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Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe
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Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe

4.0 of 5 stars 4.00  ·  rating details  ·  415 ratings  ·  48 reviews
"Do you feel lucky? Well do ya?" asked Dirty Harry. Paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee think all of us should feel lucky. Their rare Earth hypothesis predicts that while simple, microbial life will be very widespread in the universe, complex animal or plant life will be extremely rare. Ward and Brownlee admit that "It is very difficult to do statistic...more
Kindle Edition, 338 pages
Published 2004 by Copernicus (first published January 14th 2000)
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Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee wrote an intriguing book, published in 2000, whose title is "Rare Earth" and subtitle "Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe". In what follows I suggest that while they are convincing in the title, they have most likely failed in the subtitle.

The Rare Earth Hypothesis states that microbial life is common in the universe but advanced forms, from simple multicellular organisms to large animals, are uncommon and may even not exist outside Earth.

Throughout th...more
Note the subtitle of the book is "Why COMPLEX Life Is Uncommon in the Universe". The authors conclude that simple life is likely widespread throughout the universe--and was very likely seeded here from space. The SETI-types rebutted Rare Earth with their own take, hilariously titled, "Life Everywhere." After all, if your funding was based on the belief that E.T. is out there just around the next sun, you'd be upset by this book too. But once you've read Rare Earth you'll understand why Newsday s...more
The only extra-terrestrial life our species stands much chance of encountering will take the form of extremophilic "pond scum," and this book is a competent and generally approachable survey of the astronomical, geological and biological reasons for that assessment.

The authors recognize that their hypothesis remains largely untestable given present limitations, but it stands in welcome and refreshing opposition to the "big numbers and starry-eyed wonder" prattle that is, in this reader's opinio...more
I grew up reading (and reveling in) vintage science fiction. Among other authors, I loved the novels of James White, about Sector General, a great hospital in space that cared for creatures of countless species. I also loved Murray Leinster's novella "The Forgotten Planet," about a world that had been seeded with Earth plants and invertebrates, to which had come people from Earth who became marooned on it; when finally found again by galactic civilization, the planet had been overrun with spider...more
Oct 03, 2009 Stephen rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in "How we got here."
Recommended to Stephen by: Lucky find at the Public Library
Shelves: non-fiction, keeper
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Ward ably repudiates the false logic of the arguments for intelligent life based on sheer numbers (95% of all stars can immediately be dismissed from consideration), as well as delineating the remarkable set of circumstances that allowed any forms of life to arise on planet earth. These circumstances are so extraordinary that one can easily see how it was nearly impossible for animal life to rise up--and was indeed almost completely destroyed during the 6 major extinctions--and even more astonis...more
Dennis Littrell
Ward, Peter D. and Donald Brownlee. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe (2000)*****
I think they're right, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it

Astrobiology, the subject of this excellent book, is a science still in eager anticipation of its first object of contemplation. Professors Ward and Brownlee from the University of Washington, the former a geologist, the latter an astronomer, argue very strongly that such an object will not be what we would call an animal or a metazoan. C...more
Are we alone in the universe?? The authors contend that: While primitive life – organisms such as microbes, bacteria, protozoa, etc. – is very likely abundant throughout the universe, advanced, complex animal life (let alone intelligent life), as we know it, is extremely rare. In fact, such complex animal life may exist nowhere else in the universe, but on Earth.

Their first contention is supported by recent findings in deep-sea rifts of “extremophiles,” creatures that love the extreme – extreme...more
Keith Akers
This is a rare book, a book on science which is informative and inspiring without really trying to be. If we destroy 5% of species on earth, we may be doing a lot more than just that, we may be destroying 5% of the species in this sector of the galaxy.

