The Spark of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup

Can you create life with just a taser and a bowl of soup? Most likely not, unless you give yourself a few hundred million years to experiment. Biologist Christopher Wills and marine chemist Jeffrey Bada show off the fruits of research looking for signs of life elsewhere and clues to the origin of terrestrial organisms in The Spark of Life. The writing is clear and every concept is explained well–Wills’s reputation for translating scientific understanding into plain English is well-deserved, and Bada’s insider status with NASA provides insight not found elsewhere. They examine the field of theories, from extraterrestrial origin to life spilling out of hydrothermal vents to deep-crust genesis, and find strengths and weaknesses in them all. Their own partisan stance has it that life began on the surface of our planet through Darwinian-like processes operating on primitive self-replicating chemicals. Though their arguments are fairly compelling, the jury is still out, and will probably remain out indefinitely; science often balks at providing explanations for unique events, preferring to stick to general principles. Still, we can see that the problem is valuable because the search for an answer turns up all sorts of unexpected scientific finds: RNA-catalyzed reactions, Martian environmental problems, and natural selection of nonliving chemicals all showed up amid these debates. While it won’t settle the issues, we can be glad that The Spark of Life explains them so clearly and primes us for the research still to come. — Rob Lightner