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Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  936 ratings  ·  90 reviews
What determines whether complex life will arise on a planet, or even any life at all? Questions such as these are investigated in this groundbreaking book. In doing so, the authors synthesize information from astronomy, biology, and paleontology, and apply it to what we know about the rise of life on Earth and to what could possibly happen elsewhere in the universe. Everyo ...more
Paperback, 338 pages
Published December 10th 2003 by Copernicus Books (first published January 14th 2000)
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Tim Martin
Aug 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 27, 2016 rated it really liked it
Having read David Waltham’s Lucky Planet, there isn’t much in this older book which is new to me, even though he recommended it for further reading. It’s less up to date, of course, but that’s because it’s older — and at least it does acknowledge stuff like the Viking lander biological experiments, which Waltham did not. If you’re interested in the evidence that’s out there for the fact that our planet might be rare indeed in producing complex life, I’d recommend Rare Earth over Lucky Planet. Th ...more
Keith Akers
Mar 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 23, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: best-non-fiction
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
Wm. A.
Apr 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
There are probably millions of other planets in the galaxy with bacteria, but according to this book, very very few with civilization or even animals. The conditions that enabled life to develop may be very widespread in the universe, but Earth has been unusually stable for a long time due to conditions that are extremely unusual. The Sun is brighter than 95% of stars, giving it a bigger Goldilocks zone. The solar system is much richer in heavy elements than average, making rocky planets possibl ...more
Sep 13, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Peter D. Ward, Donald Brownlee – Rare Earth. Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe
Speechless, overwhelmed. It’s how I feel, subdued by the greatness of the universe. All that had occurred since the “big bang”, all that allowed life on earth, animal life and my own existence. Facing that magnificent achievement, I am compelled to act with anger against those that manifests an unacceptable indifference with life and the “miracle” of our own existence.
For long I suspect that life on earth ha
Joe Zagrodnik
Jan 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: wxnotes
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
Jake Leech
A difficult book to review. For starters, the book is basically a catalogue of all the factors that probably or possibly contributed to a planet where complex animal life could evolve. There are plenty of ideas here that I'd never come across before: that life probably wouldn't exist on Earth without plate tectonics, or without the existence of the Moon and Jupiter. These were great ideas! I'm going to include these ideas in my lectures! These ideas are amazing and fascinating!

But jeez, the actu
Scott Kardel
Jun 17, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: astronomy
Ward and Brownlee's book Rare Earth presents a nice overview of life on Earth and the conditions that influenced its development. They put forward the idea that elsewhere in the universe microbial life might very well be common, but animal life is exceedingly rare.

I think that they take a very restrictive view by laying out all of the specific conditions that occurred for Earth and then suggesting that these are likely absolutely necessary for animal life to arise elsewhere.

The book, published
Feb 04, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: cosmology
Is there life in the Universe beyond Earth?

