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How Life Began

Evolution’s Three Geneses

The origin of life is a hotly debated topic. The Christian Bible states that God created the heavens and the Earth, all in about seven days roughly six thousand years ago. This episode in Genesis departs markedly from scientific theories developed over the last two centuries which hold that life appeared on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago in the form of bacteria, followed by unicellular organisms half a millennia later. It is this version of genesis that Alexandre Meinesz explores in this engaging tale of life’s origins and evolution.
How Life Began elucidates three origins, or geneses, of life—bacteria, nucleated cells, and multicellular organisms—and shows how evolution has sculpted life to its current biodiversity through four main events—mutation, recombination, natural selection, and geologic cataclysm. As an ecologist who specializes in algae, the first organisms to colonize Earth, Meinesz brings a refreshingly novel voice to the history of biodiversity and emphasizes here the role of unions in organizing life. For example, the ingestion of some bacteria by other bacteria led to mitochondria that characterize animal and plant cells, and the chloroplasts of plant cells.
As Meinesz charmingly recounts, life’s grandeur is a result of an evolutionary tendency toward sociality and solidarity. He suggests that it is our cohesion and collaboration that allows us to solve the environmental problems arising in the decades and centuries to come. Rooted in the science of evolution but enlivened with many illustrations from other disciplines and the arts, How Life Began intertwines the rise of bacteria and multicellular life with Vermeer’s portrait of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the story of Genesis and Noah, Meinesz’s son’s early experiences with Legos, and his own encounters with other scientists. All of this brings a very human and humanistic tone to Meinesz’s charismatic narrative of the three origins of life.

296 pages | 15 color plates, 69 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Biological Sciences: Ecology, Evolutionary Biology

Earth Sciences: Environment


"A French marine biologist best known for his work with Mediterranean ecosystems gone awry (documented in his 1999 Killer Algae), Meinesz brings his vast knowledge of molecular biology to bear on the question, ’What is Life?’ He comes up with some startling, if speculative, answers. Despite many advances in genetics and other sciences, Meinesz asserts there is no empirical evidence of a life-generating ’molecular soup’ (and he that doubts any will be forthcoming), but evidence does exist to support the theory that the ’seeds of life’ came to earth on a meteor. Using the latest scientific data, Meinesz covers the sweep of evolution, paying particular attention to bacteria and unicellular organisms. He locates the engine for evolution in a system of ’endosymbiosis,’ illustrated in a chapter on the symbiotic relationship between tropical ’vampire’ sea slugs and the ’killer’ algae. Meinesz doesn’t deny the role disaster and luck play in the survival of life forms over billions of years, and he doesn’t believe that the ’increasing complexity’ of evolution is a given—rather, the ’grandeur of life’ is a ceaseless evolution that stretches in more directions than one. Writing with charm and an eye toward the general audience, Meinesz’s lively guide to evolution is compelling, up-to-the-minute popular science at its best."

Publishers Weekly | starred review

"What distinguishes this book from other recent the integrative and humanistic approach in which Johannes Vermeer’s painting of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (the discoverer of microbes) and contemporary cartoons depicting cells eating cells (the origins of cellular organelles) are integrated with genetics, natural selection, geological cataclysms, and speculations on the extraterrestrial origins of life (panspermia) to portray how unicellular organisms arose 3.5 billion years ago, gave rise to unicellular organisms 2.5 billions years ago, and came to dominate current biodiversity on the planet. The writing is engaging, the style accessible, and the messages clear...Highly recommended."


"Meinesz brings a refreshingly novel voice to the history of biodiversity and emphasizes here the role of unions in organizing life. . . . [A] charismatic narrative of the three origins of life."

Southeastern Naturalist

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Henri’s Cave
Chapter 2. On the Origin of Life on Earth
Chapter 3. Papa, What’s a Bacterium?
Chapter 4. The Vampire Slug of the Killer Alga
Chapter 5. Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek
Chapter 6. The Densimeter
Chapter 7. The Lego Game
Chapter 8. Candide, Jurassic Park, and Noah
Chapter 9. The End of the Evolutionary String


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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