How did life arise on this planet as we know it? This is a relatively big question that Dag O. Hessen attempts to answer in this book. Rather, he can tell us what science knows, and what it can guess, about the childhood of life, so far, something not so small.
To answer this question, he must also explain and describe the smallest of living things, cells. Because in contrast to theological explanations of how life arose in antiquity, we now suppose that the first life must have been a single-celled organism, and it hardly is.
As Hessen explains, with much-needed revitalization of school biology lessons for most readers: The cell is also a very complex little mechanism, which needs many components in order to function.
Admittedly, it would have been much more impressive, yes, absolutely miraculous, if the first human ever had suddenly stood on this planet, and fixed it. But the transition from dead chemistry to living life is certainly exciting in and of itself.
Hessen can state that all life on this planet have a common origin. Once life has overcome the difficult predicament of going from nothingness to doing so, it cannot be stopped. It developed, multiplied, spread and subjugated the globe, changing it in a way that created the new conditions of life.
Biology and politics
The theory of evolution and the discovery of the genetic material, DNA, are of course two of the great achievements of science. It would have been strange if it had not been taken as income for political currents.
Liberals often emphasized self-interest and selfishness as a driving force in nature, and believed that society should facilitate the channeling of this force. Whereas on the left one likes to emphasize cooperation and mutual benefit as fundamentals – in nature as well as in society.
In fact, according to Hessen, both exist. Here we find both cooperation and competition, and all conceivable intermediate forms, as well as some unimaginable intermediate forms.
Living things live on each other, with each other, on each other, yes, even in each other. One of the most striking examples of vertigo is the mitochondria, the tiny power plants in the cell.
Mitochondria have their own cell wall. They even have their own genetic material. The precursor of the mitochondria was likely a free-living bacterium, which was ingested by the larger cell at some point in its development and, rather than consumed, turned on.
Cooperation or hostile takeover and massive exploitation? Judge for yourself.
While reading, I get a strong impression of life as a wild force, infinitely adaptable and almost unstoppable, that has managed to find a way to survive and grow, under the most hostile and impossible conditions. Everywhere on the planet, in the dark, under great pressure, in sulfur or salt water, in freezing cold or scorching sun, there are organisms that cling, grow and thrive.
Even the great mass extinctions in the history of the planet were not able to break it. There were always some kinds of animals, plants, and organisms that survived, and that began to fill in the new niches that were created, whether due to changes in temperature or the composition of the atmosphere.
One can feel a little nostalgic from the information that 99 percent of all animal species that ever lived on this planet are now extinct. But it may be more correct to view this as an expression of the unstoppable life force of living nature. What is no longer feasible is abolished, and new life forms that are better adapted to the environment than the old ones appear.
This seems to run counter to modern environmental and climatic concerns, where life is seen as a fragile and delicate thing that needs an ideal ecological balance to survive, a perspective for which Hessen is a prominent advocate.
Here, according to the biologist, it is important to have two thoughts in your head at the same time. A fragile ecological balance revolves around the world as we know it, after the last ice age. It is highly sensitive to changes in temperature and climate.
For anyone who has the slightest interest in the nature around us
So climate change is a problem first and foremost for us humans and other animals, it is only natural that we compare ourselves to it. The rest of life is likely to go on unabated anyway, and if we join the 99 percent, it is questionable whether insects and microorganisms would regard that as a major loss.
“Life” is a book full of information that is generalized and explained in the best possible way, with this after all very difficult.
The book can be highly recommended to anyone with the slightest interest in the living nature around us, giving it a fairly large target group.
It is not chemically free from descriptions of elements and formulas, which can be seen as an obstacle for readers who are averse to hard science. If so, here’s a good chance to get over this aversion, as these are after all about some basic process that we know about.
If there is one image that sums up this book for me, it is the Revised Version of the Tree of Life.
This is how we are accustomed to think of evolution, as a tree with a trunk, from single-celled organisms, with clean and tidy branches to sponges, fish and plants, and with man at the top.
Hessen herself is somewhat reluctant to walk away from this neat educational metaphor. But he admits that life is probably reminiscent of a wilderness, or a huge shrub, where the different branches intertwine with each other like a tangle of vitality.
bush life? I can hardly imagine a better picture of the unstoppable wildlife than just that.
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