Michael Marshall, The Genesis Quest: The Geniuses and Eccentrics on a Journey to Uncover the Origin of Life on Earth (U. of Chicago Press, 2020), tells the story, backed by current science, the origin of life through chemical interactions. Just how is still not clear, but the author suggests that science provides elements for a fuller origin story that partially supports a biblical Genesis story, but provides the fuller, current scientific narrative for further discernment. It is a short history of Western efforts to address the origins of life in chemistry.
The book title is not accurate. The book describes the halting history of scientific ideas and supporting experiments in exploring for understanding the origins of life. The book is not limited to the origins of life on Earth, since all the ideas and experimental evidence mechanisms described in the book apply to understanding the mechanisms of the origins of life anywhere in the cosmos. The humans described in this book are ordinary scientists doing their work of thinking and experimenting, but whose lives are neither genius nor eccentric. They are our neighbors doing their work.
All humans have a life origins story, explicit, implicit, religious, cultural, or personal. The book recognizes the dominant cultural Christian life origin stories of the six days of creation and the making of humans from dust, animated with God’s breath. The author recognizes the powerful and stunting influence of the idea of the soul or life force that is separate from the human body, which soul is given by God to all humans. For the author, this idea has long challenged progress in understanding the real origins of life. Now this chemistry is our story unfolding in recent time and as yet without a full conclusion.
This author takes a chemistry approach to life origins. Life is chemicals in combinations. Building on the 19th century view that the first living thing had an ancestor in a collection of molecules, the ideas percolated in the 20th century with a primordial ocean of jelly-like blobs, a hot dilute ocean soup, crystal-splitting clays, independent organelles in communities, RNA management, metabolisms, deep ocean vents, and fools’ gold. These are chemicals self-assembling easily, repeatedly, fast, but complex. Some ideas resonated and others went dormant. Now the leading science evidence tilts toward a warmish soup in land pools that are repetitively dried and refilled with water to produce the combinations of chemical elements that together make sustained life. The evidence for this answer is not yet complete.
The definition of life is a human problem to which the author adds clarification. There is no current complete explanation. Most agree that life must have boundaries, a feeding mechanism, orderly procedures, and reproduction. Based on geology, the fossil record of the origin of currently recognizable early life on this planet is somewhere near 4 billion years ago.
The book’s narrative is clear and conversational without patronizing the reader with the science. The tone is eager and the content manageable. There is humor and interesting anecdote. This book is an accessible and interesting resource for those exploring our story of human origins. This book is essential for context for parents teaching Quaker youth.
The table of contents is cute, but marginally helpful to the reader. The bibliography is short and without guiding annotations. The end notes are detailed, academic, and skeletal without additional attractive nuggets of information.
Life origins is a continuing question with an unfolding, incomplete answer. Our answers have practical consequences for how we live lives. The author’s conclusion is that this planet is a good place (cradle, home) for life origins. The chemistry story provides some guidance in support of requiring kindness within our species, and care for other species within the shared interest in preserving this place. There is no current answer for life’s origins, but some strong pointers affirming the central role of chemistry and human stewardship.
Quakers; The book makes no mention of Quakers and only a passing reference to religions.
Quaker testimonies avoid total authority attributed to the Bible origin stories of Genesis. Like in other religious communities, Quakers absorb cultural stories from the Bible. Quakers recognize the role of reason and continuing revelation through community-augmented discernment, including evolving science. This understanding places greater responsibility on Quakers for the education of Quaker youth about the origin of life. This book is a practical aid for Quaker parents.
- What are the elements of a Quaker story of the origin of life?
- How do Quaker parents answer youth questions about the origin of life?
- How do Quaker adults deal with the suggested replacement of “that of God in everyone” with “life in everyone”?
- The Genesis Quest: The Geniuses and Eccentrics on a Journey to Uncover the Origin of Life on Earth, Michael Marshall (U. of Chicago Press, 2020) https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo51153285.html
- Tim Flannery, “In the Soup,” New York Review of Books (12/3/2020) p.37f https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/12/03/genesis-quest-in-the-soup/