Vital Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative


Is the emergence of life on Earth the result of a single chance event or combination of lucky accidents, or is it the outcome of biochemical forces woven into the fabric of the universe? And if inevitable, what are these forces, and how do they account not only for the origin of life but also for its evolution toward increasing complexity? Vital Dust is a groundbreaking history of life on Earth, a history that only someone of Chrisitian de Duve’s stature and erudition could have...

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Is the emergence of life on Earth the result of a single chance event or combination of lucky accidents, or is it the outcome of biochemical forces woven into the fabric of the universe? And if inevitable, what are these forces, and how do they account not only for the origin of life but also for its evolution toward increasing complexity? Vital Dust is a groundbreaking history of life on Earth, a history that only someone of Chrisitian de Duve’s stature and erudition could have written.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a work of majestic sweep and bold speculation, Nobel Prize-winning biochemist de Duve presents an awesome panorama of life on Earth, from the first biomolecules to the emergence of the human mind and our species' future. Professor emeritus at Manhattan's Rockefeller University, de Duve rejects the view that life arose through a series of accidents, nor does he invoke God, goal-directed causes or vitalism, which regards living beings as matter animated by vital spirit. Instead, in a remarkable synthesis of biochemistry, paleontology, evolutionary biology, genetics and ecology, he argues for a meaningful universe in which life and mind emerged, inevitably and deterministically, because of prevailing conditions. Starting with a single-celled organism, resembling modern bacteria, which appeared 3.8 billion years ago and gave rise to all forms of life on earth today, de Duve delineates seven successive ages corresponding to increasing levels of complexity. He predicts that our species may evolve into a ``human hive'' or planetary superorganism, a society in which individuals would abandon some of their freedom for the benefit of all; alternately, if Homo sapiens disappears, he envisages our replacement by another intelligent species. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Around four billion years ago, natural chemical reactions led to the formation of organic molecules in the Earth's waters. From these, nucleic acids emerged, then cells, then multicellular organisms, and, ultimately, the astonishing biodiversity on Earth today. De Duve, a cell biologist and Nobel laureate, invokes a grand scope in this exposition of the origin and future of life. He examines seven successive life "ages," beginning with the "Age of Chemistry," when biomolecules first emerged, and ending with "The Age of the Unknown," our possible biological futures. The first four parts, which report on topics from the author's field of expertise and include information on his original theories, have a rather high technical content. The pace and readability pick up in later chapters, in which de Duve discusses higher plant and animal evolution. For general readers with no background on the subject, there are more accessible books on the origin of life on Earth (e.g., A.G. Cairns-Smith's Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1990), but this ambitious, authoritative work can be highly recommended for nonspecialist readers who possess basic science literacy.-Gregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465090457
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 12/28/1995
  • Pages: 302
  • Sales rank: 1,280,186
  • Lexile: 1400L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.96 (w) x 8.84 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Christian De Duve shared the 1974 Nobel Prize for Biology or Medicine with Albert Claude and George Palade for their discoveries concerning the structural and functional organization of the cell. he is Professor Emeritus at the Medical Faculty of the University of Louvain, Belgium, and Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus at the Rockefeller University in New York. He is also the author of A Guided Tour of the Living Cell and Blueprint for a Cell.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures
Introduction: The Unity of Life; The Tree of Life; The Antiquity of Life; The Cradle of Life; The Probability of Life; Foresight Excluded; The Ages of Life 1
Pt. I The Age of Chemistry
Ch. 1 The Search for Origins 15
Ch. 2 The First Catalysts of Life 26
Ch. 3 The Fuel of Emerging Life 34
Ch. 4 The Advent of RNA 46
Pt. II The Age of Information
Ch. 5 RNA Takes Over 55
Ch. 6 The Code 65
Ch. 7 Genes in the Making 75
Ch. 8 Freedoms and Constraints 83
Pt. III The Age of the Protocell
Ch. 9 Encapsulating Life 89
Ch. 10 Turning Membranes into Machines 99
Ch. 11 Adaptation to Life in Confinement 107
Ch. 12 The Ancestor of All Life 112
Ch. 13 The Universality of Life 118
Pt. IV The Age of the Single Cell
Ch. 14 Bacteria Conquer the World 125
Ch. 15 The Making of a Eukaryote 137
Ch. 16 The Primitive Phagocyte 147
Ch. 17 The Guests That Stayed 160
Pt. V The Age of Multicellular Organisms
Ch. 18 The Benefits of Cellular Collectivism 171
Ch. 19 The Greening of the Earth 176
Ch. 20 The First Animals 187
Ch. 21 Animals Fill the Oceans 196
Ch. 22 Animals Move Out of the Sea 203
Ch. 23 The Web of Life 214
Ch. 24 The Virtues of Junk DNA 222
Pt. VI The Age of the Mind
Ch. 25 The Step to Human 229
Ch. 26 The Brain 236
Ch. 27 The Workings of the Mind 245
Ch. 28 The Works of the Mind 257
Ch. 29 Values 261
Pt. VII The Age of the Unknown
Ch. 30 The Future of Life 271
Ch. 31 The Meaning of Life 286
Notes 303
Glossary 325
Additional Reading 341
Index 351
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2010

    Vital Dust

    Through a panoramic view of life, from its chemical beginnings to the nature of consciousness, Noble Laureate Christian de Duve explores the origin of life in his thrilling book "Vital Dust: The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth." Proposing seven main "Ages" that define evolution, de Duve takes the reader on an in-depth journey through each successive phase, leaving little left to ponder. Throughout the book de Duve follows a strict mantra of providing solid evidence for each of his claims, urging the reader to take a leap of faith when current information is not enough proof. De Duve's extensive biochemistry background provides him the credentials to propose a solid pre-biotic chemical foundation that led to living cells as we know them today. Though he utilizes his vast knowledge and a deductive approach to convince the reader on his origin of life theories, the second half of the book-modern evolution-was disappointingly less original. Entirely thought provoking and enticing from start to finish, de Duve's book "Vital Dust," is an excellent read for those debating the existence and origin of life. Be warned though-some basic biochemistry background may be needed!

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