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The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life


Pub Date: March 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-684-83799-4
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Davies is an astrophysicist who often writes about the famous question posed in the title of Erwin Schrîdinger’s What Is Life? (1944). Here he tries a different answer from that offered in his Are We Alone? Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life (1995). If his new hypothesis turns out to be true, then we all end up as Martians. The author claims that life may have started on Mars and later traveled to Earth on meteorites. But what kind of alternative state of matter qualifies and describes life? This puzzle and that of biogenesis, have puzzled humanity for over 2.5 millennia, leading to many biogenetic theories, such as the “primordial soup” hypothesis. Davies tells a different story. He replaces the chemical-soup metaphor with that of “information-processing systems” in which the secret of life—the transformation of chemistry into biochemistry—lies in the ability of genetic codes to organize, process, and transmit information. No familiar law of nature can adequately account for such a complex phenomenon. “Something funny” must thus have occurred in our bio-friendly universe three billion years ago which was predestined to produce life. Like Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium,” Davies’s mysterious and open-ended explanation will prompt fundamentalist Christians to fill any lingering gap with their preference for divine intervention. Davies himself attempts to fill the same gap by relying on the recent discovery of rock-eating, volcanic microbes’superbugs—living deep within the earth’s geothermal vents, their temperatures rising well over boiling point. Basing his suppositions on new evidence found in meteorites in Antarctica (and despite heated contrtoversies over interpreting the evidence on these meteorites), he theorizes confidently that ancestors of our superbugs traveled to Earth via Martian asteroids. His new work offers testimony to Davies’s passionate curiosity and to masterful writing, which reads like science fiction. (Book-of-the-Month Club dual main selection/Quality Paperback Book Club alternate selection)