In the beginning
earth was a cold planet of rock-crust and water; then life seeded the oceans…and after eons, multiplied on the land.
Man, the reasoning creature of this fruitful life-process, constantly asks why?…why?…and how?
In this brilliant synthesis of scientific discovery throughout the ages, Isaac Asimov answers these vital questions. He begins with Genesis and its intuitive description of creation and proceeds through the trial-and-error experimental findings concerning regeneration, evolution, and inheritance. The structure of the cell itself is examined, and the biochemistry of its food and fuel processes. Here is a lucid picture of life on this planet as far as the light of science has been able to penetrate–a provocative study written to be understood and enjoyed by anyone who has asked in his childhood “Where did I come from?”
This is the middle of a set of three biochemistry books Asimov wrote in the 1950’s and 1960’s which form a progressive examination of the field. The first, The Chemicals of Life, was written just in time to miss including the Watson-Crick double helix model of DNA. Asimov took advantage of the writing of The Wellsprings of Life to cover the double helix, but just wrote it just in time to miss including the cracking of the genetic code, which he was able to cover in The Genetic Code.
(The books are not otherwise related in any particular fashion. In particular, The Chemicals of Life is written for a slightly younger audience.)
The Wellsprings of Life is itself divided into four sections. The first is a general overview of life and its possible origins. Asimov spends a fair amount of time discussing the history of the struggles within biology and geology which lead to the modern world-view centered on Darwinian evolution, including a literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, the issue of spontaneous generation, and the development of evolution by natural selection by Darwin and Wallace. Himself an ardent Darwinist, Asimov pulls no punches over his feelings regarding a literal reading of Genesis being used as the basis for thinking about the origin of life on earth, although he is sensitive to avoid dismissing the Bible’s religious value. The religious issues are, nonetheless, at the core of the first section, as generation after generation of scientist has to struggle against religious opposition to scientific progress, and Asimov tells this story well and with dramatic flair. (Some of his favorite stories about the history of science and the ideal ethics of the scientist are from this period of the history of biology: Darwin and Wallace, and the rediscovery of Mendel’s work.)
The second section is a general overview of the organization of life on the planet into phyla, subphyla, and so on, and a brief overview of cytology. The third then delves into the molecule and covers basic biochemistry, focusing on proteins, enzymes, and the DNA that makes them. The book ends with a chapter on the modern spontaneous generation and how science currently feels life on the Earth may have originated.
This is, in fact, an excellent volume which manages to cover a broad amount of material in a fairly short space. Each section is thorough, straightforward, and simple to understand, and the sections are interwoven well to create a coherent, logical whole. It is also a book which provides a good broad understanding of Asimov’s own philosophy regarding science, rationalism, religion, and ethics, and so is a good introduction to some of the author’s own approaches to life, as well.