Short works

Books : reviews

Lynn Margulis, Dorion Sagan.
What is Life?.
Weidenfeld and Nicholson. 1995

What is life? is surely one of the oldest questions. We live. We—people, birds, flowering plants, even algae glowing in the ocean at night—differ from steel, rock, inanimate matter. We are alive. But what does it mean to live, to be alive, to be a discrete being at once part of the world but separated from it by our skin? What is life?

What Is Life? is a scientific and philosophical exploration of this most fascinating question. Along the way, it explores the opposite question—what is death?; as well as delves into the origins of life; Earth’s status as a superorganism; the biological connection between programmed death and sex; the symbiotic evolution of the five organic kingdoms (bacteria, protoctists, animals, fungi, and plants); the solar basis of our global economy; and the startling suggestion that life, not just human life, is free to act and has played an unexpectedly large part in its own evolution.

In their latest work acclaimed authors Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan plunge into the very heart of living matter. Tranaccnding both mechanistic and vitalistic concepts of life, this captivating book argues that the question “What is life?” is a linguistic trap. To answer according to the rules of grammar, we must supply a noun, a thing. But life on Earth is more like a verb. It is a material process, surfing over matter like a strange slow wave. It is a controlled artistic chaos, a set of chemical reactions so staggeringly complex that more than 4 billion years ago it began a sojourn that now, in human form, composes love letters and uses silicon computers to calculate the temperature of matter at the birth of the universe. Life is existences celebration.

Accompanying this absorbing account of the nature of life are 80 remarkable illustrations that range in subject matter from the smallest known organism (Mycoplasma bacteria) to the largest (the biosphere itself). Creatures strange and familiar enhance the pages of What Is Life?, inviting readers to reconsider preconceptions not only about life itself but their own personal part in it.