Life’s Edge

Dutton. Mar. 2021. 368p. ISBN 9780593182710. $28. SCI
Journalist and author Zimmer (A Planet of Viruses) addresses the question of what it means to be alive; not so much in the philosophical sense, but by exploring the boundaries of the definition of “alive.” Biologists have been refining the definitions of life through the centuries as they learn more about the diversity of living things. When does a new human life begin? What physiological signs mark the end of a life, beyond which there is no return? And, more broadly, what are the minimum essential characteristics something must possess to be considered a living thing: metabolism, response to stimulus, self-regulation, reproduction, ability to evolve? And is life a property of an organism, a species, or a single cell, or perhaps even smaller? From where did life emerge from non-living matter? If we were to look for life on another planet, how would we know we had found it? By profiling researchers working on these inquiries, Zimmer shows the complexity of reaching a single answer, as each proposed definition has its edge cases that provide challenging counter-examples.
VERDICT A fascinating and well-written mapping of the edges of biology, which will have broad appeal to nonscientists.
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