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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

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  773 ratings  ·  73 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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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
Shelves: science, reviewed
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
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
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
Dennis Littrell
May 16, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: alien-life
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
Amir Boumaaraf
Jan 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Ben Simpson
Sep 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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...
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
Mar 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fascinating read
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
Sep 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
David R.
Jan 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
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
Brian Mason
Aug 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
Thoroughly enjoyed this book mostly for its big picture overview of geology, climate, and the history of life on earth. I learned a ton of interesting things, and got new perspectives about some ideas I thought i already knew. For instance: spoiler alert, the earth is the only planet known with tectonic plates (and these have been essential to the evolution of life as we know it for a variety of reasons). Or, the solar habitable zone has moved over time, so the time averaged habitual zone is muc ...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
Jun 30, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 12, 2008 rated it liked it
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
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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