Origins of Life

Freeman Dyson

Cambridge University Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
Origins of Life presents an alternative to RNA World theories for the origin of life. It argues for a "dual origin", beginning with protein-based systems, proto-cells reproducing by statistical division rather than accurate replication, which were later "infected" by parasitic nucleic acids. In putting metabolism before replication, Dyson follows in the footsteps of Oparin, who proposed a similar "enzymes before genes" approach back in 1924; other avowed inspirations include Schrödinger, von Neumann, Eigen, Orgel, Margulis, and Kimura.

Dyson constructs a "toy" model, a system of recombining monomers in which "alive" and "dead" can be defined. With plausible parameters for numbers and types of monomers and catalytic efficiency, the jump to an organised state can happen with reasonable probability through random drift; Darwinian selection then drives towards greater complexity. He goes on to look at the questions his model raises and its broader biological and philosophical ramifications. As Dyson himself stresses, this model is a toy, an abstraction designed to suggest experiments and more complex modelling.

A theoretical physicist venturing into biology, Dyson avoids the obvious pitfalls: he is suitably humble, even self-deprecating in places ("this philosophical hot air"), and he offers useful insights from a physicist's perspective without getting carried away either by his own pet ideas or by metaphorical applications of physics to biology. At the same time he makes strong arguments with real substance, going beyond the level of most popular science writing. (Only basic biochemistry and cell biology is assumed, however, along with a bit of simple mathematics for the model itself.) Most impressively of all, Dyson writes succinctly and lucidly, fitting an amazing amount into ninety pages without ever appearing forced or hurried. Anyone interested in abiogenesis will find Origins of Life well worth the read: even if its argument doesn't convince, it provides a novel perspective on the alternatives.

February 2000

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%T Origins of Life
%A Dyson, Freeman
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1999
%O paperback, 2nd edition, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521626684
%P ix,100pp