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What Is Life [Hardcover]

4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Beyond biology Jan. 7 2003
By nborson
I was as enthralled as other reviewers with the amazing facts in this book. My favorite: bacteria don't age; they can die from accidental causes but "programmed death" started with eukaryotes. The authors show that death is necessary for organisms (like us) that practice meiotic cell division.
But this book is far more than a random collection of facts. Margulis and her collaborators do an amazing job of assembling an understandable model of life using parts carefully selected from a vast body of biological knowledge. While a one-sentence definition is still elusive, the reader builds up a picture of life's most pertinent characteristics, as exhibited by the truly astounding diversity of living things on this planet. By the time I finished, I was satisfied that the authors had answered the question.
You don't need to be a biologist to understand and enjoy this book. Its beauty is that the greatest scientific thinking on the most complex topics has been presented in common english, with necessary scientific terms explained as they are introduced. If you are intrigued by the question of life, I doubt there's a more complete, accurate, understandable, and enjoyable answer available than this book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars What a Great Book March 16 2002
This book is written with great intelligence and subtlety. I'm an engineer, and it has been about thirty years since my last biology class. I'm not even sure what compelled me to update my knowledge in this field. I suppose the title "What is Life?", got my attention, as I found this title to be somewhat audacious. Let's face it, "What is Life?", is the supreme question, and any author who ventures in this direction is walking a tight-rope of controversy.
I can honestly say I learned a lot from this book, as I've underlined just about every page. It has so many fascinating insights about the evolution of bacteria into living organisms. As the authors acknowledge, scientists today do not yet understand all the fundamental biological questions - but it sure seems they are headed in the right direction.
Quoting from p. 218, "The facts of life, the stories of evolution, have the power to unite all people". Although I doubt that we can ever "unite all people", I believe that this book will be appreciated by readers who are looking for modern and rational explanations to some existential questions, within the context of biology.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Dr. Margulis - You Go, Girl! Jan. 11 2002
"What Is Life?" is an illuminating & expansive reconstruction of the bacterial evolution of life on Earth. Combining rigorous science, mythology, history, poetry, stories, sketches, wit, captivating writing, & arresting photography, Margulis & Sagan examine Professor Margulis' theory of endosymbiosis.
Needless to say, Dr. Margulis has left me speechless. I cannot post here an adequate review of this book because I can't find the words to express what this book has done to my beliefs.
Others have done it much better. For the best review, read Piero Scaruffi's 1999 review titled "Lynn Margulis, Dorion Sagan: What is Life? (Simon & Schuster, 1995)." Scaruffi does Dr. Margulis justice. Like many other readers, on the other hand, he is unfair to Dorion Sagan as his mother's co-writer. Nothing conveys to the ordinary reader the wonder & vast scope of the world of science better than stimulating prose. With it, I am able to "get" very quickly otherwise confounding stuff. Thanks to Sagan, I am able to learn all over again long-forgotten facts like the structure & function of DNA & RNA. I like Sagan's off-hand style & acidic wit. His eccentricity makes his science books fun to read.
Dr. Lynn Margulis - Maverick Microbiologist Extraordinaire!
Dorion Sagan - You Rock!
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4.0 out of 5 stars So you thought you knew biology! Dec 24 2001
This book is an eye opener and a mind expander. As a science book for the general reader, I give it four stars; this is because Lynn Margulis is a maverick within biology today, and not all that she says is generally accepted science, and because its basic organizational principle, the division of living organisms into five kingdoms, is somewhat out of date. (Since the book came out in 1995, genetic data has made kingdoms subservient to the three "domains" of archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes.) For those with a more extensive background in biology, give it five stars for its capacity to open up broad new perspectives and to offer illuminating new details.
Lynn Margulis does not serve up any final answer to her title's question. There are a couple of ongoing themes: that wherever there is life, there is what she calls "autopoiesis", the definition of a boundary between self and other, together with the absorption and expenditure of free energy to maintain the self. (A process, as she notes, which not only doesn't violate the second law of thermodynamics, but actually accelerates the rate at which overall entropy increases.) A second theme is, that life's self-organization goes on at progressively higher levels of integration: from cells to colonies and to symbiotic unions that make one complex cell out of several; from complex cells to multicellular animals, plants, and fungi; from multicellular beings to societies and ecosystems; from ecosystems to the biosphere. Margulis believes that biology impoverishes itself by insisting, as Steven Jay Gould does, that evolution has no "direction," simply because no master designer is imposing a direction on it from outside.
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