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Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  871 ratings  ·  79 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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 ·  871 ratings  ·  79 reviews

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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
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
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
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
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
Feb 13, 2015 rated it liked it
This is a good and depressing book at the same time. Good, solid reasoning for a sad perspective.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Amir Boumaaraf
Jan 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
May 13, 2019 rated it it was ok
Let me begin with a disclaimer. I read the book as research for a project I'm working on. This book discusses the theory behind the variables in an intriguing formula, but the author never plugs in any numbers. Most of what I got from it came from the introduction. I'm not being fair to the authors - they did a good job at doing what they wanted to do. It's just their their goals and mine don't coincide.
Jan 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Allison Davis
Oct 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book so far. It similar to a book that the authors have written in the sense that they both talk/mention the importance of the new field of science, astrobiology. I'mm almost done, but I think I can sum up the book saying how life might not be too hard to find, but intelligent life would be harder to find.
Avik Saha
Jul 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Rare Earth Hypothesis : Life (bacterial) might be common in the universe, but intelligent animals are not...There are reasons to believe that Earth is rare and unique...a good book to know why...
Lisa Marley
Jan 11, 2020 rated it it was ok
Far too technical and dry for me.
May 02, 2020 rated it did not like it
Dated and at best mediocre; you can find dozens of better books on this argument.
May 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
My new favorite book. This should be required reading.
Dec 21, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Jan 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Well, this sure puts the kibosh on my enthusiasm for sci-fi alien contact movies. The authors take serious issue with the exobiology view of Carl Sagan and his cohorts, who maintain that the Earth is a commonplace planet around a typical star in an unremarkably commonplace galaxy, and therefore there should be plenty of planets with intelligent life on them. While allowing that microbial life might indeed be common elsewhere in the universe, given the remarkable resilience of microbes inhabiting ...more
Aug 05, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Sean Fishlock
Quite a lot wrong with this book and its "theory". Because the authors sets out from the start to poo poo the idea of intelligent life in the universe, they shot themselves in the foot by a) "proving" that it requires a planet exactly like Earth b) intelligent life must evolve exactly as we did and c) making a plethora of speculations in an attempt to prove their case. These have very little basis in science, let alone science fiction! My pet hate is the authors treatment of Pluto. Before any pr ...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
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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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