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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Evolution

The Genesis Quest The Geniuses and Eccentrics on a Journey to Uncover the Origin of Life on Earth

Popular Science
By: Michael Marshall(Author)
360 pages, no illustrations
A veritable who's who of scientists and their ideas, The Genesis Quest is a big-picture overview of origin-of-life research and a fantastic starting point on this topic. This is the book I wish I had read earlier.
The Genesis Quest
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  • The Genesis Quest ISBN: 9781474611435 Paperback Aug 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • The Genesis Quest ISBN: 9781474611411 Hardback Aug 2020 Out of Print #250868
Selected version: £10.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

How did life begin? Why are we here? These are some of the most profound questions we can ask.

For almost a century, a small band of eccentric scientists has struggled to answer these questions and explain one of the greatest mysteries of all: how and why life began on Earth. There are many different proposals, and each idea has attracted passionate believers who promote it with an almost religious fervour, as well as detractors who reject it with equal passion.

But the quest to unravel life's genesis is not just a story of big ideas. It is also a compelling human story, rich in personalities, conflicts, and surprising twists and turns. Along the way the journey takes in some of the greatest discoveries in modern biology, from evolution and cells to DNA and life's family tree. It is also a search whose end may finally be in sight.

In The Genesis Quest, Michael Marshall shows how the quest to understand life's beginning is also a journey to discover the true nature of life, and by extension our place in the universe.



PART ONE Primordial Science
1. The Biggest Question
2. A Soviet Free Thinker
3. Creation in a Test Tube

PART TWO Strange Objects
4. The DNA Revolution
5. Crystal Clear
6. The Schism

PART THREE Scattered, Divided, Leaderless
17. The Other Long Molecule
18. Rise of the Replicators
19. The Blobs
10. The Need for Power
11. Born in the Depths

PART FOUR Reunification
12. Mirrors
13. Return of the Blobs
14. Just Messy Enough

Epilogue: The Meaning of Life


Customer Reviews (1)

  • A fantastic starting point on the topic
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 6 Aug 2021 Written for Paperback

    The Genesis Quest is one of those books that quickly makes a good case for its own existence. It takes the reader through the century-long research endeavour on the origin of life, providing a big-picture overview of who's who and how their ideas have waxed and waned. Such an overview requires an outsider's perspective on the whole show, which is exactly what science writer Michael Marshall achieves in my opinion. A superb starting point if you want to read more on this subject, this is the book I wish I had read earlier.

    Judging by the long history of creation myths, the question of our origin has always fascinated us. But creation myths, contends Marshall, are not an answer. The scientific question of how life originated from non-living matter, a process known as abiogenesis, needed the theory of evolution and a conception of the age of the Earth before it was conceived of. (On a side-note, this seems to harken back to the now obsolete idea of spontaneous generation; the two are similar, but not the same.) What The Genesis Quest shows is a research community that started out unified, then splintered into competing fields, and is only recently showing signs of a reunification.

    Marshall takes the 1920s as his starting point, which is when Oparin and Haldane independently theorised that life could have arisen from non-living chemicals in a step-wise fashion in Earth's primitive oceans. Experimental support was delivered by the famous Miller–Urey experiment. In a laboratory setup simulating early Earth conditions, they created organic molecules such as amino acids from simple precursors. Though iconic and launching the field of prebiotic chemistry, their findings quickly became obsolete as criticism mounted.

    During the '70s and '80s, disagreements arose over which of life's essential functions came first, which basic molecules came first, where on the planet this happened, and which organisms held the clues to the questions. Consequently, the field gradually splintered into four competing schools of thought that Marshall discusses in turn.

    The proteins-first school argues amino acids can spontaneously form complex proteins and even proteinoid microspheres (a sort of protocells), but it receded with the death of Sidney Walter Fox. The compartmentalisation-first school argues that life needs a container if it is not to fall apart immediately. Experiments by key figures such as Deamer, Hargreaves, and Luisi showed how precursors can spontaneously form lipids which can then form protocells, and how they can be coaxed to divide or pick up molecules relevant to life's biochemistry.

    The other two are arguably the more widely known ideas. The replication-first school has become synonymous with the RNA world and got boosted by discovering that RNA can have enzymatic activity (so-called ribozymes), and that it sits at the heart of ribosomes. Lastly, the metabolism-first school argues that energy underlies everything, for without a constant input to counter the second law of thermodynamics, entropy wins and life falls to pieces. This idea was boosted by the discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, argued to be ideal biochemical reactors by Corliss. Russell predicted the existence of alkaline vents in the '80s based on geological formations and was vindicated by the discovery of the Lost City hydrothermal field in 2000. These would provide a gentler environment and, from reviewing Alien Oceans, it is clear that alkaline vents still have currency.

    Though each school has advanced the field, none of them have provided a complete and satisfactory solution to life's origin. Experiments often fall short or have doubtful real-world relevance. This where Marshall finally plays his own hand and clarifies which scenario he favours based on the evidence. He charts how some people have changed their minds and a new school is emerging that argues that "the essence of life is the interaction of all three" (p. 250), i.e. genes, metabolism, and a membrane-bound cell. Experiments by Szostak, initially an RNA-world devotee, have partially succeeded in creating a model system with genes copying themselves inside membrane-bound protocells, though they still lack metabolism. Arguably, the boundaries between life and non-life become fuzzy once you start looking at such self-sustaining networks of chemical reactions, which is the domain of systems chemistry "The first life was so intimately bound up with its surroundings that it is difficult to tell what should count as organism and what as surroundings" (p. 272). He also highlights Morowitz's argument that life should be considered at the level of ecosystems, or, in Marshall's words "The first cell was not alone: it belonged to an instant community" (p. 270).

