Synopses & Reviews
Traces of the earliest forms of life on Earth reveal that they were already highly complex, consisting of cells, genes, proteins and an intricate metabolism. Life at the biochemical level was in many ways as complex in those early organisms as it is today, which leaves us with a massive gap in our knowledge about how life got started in a relatively short space of time. We know that evolution takes millions of years to complete even small changes in animals and plants. Can we really accept that transition from simple chemicals to primitive yet complex life forms - and ultimately to humans - occurred in such a short time-span?
The key questions thrown up by this problem of timing are addressed in The Feathered Onion. Clive Trotman investigates the origins of life from our first attempts to understand the age of the Earth to the latest scientific techniques and their implications for our current understanding of where we came from.
"...isn't just a book about scientific thinking: this is a book about how scientists think...much the better for it..." (Guardian, 29 July 2004)
"...Trotman's thoughts are ingenious and plausible, and his analysis of hard questions about the subject is insightful..." (Focus, November 04)
"...a courageous, ingenious and successful attempt to identify irreducible complexity as the essence of life...a pleasure to read..." (www.home.planet.nl 23rd November 2004)
"...very good presentation with thought-provoking ideas about the origins of life..." (www.drydredges.org)
"…well-produced and interesting stuff…" (The Biologist, July 2006)
Over the past 150 years the acknowledged dates for the formation of the Earth and the origin of Life have been pushed steadily back into the remote past. As these timescales have lengthened however, the interval between the two dates has reduced so much so that it has left us with a serious conundrum: the interval between the formation of the Earth (or at least a surface capable of supporting life) and the appearance of life is simply too short for life to have come into existence from scratch.
The key questions thrown up by this problem of timing are addressed for the first time in The Feathered Onion. Is the Earth older than we think? Could life on Earth really have developed incredibly rapidly? Did life originate elsewhere and then find its way to our planet? Author Clive Trotman explores the science and potential of these theories with explanations of the latest scientific techniques and their implications for our current understanding of where we came from.
An exploration of the origin of life that unveils the discovery that life may be older than the Earth.
If the current timeframes for the formation of the Earth and the time life on Earth began are accurate, what they reveal is altogether startling: the latest timeframes suggest both occurred almost simultaneously. The Feathered Onion examines the implications of this discovery-from new questions on whether life actually originated on this planet and speculation on the true age of the Earth to observations on the complexity of early life forms as well as the pace of human evolution. Also discussed are current techniques for estimating the age of the Earth and the new technology that enables protein and DNA sequences to be compared with an assessment of how accurate the evolutionary timescales they provide really are.
About the Author
Dr Clive Trotman is well-known for his work on organisms that survive at the extremes of life. He has been published in leading scientific journals and is a Fellow of the Institute of Biology. He takes an interest in the history of science and has written many articles on antique gadgets and instruments for an Australian antiques magazine; he is also a qualified arbitrator dealing with scientific and intellectual property disputes.He was recently awarded a Doctorate of Science by Brunel University,. London.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Year Dot.
The Earth is very old, the universe is older still. Life had plenty of time to develop.How much time has been available on the Earth, and in the universe, for life to form? Methods of estimation, early and more recent. The Earth is now dated 4.6 billion years by radioactivity; the universe is dated 1020 billion years by observations of star light.
Chapter 2. Friends and Relatives.
All life on Earth is related to a single ancestor. All forms of life are much more closely related than first appearances might suggest. Major differences, even between animals, plants and bacteria, are superficial. The inner workings of their cells are virtually identical. All life depends on the same source of energy, which is the simple combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water. Life on Earth had a single origin, making the search for it easier.
Chapter 3. Dating the Ancestors.
When a timescale is added to relatedness, life is found to be very old. Historical ideas about the youth of the Earth, some of the earlier beliefs and influential personalities. Recent progress in dating fossils. Scientific distortions such as hypothetical missing links and the Piltdown Man.
Chapter 4. Before the Ancestors.
Life is at least as old as the Earth. New technology enables protein or DNA sequences to be compared, but a fresh argument questions whether this provides a reliable evolutionary timescale.
Chapter 5. Life's Not Simple.
Life on Earth has always been complex. Primitive life more than 3.8 billion years ago was already highly complex, with cells, genes, proteins and an intricate biochemical metabolism.
Chapter 6. Thanks to Thermodynamics.
If life was never simple, how did it start? The central paradox of life: since life can only be complex, how can it ever have been simple? The evolution of life's chemistry happened in the 10 billion years or so before the Earth existed.
Chapter 7. Non-Event.
The moment life did not come into existence. There wasn't one.
Chapter 8. Spreading the Message.
Life is universal - but don't bother searching for it. Doubling processes, such as gene duplication and cell division, are so fundamental to life that a single primitive cell, almost regardless of its inefficiency, could colonise a sterile ocean in a blink of geological time. Ice comets could preserve and transport inter-stellar chemistry. The Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt are great reservoirs of cometary material that can survive passage through the atmosphere into the oceans of the Earth.
Chapter 9. Unintelligent Design.
Life's inheritance. Life's timescale is at least that of the universe, not merely the Earth. Life has changed very little in the Earth's accepted timescale of 4.6 billion years. Evolution has been merely a few simple variations on an underlying biochemical theme. Innovations have been trivial. Far from the age of the Earth providing any constraint on the antiquity of life, ultimately an understanding of the origin of life may throw fresh light on the historical timeframe of the universe.
Chapter 10. Life: To Be Continued?
Life could do better, but probably won't. A genome is a program for the construction of a living being and we are on the point of being able to rewrite that program to manufacture any grotesque combination. The human species has reached the critical point where it can change its own destiny. On the other hand, human intelligence and social behaviour have changed little in thousands of years and will change little in future millennia.
Appendix: Simple calculations, sources of information and wider reading.