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The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language

(The Major Transitions in Evolution for a popular audience)

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  194 ratings  ·  11 reviews
When John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary published The Major Transitions in Evolution, it was seen as a major work in biology. Nature hailed it as a book of "grand and daunting sweep.... A splendid and rewarding tour de force." And New Scientist wrote that it captured "the essence of modern biology," calling it "an extremely significant book which, as a bonus, is very re ...more
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published May 13th 1999 by Oxford University Press, USA
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4.11  · 
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 ·  194 ratings  ·  11 reviews

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Oct 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very difficult, but worth it, as it's totally amazing in its chain of reasoning and speculation: demonstrates the possibility of life evolving from inert chemicals to the present day via accident alone. Essential reading for anyone trying to really understand how we might have come into existence (without resorting to theology or mysticism).
May 18, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biology
A comprehensive review of key events that are proposed by the two authors during the evolution of life. Apparently the target of the book is all readers with interests in biology and the formation of complexity of life. Therefore there are some passages in the book that are basic biology that can be easily jumped over by biologists. Nevertheless, the book gives a quite up-to-date review on both theoretical and practical aspects of research about origin of life.

Part of the discussion is rather th
Jun 15, 2018 rated it it was ok
This book was a disappointment. It gave a bunch of descriptive aspects of lifeforms but not much on how the diversity came about. For instance saying an early eurkoyote might have accidently swallowed some nutrious particle which led to mouths. That is like saying if someone ran into the back of a VW Beetle it might take the shape of the rear end of a VW Rabbit. And then if there was another impact it might knock the engine from the rear to the front. Another calamity might have something fall o ...more
Santhosh Totiger
Dec 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Very concise, not a single word is superfluous. A must read for anyone who is willing to understand how life originated be it on earth or extra terrestrial planet. Now I plan to read their Major transitions. For me this book served its purpose of understanding fundamental ideas behind origin of life.
Too dense. Many concepts are heavy so would have preferred more illustrations/explanations.
But still overall important book.
Might be outdated about a few chapters/ points.
Betsy Curlin
May 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
A good chronological account of how life began and evolved, up through humans and the origin of language.
Jan 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book kindled my interest in evolutionary biology. I have a science degree but no specific training in biology, and I found it to be pitched at an appropriate level. It's great at giving the big picture and putting all the pieces in their conceptual positions, and would serve well as a prelude to a (layman's) study of evolution.

As a popular condensed version of the authors' magnum opus The major transitions of evolution, the book moves sequentially through the 8 so-called major transitions o
Feb 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fascinating, if lacking in depth
Dec 17, 2007 rated it liked it
It's hard to write good, clear general science books. A very interesting premise, but somehow didn't grab me very well...but I had just read a really great novel, so that's hard to match with non-fiction.
Sep 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A wonderful book about evolution, especially the major evolutionary transitions such as the emergence of self-replicating molecules and the first multiceullar organisms. The author is a famed evolutionary biologist.
Jul 14, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: book_club, science
Not a light read by any stretch, but informative and a great compendium of current research on how complex life developed.
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John Maynard Smith FRS was a British evolutionary geneticist; one of the most important biologists of his era.

Other books in the series

The Major Transitions in Evolution (2 books)
  • The Major Transitions in Evolution
“Thus three conclusions emerge from the eye story: (1) it is easier to inherit a ‘vision acquisition device’ than a full-blown hard-wired visual analyser; (2) the visual analyser, once ‘set up’, is refractory to radical restructuring—hence the existence of a critical period in its development in cats; (3) the eye seems to have evolved in steps from a light-sensitive, innervated cell to our complex organ by common evolutionary mechanisms. Something similar may have been taking place in evolution of the language organ, and may be occurring during individual development. An argument, put forward forcefully by Noam Chomsky and his followers, refers to the ‘poverty of stimulus’. Most permutations of word order and grammatical items in a sentence leads to incomprehensible gibberish. There is no way that children could learn without some internal ‘guide’ which sentence is grammatical and which is not, only on the basis of heard examples. To make matters worse, many parents do not correct their children’s grammatical mistakes (they seem to be much more worried about the utterance of four-letter words). Recent investigations clearly confirm that children’s ‘instinctive’ understanding of grammatical intricacies, between the ages 2 and 4, is far better than one would expect from a conventional learning mechanism. Thus there seems to be a ‘language acquisition device’ (LAD) in the brain, which must be triggered by linguistic input so that its working ultimately leads to proper language. It is the LAD, and not a fully developed linguistic processor, which seems to be innate.” 2 likes
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