Life is a long, strange trip, and in The Origins of Life, John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry blast you through its three-and-a-half-billion-year history at breathtaking pace.
Life, we learn, is information, transmitted in ever more intricate ways across the generations. Self-replicating chemicals walled themselves into cells, organized themselves into regimented communities of chromosomes, swapped notes with other populations to become sexual, cloned themselves to form multicellular colonies called organisms, got together with other colonies to form societies, and, eventually, in the case of one particular ape, developed the ability to put this whole story down on paper.
For those evolutionists brought up on the theory of "red queens" and "self genes," Origins provides a complementary crash course in the practical nuts-and-bolts biology behind the headlines. The authors describe the technical problems involved in the transition from one stage to another, and explain the ingenious and often fortuitous steps that natural selection took to overcome them. For example, the rigid walls of the first cells gave way to more flexible membranes that could engulf food particles and incorporate "little organs" such as mitochondria. A "cytoskeleton" of filaments and tubules was needed to maintain the cell's integrity, and--presto!--this structure was the perfect motorway for intracellular traffic, ideal for shearing the cell apart during cloning, and provided the earliest means of locomotion, such as the tail of sperm.
With this attention to detail, the book requires careful reading--but it's worth it. Maynard Smith and Szathmáry's book makes you realize just how lucky you are to be alive. --Oliver Curry, Amazon.co.uk [via]