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What Is Life?: Investigating the Nature of…
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What Is Life?: Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic…

by Ed Regis

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Not the most original book, but then again you might have guessed that from a book that repeats the title of a classic 60 year old book and has chapters that repeat the titles of some classic papers (e.g., The Spandrels of Saint Marco).

But it is a thoughtful, excellent, enjoyable, if occasionally journalist, overview of the title question. And most important it is completely up-to-date, having been published this year (2008) and including substantial reflections motivated by recent progress in synthetic biology.

At 173 pages it is worth reading it yourself. And if you don ( )
  nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
(posted on my blog: davenichols.net)

Philospher and popular science writer Ed Regis takes a modern look at the biological and philosophical nature of defining life in What is Life. While the subject matter is utterly fascinating, and at times this book is quite engaging, there were lots of problems with Regis's presentation.

Right off the bat, Regis sets up his story by detailing the work of researchers seeking to create artificial cells. The work itself is amazing and full of intriguing aspects. However, Regis somehow manages to drag the reader through this section with far-too clinical a look at the business and economic side of the work. While this sort of detail is appropriate in a larger, more comprehensive work, this was a large section of a book with less than 170 pages of actual text.

From there, a long stretch of science history is described, including Schrodinger, Watson, Crick, and others. Far too often for my taste, Regis quotes the brilliant but often highly-criticized Stephen Jay Gould. Gould's views on biology are frequently the subject of harsh criticism from his peers, and while that certainly does not make him incorrect, Regis fails to offer opposing views in situations where Gould's impressions are not necessarily so widely accepted. Regis does this in several other cases as well, in one instance offering a single sentence mentioning Richard Dawkins work, immediately following this by proclaiming that Dawkins's selfish gene theory "hardly settled the issue." Well of course it didn't settle the issue, but that's hardly the point.

Throughout the book, Regis asks us to think about what life is and how we might describe it. He hints early on that his conclusion centers on metabolism. Certainly a reasonable hypothesis, but only rarely does Regis offer actual support for this thesis. At one point, after describing the creation of a synthetic virus, he states: "That itself would have been an example of creating life ... except for the fact that a virus was not a living thing, but rather only a string of dead chemicals inside a protein coating." While that may be one way to describe a virus, this is a skewed interpretation based on Regis's theory that metabolism is absolutely required in a definition of life, a thesis that is not completely agreed upon by biologists or philosophers. Viruses in the wild do appear to have no life-like characteristics, but in vitro they are clearly performing many aspects of replication, mutation, and natural selection. It is hard to say a set of 'dead chemicals' can suddenly transform into something life-like without really explaining to the reader why this is so. Regis drops the ball and offers no explanation.

To be fair, parts of the book are enlightening and enjoyable, including later parts describing the modern work being done in the field of artificial life. But the narrative of history is mediocre, and the author's own philosophy often gets in the way of the story. Three stars. ( )
  IslandDave | Sep 15, 2009 |
Not that much longer than Erwin Schrödinger's famous little tract with the same title. On the vexed question of how to define life: "that which is capable of dying"? -- nah; "embodied metabolism"? -- maybe.
  fpagan | Sep 26, 2008 |
Not the most original book, but then again you might have guessed that from a book that repeats the title of a classic 60 year old book and has chapters that repeat the titles of some classic papers (e.g., The Spandrels of Saint Marco).

But it is a thoughtful, excellent, enjoyable, if occasionally journalist, overview of the title question. And most important it is completely up-to-date, having been published this year (2008) and including substantial reflections motivated by recent progress in synthetic biology.

At 173 pages it is worth reading it yourself. And if you don’t, the answer is metabolism. ( )
  jasonlf | May 1, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374288518, Hardcover)

In 1944, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger published a groundbreaking little book called What Is Life? In fewer than one hundred pages, he argued that life was not a mysterious or inexplicable phenomenon, as many people believed, but a scientific process like any other, ultimately explainable by the laws of physics and chemistry.
 
Today, more than sixty years later, members of a new generation of scientists are attempting to create life from the ground up. Science has moved forward in leaps and bounds since Schrödinger's time, but our understanding of what does and does not constitute life has only grown more complex. An era that has already seen computer chip-implanted human brains, genetically engineered organisms, genetically modified foods, cloned mammals, and brain-dead humans kept "alive" by machines is one that demands fresh thinking about the concept of life.
 
While a segment of our national debate remains stubbornly mired in moral quandaries over abortion, euthanasia, and other "right to life" issues, the science writer Ed Regis demonstrates how science can and does provide us with a detailed understanding of the nature of life. Written in a lively and accessible style, and synthesizing a wide range of contemporary research, What Is Life? is a brief and illuminating contribution to an age-old debate.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:56 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

In 1944, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrodinger published a groundbreaking little book called What Is Life? In fewer than one hundred pages, he argued that life was not a mysterious or inexplicable phenomenon, as many people believed, but a scientific process like any other, ultimately explainable by the laws of physics and chemistry. Today, more than sixty years later, members of a new generation of scientists are attempting to create life from the ground up. Science has moved forward in leaps and bounds since Schrodinger's time, but our understanding of what does and does not constitute life has only grown more complex. An era that has already seen computer chip-implanted human brains, genetically engineered organisms, genetically modified foods, cloned mammals, and brain-dead humans kept alive by machines is one that demands fresh thinking about the concept of life. While a segment of our national debate remains stubbornly mired in moral quandaries over abortion, euthanasia, and other right to life issues, the science writer Ed Regis demonstrates how science can and does provide us with a detailed understanding of the nature of life. Written in a lively and accessible style, and synthesizing a wide range of contemporary research, What Is Life? is a brief and illuminating contribution to an age-old debate.… (more)

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