Finally cells with nuclei emerged, coming together into complex differentiated life forms. So the story unfolds with crisis followed by opportunities down to the present, when human life predominates. Not the be-all and end-all, de Duve affirms--and particularly not at the rate we are disturbing the environment. Indeed, much of the latter part of the book is taken up with issues and schools of thought: mind-body dualism, the Gaia hypothesis, existentialist ``absurd'' philosophy versus Teilhard de Chardin's teleology. De Duve himself opts for a ``meaningful universe''; he believes that life is ``bound to arise under the prevailing conditions'' and exists elsewhere in the universe. This is a heady book with much conjecture and rumination. Withal, the reader cannot help but share de Duve's sense of joy and wonder at the chance and necessity that have created life on earth.

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1995
ISBN: 0-465-09044-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1994