The authors explain a wide variety of different topics in several different disciplines in a non-dogmatic way, from astronomy and physics to biology and geography, just laying out what we think we know and how it relates to the formation of life on...more
Joe Zagrodnik
One of the most popular themes in science fiction is the prevalence of alien intelligent life in the Universe. While the supposed real-life abductions and UFO sightings may be silly, the scientific consensus has been that intelligent life is common in the Universe. Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee support the idea that simple life forms are common in the Universe, but contend in Rare Earth that any type of complex, multi-cellular animal life is extremely rare. Their book covers the “Rare Earth...more
Tim Martin
An intriguing book, it was written by two scientists - Ward, a noted paleontologist, and Brownlee, an astronomer - who sought to challenge the concept, rather widespread actually, that complex, even intelligent life, is probably common in the universe. They felt that some of this bias in believing this stems from wishful thinking, no doubt fueled by science fiction, but also by science itself, notably the Drake Equation, put forth by astronomers Frank Drake and Carl Sagan. This equation, one des...more
I’m pretty proud of myself. I don’t generally read non-fiction, and the non-fiction I do read usually has some kind of flavor to it. However, I made an exception for Rare Earth, which is nothing but your usual general science condensed into a theory that Earth may be the only planet in the universe teeming with animal life, let alone intelligent life.[return][return]I heard of this book during Odyssey 2005 from guest lecturer Allen Steele. He gave a lecture on world-building, and passed out some...more
Last Ranger
Are we alone?

This book has been controversial in the academic community since the day it was published in 2000. It seems to have sparked a little controversy among its readers as well. The authors main hypothesis is: "While microbial life may be common in the universe, complex life (animals, plants, etc.) would be very rare" and Rare Earth explains why this may be so. In our own Solar System, the discovery of microbes on any of our planets or moons would tend to support their idea while the disc...more
David R.
Ward makes a good case for his theory that technologically advanced civilizations--and even animals barely more complex than single celled organisms--are a rarity in the Cosmos. This case rests largely on geophysical and astrophysical bases, for example, arguing that such life requires plate tectonics, a meaningful continental system, a large moon, a Jupiter in the near-outer solar system, and a favorable position in the galactic disk, and so so forth. But I cannot help but wonder how we managed...more
Robert Snow
Complex life is more complex than I thought... After reading this book my thoughts have run the gambit of how big and how alone we really are in this huge and hostile universe. My take from this book is that life, that is human life is very rare indeed. There are too many factors against life as we know it, conditions have to within a very small set of parameters for higher forms to even exist. My thoughts turned to the SETI program and the search for extraterrestrials... Then back to brownlee a...more
This book analyzes the perplexing "Fermi's paradox" -- if the universe is so life-friendly, where is everybody? The authors' thesis is that the reason we don't see a universe teeming with life is not because the origin of life is so impossibly difficult, but instead because its evolution to full-fledged intelligent beings is such a singularly improbable event that we may be the only intelligent civilization in the Milky Way. Among the items they consider is the fact that much of the galaxy is ba...more
Anthropocentric (which never comes from a pretty place) and, in the end, unconvincing. Sure, either position is just a guess, but this is the wrong guess. (See, I can guess too!)
As much as I truly love the optimism of Carl Sagan's billions of billions of civilations in the Universe, and wish it were true ... this book got me questioning for the first time: could be ALONE? Is there no chance of being saved/enslaved in the nick of time by benevolent aliens. Could Earth be as good as it gets? My gut-feel is yes, it's just humans left to fly SpaceShipEarth to her destination and tend to all her creatures great and small. The scientific quest that must be undertaken to disco...more
Read this quite some time ago, in college, I think, but I enjoyed it immensely. The authors essentially argue against the famous Drake equation, claiming that while simple, single-celled life could very well be common in the Universe, multicellular life is probably very rare, and sapience even rarer. Obviously, this and most other arguments for and against the existence of extraterrestrial life represent extrapolations on very little data, but their comments about our unusually large, stabilizin...more
Joel Simon
This book makes for an incredibly fascinating read. Although subsequently some of the theories in this book have been questioned, I found it to be exciting (which is tough for a science book to achieve) and extremely persuasive. The idea that the odds are stacked so heavily against the formation of life is very interesting and opens up a different chapter in the debate between science and religion. I found this book to be a great conversation topic and have yet to meet anyone who has read it but...more
Excellent layman's science book about astrobiology. The book takes issue with Sagan's idea that life in the universe is common. Authors contend that things like our sun's size and position in galaxy are important and rare. Earth's plate tectonics, moon, and composition are rare. Existence within sun's habitable zone and Jupiter's large size are rare. Peaceful time between meteors and pulsars for evolution to build complex metazoans is rare. Simple single cell life may be common however. Very int...more
A very interesting hypothesis to counter the argument that complex intelligent life is a very common occurrence in this universe.

