What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology
Pross (Addy)
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Amazon Book Description

  1. Seventy years ago, "Schrodinger (Erwin) - What is Life?" posed a profound question: 'What is life, and how did it emerge from non-life?' This problem has puzzled biologists and physical scientists ever since.
  2. Living things are hugely complex and have unique properties, such as self-maintenance and apparently purposeful behaviour which we do not see in inert matter. So how does chemistry give rise to biology? What could have led the first replicating molecules up such a path?
  3. Now, developments in the emerging field of 'systems chemistry' are unlocking the problem. Addy Pross shows how the different kind of stability that operates among replicating molecules results in a tendency for chemical systems to become more complex and acquire the properties of life.
  4. Strikingly, he demonstrates that Darwinian evolution1 is the biological expression of a deeper, well-defined chemical concept: the whole story from replicating molecules to complex life is one continuous process governed by an underlying physical principle. The gulf between biology and the physical sciences is finally becoming bridged.
  5. Addy Pross received a Ph.D in Organic Chemistry from Sydney University in 1970. He is currently a Professor of Chemistry at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and a recognized authority in the area of chemical reactivity to which he contributed with the highly cited and acclaimed Pross-Shaik model of chemical reactivity. He has held visiting positions in many universities word-wide, including the University of Lund, Stanford University, Rutgers University, University of California at Irvine, University of Padova, the Australian National University Canberra, and Sydney University. He has served on the editorial board of chemical and biological journals and a variety of academic management boards. In recent years he has directed his attention to the biological arena where he has applied his expertise in chemical reactivity to the Origin of Life problem and the broader question of the problematic chemistry-biology interface.

Amazon Customer Review
  1. In 1944 Erwin Schrodinger published a little book with the title, "Schrodinger (Erwin) - What is Life?". Though, obviously not the first to pose this question, it is purported to have provided at least part of the inspiration to those, such as Watson and Crick, who would later go some way to answering it.
  2. Addy Pross, though using the same title, adds the sub-title, ‘How Chemistry Becomes Biology' and this is quite odd as he spends most of this very slim book attempting to persuade the reader of exactly the opposite; i.e. that biology is simply a sub set of chemistry, or at least its natural extension. His justification for this curious and, I imagine irritating - at least to biologists, strangely naïve claim is his depiction of the transformation from non-living to living matter as a two stage process the first of which, the abiological phase, which is governed, principally, according to the established laws of chemistry, results from the autocatalytic replication of organic molecules such as RNA resulting in replicating networks or primitive forms of embryonic2 proto-life. The second, biological, phase is governed by the ‘rules' of evolution3 as elucidated by Darwin leading to an increase in organic complexity and the biodiversity we see today.
  3. Furthermore, he suggests the very same evolutionary4 rules that underpin the existence and survival of all living things also governed the ‘persistence' of these early organic molecules, which were ‘selected for' according to their ‘fitness' as replicators with fitness being determined largely by their relative dynamic kinetic stabilities (DKS): basically, those that could replicate the quickest and thus were more kinetically stable persisted longer, replicated more often and, as a result of mutations, gave rise to chemical diversity and increasingly more complex molecules the interactions of which produced the kind of ‘emergent properties' postulated as being, at east potentially, characteristic of primitive forms of proto-life. In order to convince the reader of the plausibility of his hypothesis he provides, early on, a brief explanation of the philosophical basis of the ‘scientific method'; i.e. induction, and then proceeds, in a kind of ‘sleight of hand' way, to outline his argument on the basis of this underlying assumed ‘inductive' authority.
  4. The book does revisit interesting questions and posits some potentially intriguing ways in which these might be answered. However, in no way, does it get anywhere near answering the basic question posed by its title and it would have benefitted hugely if its author had been a little more ‘up-front' about this.
  5. Finally, those readers who do not have, at least, some acquaintance with science and its often recondite terminology, might find the book, though short in length, a little heavy going.


OUP Oxford, 2012; Reprint edition (23 Jan 2014)

"Pross (Addy) - What is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology: Preface"

Source: Pross (Addy) - What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology

"Pross (Addy) - Living Things are so Very Strange"

Source: Pross (Addy) - What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology, Chapter 1

  1. Introduction – 1
  2. Life’s Organised Complexity – 4
  3. Life’s Purposeful Character – 9
  4. Life’s Dynamic Character – 20
  5. Life’s Diversity – 23
  6. Life’s Far-from-equilibrium State – 25
  7. Life’s Chiral Nature – 27

"Pross (Addy) - The Quest for a Theory of Life"

Source: Pross (Addy) - What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology, Chapter 2

"Pross (Addy) - Understanding 'Understanding'"

Source: Pross (Addy) - What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology, Chapter 3

"Pross (Addy) - Stability and Instability"

Source: Pross (Addy) - What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology, Chapter 4

"Pross (Addy) - The Knotty Origin of Life Problem"

Source: Pross (Addy) - What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology, Chapter 5

"Pross (Addy) - Biology's Crisis of Identity"

Source: Pross (Addy) - What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology, Chapter 6

"Pross (Addy) - Biology is Chemistry"

Source: Pross (Addy) - What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology, Chapter 7

"Pross (Addy) - What Is Life?"

Source: Pross (Addy) - What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology, Chapter 8

  1. I had intended to write detailed notes on each chapter – which is why I broke them out in my database. However, I don’t think it’s worth it. As the Amazon reviewer suggests, the book is rather disappointing.
  2. The author’s main point – that biological stability (DKS – Dynamic Kinetic Stability) is almost the opposite of normal chemical stability (which is inertness) – is important, given that the elementary “biological” systems he treats of are chemical.
  3. He correctly points out that evolutionary1 factors come into play with DKS – the molecule that replicates most quickly will be selected for.
  4. However, I couldn’t see how this helped to generate complexity, as in his example it was the simpler molecules that replicated fastest.
  5. But that said – I need to read the book again with more attention, once I get stuck into the topic Life2.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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