If one is looking for an easy summer read, The Meaning(s) of Life: a Human’s Guide to the Biology of Souls is not it. If one is looking for a thoughtful, provocative read, this book is all that and more. M begins the introduction with a quote from Albert Einstein about miracles; life is all or none. M covers a broad expanse of topics, from bacteria to consciousness to death to empathy, and explains them in digestible, though by no means frivolous, terminology.
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M uses his background in philosophy to pose a number of questions, beginning with “What is Life?” His responses are both thoughtful and thought provoking and comprise both the biological descriptions of life and the philosophical ones. As examples, he describes in great detail the differences between a cell wall and a cell membrane as well as how polymers produce the language that creates and sustains life. These are infused with profound scientific details.
“We are presently faced with many meanings of life. We are fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) to be living at a time when these discoveries are first coming to light. It has never been harder to grasp the significance of being human than in this newly nuanced world. But we also have more degrees of freedom than we ever imagined. So what’s a human to do?”
Interspersed with the scientific information, M circles back again and again to the question of human souls interacting with the bases of biological development. He faces the challenge of the “favor” of gods in terms of the likelihood of the perfect combination of factors arriving on the scene to create our particular world and our particular life. He addresses ethical questions such as GMOs, stem cells, regenerative medicine and artificial life.
Three of the last chapters cover love, empathy and free will. All are important to our general concept of souls, often considered more emotion than biology. The discussion of love goes into great depth on hormones, the desire to have one’s genes live on, and the cultural milieu in which relationships take place. The chapters on empathy and free will draw less from science and more from philosophy.
Although the topics can be found in other forms, M addresses them in a unique manner with writing that is clear, straight-forward and focused.
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