The authors contend that the Universe is probably teeming with microbial life. Even on Earth one can find microbes living under most extreme conditions such as several thousand meters deep in the planet's crust or in the vicinity of deep sea hydrothermal ridges in complete darkness. These earthly conditions are not better than the habitats a microbe can found, for instance, on Mars or Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Enter the microbes' penchant for regularl
Paige McLoughlin
I really think Earth-like planets and life as we know it is a fluke in a very hostile universe. Honestly, I think our improbability points to an infinite universe or multiverse where wildly long odd bets pay off somewhere in the expanse. I think though that it is very likely that we are alone in our Hubble Bubble and not likely to ever contact other life out there. This book lists many of the factors that make for our rarity. Stable solar systems, stable climates by a huge moon orbiting our plan ...more
Dennis Littrell
May 16, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: alien-life
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. Certainly the word "intelligent"will not apply to the first extraterrestrial. Their thesis is that our ea
Aug 13, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This is one great book. The authors do an excellent job of explaining complex matters that are intelligible to those of us with less than strong backgrounds in any of the sciences. What they are able to communicate quite effectively is the fragility and improbability of life on earth. This involves numerous factors I never would've considered relevant, never mind critical. ...more
Josh Hedgepeth
Jul 20, 2021 rated it really liked it
Took nearly a year to slow read this. 3.5-4 stars. Good book. a little out of date, but point still stands. The books premise doesn't really need a book to demonstrate, but to the average reader, it all builds to the basic argument the author is building. ...more
Sep 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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.
Richard S
Oct 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
"Perhaps the most likely solution to the Fermi Paradox - "we are alone" - this books raises a lot of excellent points about our extraordinary existence on Planet Earth." - I wrote this a few years ago but recent discoveries have shown that Earth is not rare, that there are planets everywhere. This book like so many science books is completely and utterly wrong - which shows how great science is! Still gets 5 stars for its readability and convincing arguments. But don't go reading this for the "t ...more
Robert Snow
Jan 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
May 27, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A classic astrobiology read to set the stage for critical thinking necessary to interpret other books on the subject. Although this book is more than a decade old even when I read it a real eye opener. A must read.
Sep 15, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: astronomy
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!)
Jose Moa
Sep 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Very plausible arguments in favour of our lonelines in the observable universe
Ian Towart
Feb 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Well written, sound argument. This book fundamentally & irrevocably changed my view on the existence of intelligent life outside our own planet. Now I am a skeptic.
May 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
My new favorite book. This should be required reading.
Apr 26, 2021 rated it really liked it
Rare Earth is one of those books that just takes time to work your way through. The authors have managed to tone down the technical terms so that most reasonably literate people can still enjoy it and understand the concepts.
After the Copernican Revolution, most astronomers discounted the notion that Earth was all that exceptional within our universe. Sagan and others in the twentieth century postulated that there are many planets orbiting many solar systems which can support life, and that we s
Nov 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Stephen Palmer
Apr 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
A few years ago a book that looked interesting by these two men - The Life And Death Of Planet Earth - turned out to be fantastic, and inspirational for me. So when I spotted a second work by the pair I had to read it.

This second book details what the authors call the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which in a nutshell states that simple life - prokaryotic life and perhaps eukaryotic single-celled life - is common, but that multicellular, and particularly animal life is rare. The authors stake out their
Peter Corrigan
Sep 11, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Talk about a book to get you thinking! This may not be the most amazingly written book for a 5-star rating (although the writing it is perfectly well-done and competent) but the content is so compelling and lucidly explained that you cannot help but come away impressed with the totality. Without being alarmist, depressed or elated they simply present the known facts, the lesser-known suppositions and the quite poorly understood mechanisms. And there are many unknowns which they candidly admit, b ...more
Nico Van Straalen
Feb 10, 2020 rated it liked it
The authors argue that the conditions necessary for the evolution of complex life in the universe are much more rare than most people think and than most astronomers argue. Not only need a planet to be in a habitable zone of a star of certain size, but also the other objects of the planetary system (in our case the moon and Jupiter) must assume certain orbits and sizes, plus the planet must not be hit, for billions of years, by a devastating celestial object, it must have plate tectonics, a temp ...more
Feb 11, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
Written as a rebuttal to the idea that complex life probably is abundant in the universe, Messers. Ward and Brownlee effectively demonstrate that not only is complex life exceedingly rare, but the factors contributing to life on earth are complex and numerous.

While there is much attention paid to scientific detail and facts, there necessarily is speculation (hypotheses) about the development of earth and life thereon. This led the authors to go down a lengthy rabbit trail of explaining how life
Jan 20, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I absolutely love the idea of this book. I mostly used Microsoft Edge Read Aloud on the PDF version to finish this because it can be a dry read sometimes, but a VERY strong hypothesis nonetheless.

Chapter 12, "Assessing the Odds" summarizes the Rare Earth hypothesis the best, especially with this formula:

(N*) x (fp) x (ne) x (fi) x (fc) x (fl) x (N)

N* = stars in the Milky Way galaxy
fp = fraction of stars with planets
ne = planets in a star’s habitable zone
fi = fraction of habitable planets where l
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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.

His parents, Joseph and Ruth Ward, moved to Seattle following World War II. Ward grew up in the Seward Park neighborhood

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