It starts with a papercut.
The book that is, not the origin of life. Rutherford starts by breaking down exactly what happens when you cut your finger in a jaw-dropping three-page extravaganza of cells, electrical signals and scintillating prose that puts you in a state of awe. Awesome is a word that is regularly overused, but one that really does apply here when we are talking about such astounding ideas and realisations, with this minute level of detail illustrating just how finely tuned every little aspect of our body is. Awe is the perfect state of being to be in when preparing to read about the genesis of existence.
Creation neatly sections off the world of evolutionary biology into two literal (and flippable) halves. The first, The Origin of Life, lays down the chemical and biological basics as we travel through time meeting the scientists who developed them. Early attempts to create a “primordial soup” are informative and impressive – one experiment involving a simple glass jar in the 1950’s amazingly yielding some of the building blocks of life out of a simple combination of gasses. The second half, The Future of Life, looks at the work scientists are doing today and where those ideas can take us, talking about DNA magicians working in synthetic biology. Often maligned in the press, Rutherford is even-handed and almost philosophical in his handling of this somewhat controversial subject. All this is topped off by little Pratchett-esque footnotes spread liberally among the pages, offering more information or clarification. These are often wry and entertaining anecdotes, with the occasional sprinkling of biology-based jokes.
Newcomers to the world of DNA will find it easy to follow, as it progresses in a calm and collected way, slowly going into more and more detail; while readers well versed in the sciences will find Rutherford’s style and perspective refreshing. It’s a brilliantly entertaining run down of a good four billion years’ worth of life, and a perfect introduction to DNA and the art of genetic engineering. The Future section of the book was perhaps my favourite part, just edging out into science fiction as we look at some of the amazing things that might be possible when co-opting the structure of life, even if that potential is only just beginning to be explored, let alone realised. Both sections celebrate the ingenuity of scientists across the ages, and it’s hard not to come away enthused about the great thinkers of the past and the prospects of the future.