    Marshall discusses many more researchers who made important contributions than I have space to mention here. This overview is arguably the book's strongest point, but I have two additional observations. First is his eye for subtlety and detail. For example, he clarifies how speaking of the "Oparin-Haldane hypothesis" obscures the fact that their ideas differed subtly, and he explains the difference between hard and soft versions of the RNA-world thesis. Second, his version of the story of how the structure of DNA and the ribosome were discovered matches what I have read in other books.

    Based on these observations, I feel reasonably confident to claim that Marshall knows his stuff. Having an outsider without allegiances to any research group is an advantage in this case. The acknowledgements mention his close reporting on origin-of-life research for over a decade and 46 pages of references to journal articles back up the ideas he presents here. Clearly, Marshall has done his homework.

    Despite the serious intention, the book is very readable. He provides just the right amount of biographical information without losing focus on people's ideas. There is the occasional footnote with nerdy pop-culture references, which is amusing when used in moderation. And he can be refreshingly brusque and honest.

    This is not the first book to give a history of this field (see The Emergence of Life on Earth), nor the first one written by a science journalist (see A Brief History of Creation). Though I have not read those books, a quick comparison suggests they spend more time surveying thinking in Antiquity, which is something Marshall only briefly surveys in his first chapter. Given that I have recently been reading a fair bit about astrobiology and the origin of life, this is the book I wish I had read first. If you have any interest in delving deeper into origin-of-life research, this book makes a fantastic starting point that will give you the lay of the land. It gets my unreserved recommendation.
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Michael Marshall is a science writer interested in life sciences and the environment. He has a BA and MPhil in experimental psychology from the University of Cambridge and an MSc in science communication from Imperial College, London. He has worked as a staff journalist at New Scientist and the BBC. Since 2017 he has been a freelance writer, published by outlets including BBC Future, the Observer, Nature, New Scientist, and the Telegraph. In 2019 he was shortlisted for News Item of the Year by the Association of British Science Writers. He lives in Devon, UK, with his wife and daughter.

Popular Science
By: Michael Marshall(Author)
360 pages, no illustrations
A veritable who's who of scientists and their ideas, The Genesis Quest is a big-picture overview of origin-of-life research and a fantastic starting point on this topic. This is the book I wish I had read earlier.
Media reviews

"In The Genesis Quest, the science writer Michael Marshall argues that belief in a life force long stymied progress in understanding life's origins. It was only with publication of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection in 1859 that the notion that the first living thing must have had a precursor became widespread. As science advanced, it was established that a collection of molecules with some lifelike properties must have given rise to life. Marshall's book focuses on the chemical research – from the first speculative insights made by brilliant minds to the complex experiments that have increasingly dominated the field – into life's origins. It's a fascinating and challenging story, and leavened with mini-biographies, the best of which are based on his own interviews with his subjects."
– Tim Flannery, New York Review of Books

"The Genesis Quest traces the ongoing efforts of scientists to explain exactly how life first arose on Earth. Marshall introduces the field's major theories, figures, and controversies."
Publishers Weekly

"In his recently published The Genesis Quest: The Geniuses and Eccentrics on a Journey to Uncover the Origin of Life on Earth, author Marshall examines the ideas and researches of some of those who sought or are still seeking to uncover the explanation – or perhaps explanations – to this grand mystery. Described as being filled with colorful accounts of 'ingenuity, rivalry, and staggering levels of bloody-mindedness,' this is a work that promises to be as lively in its telling as its subject is thought-provoking."
The Well-read Naturalist

"This book explores multiple theories about the origin of life and the story of how these ideas have progressed over the last century. The book's distinctive style comes from well-researched analysis of the behavior and lifestyles of the various scientists who have contributed to this fascinating and uniquely difficult question [...] This book is an extremely stimulating read and I recommend it most strongly to scientists and laymen alike."
– Jim Lynch OBE FRSB, The Biologist

"Marshall has rounded up all the past and current thinking about this profound and puzzling question – how did life begin? – into a neat, enthralling and highly digestible package. He doesn’t pretend we can answer the question, but does justice to all the key proposals so far. And if anything, his survey of potential solutions makes the appearance of life on Earth seem all the more astonishing as we examine the issue ever more closely."
– Philip Ball, author of How To Grow a Human: Adventures in How We Are Made and Who We Are

"Prepare yourself for a dazzling intellectual journey: the science is fascinating, the cast of characters all-too-human, and the philosophical insights deep. Written in clear and entertaining prose, like a Sherlock Holmes story, this is the best book I know for general readers about the quest to solve one of our most enduring mysteries: how and where, in a seemingly purposeless universe, life began on planet earth."
– Oren Harman, author of Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World

"The Genesis Quest recounts remarkable episodes in the history of attempts to scientifically understand the origin of life. Combining exceptionally clear expositions of what is scientifically at stake, distinctive humor, and a roving eye for the telling anecdote, this is anything but a tedious scientific genealogy. Marshall has a flair and talent for explaining each individual experiment and its intellectual context. The Genesis Quest offers a well-done romp through some fascinating and complicated terrain."
– Luis A. Campos, author of Radium and the Secret of Life

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