Plainly written and very sharply focused, this book not only supports its hypothesis, but provides a very nice synthesis of the scientific disciplines cosmology, atrochemistry, geology, and biology. It's a nice 'big picture' view of how animals came to be.

The Life and Death of planet earth also starts where this book leaves off and plays the story in reverse (from com...more
This book posits that while simple bacterial life may be common in the Universe, complex life - even on the level of a worm - may be exceedingly rare. They provide a detailed history of the planet and the life froms that changed along with it, explaining the myriad factors that provided the opportunity for complex life to evelve here. This was a great starter-book for a small group that's been meeting in Seattle to read and discuss books about natural history and evolution.
I actually have no idea how much I'd still like this book, but it was an interesting one to read a few years ago when I had nothing else to do but read this and listen to Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. Interesting to me was that the step to multicellular life was actually much harder, more fragile then to microbial life. And there are beautiful descriptions of teh origin of animal life during the Cambrian Explosion, stuff like that. Good nerd stuff.
This book tries to catalog the various preconditions necessary for the existence of animal (as opposed to microbial) life, from plate tectonics to the existence of the Moon to having Jupiter bounce off many comets and asteroids that would otherwise hit the Earth; not being in a metal-poor star cluster (for astronomers, metal is everything heavier than helium); not being near a magnetar (which could strip the Earth of its ozone layer) and so on.
Introduced me to exobiology (also called astrobiology) - presents good arguments about why life must be exceedingly rare in the universe, and even where it does exist, it would be plant life, or even just blue-green algae. Go ahead and bounce those old 'I Love Lucy' broadcasts around the galaxy - we won't be hearing any alien critiques.
Booknerd Fraser
Very pugnaious, and while the authors throw a lot of science about Earth's position around, they use "might" and "suppose" too often to be completely convincing. I'm admit that there's an optimistic bias to my view of the subject, but I really don't have anymore evidence than they do. That's the problem with the question.
What a fun start up. The new millenium has a whole shmorgersborg of discoveries and even a fantastic new redistribution of species. What a moment in history, where we now can say there is life in other planets and not unlike the ones who dwell in our ocean depths in the super heated stacks of volcanic temperatures.
Christian Almonte
We are the royal flush. And the universe is the house. We just got lucky. This is an amazingly explanatory book showing us that luck-with a few mass extinctions, heavy metals, and a nearby gas giant (and so much more)-is just half of what you need to create an uncommon place like planet Earth.
Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee are pioneering members of the field of Astrobiology.
This book goes into great detail about the formation of the planets/solar systems, and even greater detail about the probabilities of life, and more importantly advanced life, in other parts of the solar system.
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Peter Douglas Ward (born 1949) is an American paleontologist and professor of Biology and of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle. He has written popular numerous science works for a general audience and is also an adviser to the Microbes Mind Forum.

Life and work

His parents, Joseph and Ruth Ward, moved to Seattle following World War II. Ward grew up in the Seward Park...more
More about Peter D. Ward...
Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future Gorgon: The Monsters That Ruled the Planet Before Dinosaurs and HowThey Died in the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth's History The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, and Earth's Ancient Atmosphere The Flooded Earth: Our Future In a World Without Ice Caps

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