January 3, 1995
Is the emergence of life on earth the result of a single chance event or a combination of lucky accidents, or is it the inevitable 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? Carefully forming analogies that present the mysteries of life and terms as familiar as a deck of cards or the letters of the alphabet, Christian de Duve, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, introduces readers to the most recent scientific theories about our ancient origins. This is a groundbreaking history of life on Earth, a history that only someone of de Duve’s stature and erudition could have written.
The author guides us on a wondrous journey through the past four billion years, from the formation of the first biomolecules to the complexities of the human mind, from microscopic chains of amino acids and nucleotides to cataclysmic events in distant galaxies, arriving at the compelling conclusion that the universe is strewn with “vital dust” capable of spawning life anywhere under the right conditions. Life and mind are not accidents; they are natural manifestations of matter.
At the heart of Vital Dust is the concept of seven increasingly complex “ages” of life on Earth. With each age, de Duve shows the key event that defined the age and the new event that led to the next. He argues that simple, deterministic chemical reactions put life on track but that other mechanisms led inexorably to greater complexity and biodiversity: the development of a lock-and-key system that serves as the universal device of biological recognition at the molecular level; the emergence of a common ancestor of all organisms, from amoebas to humans; the great oxygen holocaust; the conversion of some bacteria into complex cells; and the success of improvements in reproductive strategies that made possible the spectacular diversity of life on Earth.
Provocative and powerfully argued, Vital Dust is one of the most important science books to come along in some time.
Christian de Duve, who 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, is Professor Emeritus at the Medical Faculty of the University of Louvain, Belgium, founder and past president of the International Institute of Cellular and Molecular Pathology in Belgium, and Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus at the Rockefeller University in New York. He is the author of A Guided Tour of the Living Cell and Blueprint for a Cell.