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Christian de Duve


Life as a cosmic imperative

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Christian de Duve sets out to tell the whole story of life on earth, from its earliest beginnings to the emergence of mind, concluding with some speculations about the future. An ambitious sweep, but de Duve shared the Nobel Prize for Biology or Medicine in 1974 for work on the structure and function of cells, so he has a pretty good basis for the attempt. With his background it isn't surprising that more than half his text is about life in the form of single cells, but anyway this is quite appropriate because for most of the time that life has existed on the Earth it has been as single cells.

The book has seven parts, of which the first four are concerned with unicellular life. Although intended for a non-specialist audience the discussion is quite detailed and is hardly light reading, but in return for the effort involved the reader gets an unusually comprehensive view of the subject.

In Part 5 we at last encounter multicellular organisms, and the pace of change rapidly accelerates. Plants move from the sea to the land, turning it green; animals arise and spread through the ocean before invading the land in their turn. A couple of chapters look at interactions between life and its environment and at various questions in genetics such as why there is so much "junk" DNA. Part 6 is about human evolution, and Part 7 speculates about where intelligent life may go in time to come.

As I said at the beginning, this book covers an immense stretch of time and diversity of subject matter and there is far more detail in the first half than in the second. I think there are really two books here, at rather different levels, and the two halves will mainly appeal to different kinds of reader. The first half, dealing with life up to the unicellular level, is probably the more interesting, because it arises from de Duve's own field of expertise, though for the same reason it is also the harder going. The second half would probably be most useful for a young reader wanting to get a broad overview of evolution without too many details.

The other thing the book offers is a statement of de Duve's personal philosophy about the meaning of life. He contrasts two diametrically opposite viewpoints taken from two very different writers, Jacques Monod in Chance and Necessity and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man. De Duve has a good deal of sympathy for Teilhard although he says he is scientifically closer to Monod. But he thinks that Teilhard is right to see the universe as meaningful.

For me, this meaning is to be found in the structure of the universe, which happens to be such as to produce thought by way of life and mind. Thought, in turn, is a faculty where by the universe can reflect upon itself, discover its own structure, and apprehend such immanent entities as truth, beauty, goodness and love. Such is the meaning of the universe, as I see it.
30 December 2007
%T Cosmic Dust
%S Life as a cosmic imperative
%A de Duve, Christian
%I Basic Books
%C New York
%D 1995
%G ISBN 0-465-09045-1
%P xix +362pp
%K biology, evolution

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