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The Genesis Quest

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Member Reviews

The Genesis Quest follows the theories, experiments, and achievements of numerous researchers seeking to find out how life on early earth began. It will not give you a specific 'answer' but rather lays out all the questions and how they have been studied over time.

It is as much a historical book as it is scientific. Written for the layperson, albeit someone who has some knowledge of biology and chemistry, and someone who is not bored by technical discussions about molecular formations, it lays out all the ideas (mostly chronologically) that people have had about the origins of life, from the earliest theories of spontaneous generation, to primordial soup, RNA World, which part of a cell came first, life starting at alkaline vents, etc. There is the most discussion about the inner workings of cells, proteins, DNA, ribosomes, etc. It discusses the pros and cons of each theory, and at the end attempts to roll up what we know now.

It is also a 'who's who' of researchers who have attempted to find out these answers. There is also a bit of humor and philosophy which made it more readable. I found it to be an extremely well-written book that I am happy to recommend for anyone who wants to learn more about the search for how life began.

I received and ARC as a reviewer for NetGalley
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An excellent synopsis of the many competing theories of the origins of life on earth in the last couple of centuries, The Genesis Quest is exceptionally readable for anyone with a high school background in biology (although I will admit that many cobwebs were cleared out between my ears in the process and some parts stretched me to the limits of that knowledge). Meticulously working through the fundamental, yet very complicated questions on this topic, Marshall touches on what "life" really is exactly, how it could have possibly evolved from non-living matter, the structure of the basic building blocks of life and how they fit together, and even the implications for our life, our ecosystem, and the universe as we know it. This book is engaging, insightful, and easy to follow.

It's fascinating to be at a point in history where we can now reflect on the exploration of pretty much every substance basic to our cellular structure being the first to arise from nonliving matter and to arrive at a comprehensive theory that has enough merit to "stick" in a field where the prevailing theory has shifted every couple of decades. As Marshall traces the reader through these different hypotheses, he really gets in the weeds about how each stands up to scrutiny and why some gained more traction and persisted longer than others. And he does this without burying the reader in indecipherable technical information, instead referring to additional resources in the endnotes. As much as I learned in school (and I swear, I did learn it!) about the importance of the structure of DNA, the chirality of molecules, the fragility of nucleic acids in water, etc. this narrative really brings all of those facts together in a way that makes them meaningful. I could see this being a strong companion to an AP/100-level biology course, in addition to just being a great read for anyone with an interest in the subject matter.

Lastly, as captivating as it was reading about these different scientific theories, as interesting were the biographical snapshots of the scientists behind these experiments. Some of these characters are absolutely fascinating, almost too good for nonfiction. It really gives a flavor for the field.

As a bonus, I very much appreciated Marshall's intentional focus on the contributions of women to this field, as well as highlighting places where the work of others was overlooked for political and other reasons. It really makes a case for technological progress could have moved at a very different pace if not for these barriers.

As an aside, the kindle book does have some annoying formatting issues, including footnotes that are sometimes several pages beyond the reference marker, paragraphs running into chapter headings, no linked delineations between chapters, etc. Strongly recommend the book, but would not recommend the kindle version.

Much thanks to University of Chicago Press and NetGalley for the eARC in exchange for the review.
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Well, here I am, the first to review a book about the all the firsts of discoveries about the origin of life on Earth. To be fair, this wasn’t quite what was expected, which is pretty normal when the plot summary only gets a light skim. The skim led me to expect a somewhat lighter and easier read, but then again, this being a university press production, it might have been a lot heavier than it was. The result…somewhere in the middle. Yes, it is heavy on science, molecular biology and chemistry, specifically, but it was also notably accessible for my admittedly nonscientific mind. Accessible, but, at times, work. The funny thing about science is how much we still don’t know, not funny haha, but funny strange, strange to be so in the dark about so many things despite all the significant discoveries over all these centuries. This is a book about what we do know about the mysterious, or miraculous if you will, origin of life on Earth. Not the broader strokes and popular theories (primordial soup, panspermia, DNA, RNA, basic chemical compositions, etc.) everyone’s (ok, that’s presumptuous of me, let’s say most reasonably intelligent decently educated people) familiar with, but the finer details behind each individual ideas…and boy, were there many throughout time. Not just the ideas, the men (and yes, it was primarily all men)behind them. Really fascinating characters, some of whom I admit interested me more than their discoveries, but that’s entirely on me. My brain leans more towards lives lived, historical context, etc. Science of this nature…it was something of an effort, my brain protested, but eventually quieted down and got on board, because continuing self education is a must for any devoted autodidact and this is how it’s done. And this was objectively a good way to learn about how Earth went from just another planet to one with organisms so complex they can and, inexplicably, have dedicated themselves to actively destroying it. University press or not, this is no textbook or it’s the best possible sort of textbook, surprisingly engaging and even more surprisingly funny at times, specifically the footnotes are a bunch of hilarious delights. So there you go, the book on the evolution of evolution. Learn all about…the things we presently know. The most likely scenario of the origin of life on Earth. For now. Not an easy read, something of an overreach for me, but certainly a worthy one, very interesting, thoroughly educational. And somehow I even managed it all in one day. A proper work out for the brain. Anatomically speaking brain isn’t a muscle, but that’s no excuse not to exercise it. For anyone with an interest in the subject, this is absolutely the right book. Thanks Netgalley.
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