It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.
-- Albert Einstein
PLENTY OF BOOK's have been written on the origin of life, genes, cells, evolution, biodiversity, the advent of humankind, brain, consciousness, society, the environment, the future of life, its meaning or lack of it. No one has had the temerity to handle all these subjects at the same time, for the simple reason that no one can master more than one or two of them, let alone all. Though no exception to such limitation, I have ventured beyond the boundaries of my competence because I feel that the attempt must be made if we are to understand the universe and our place in it. Life is the most complex phenomenon known to us, and we are the most complex beings so far produced by life.
This book represents my attempt to look at the "bigger picture." It goes back to a naive dream, conceived almost sixty years ago when, as a young medical student at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, I first entered the field of science. What lured me into the laboratory, besides the fun of tackling problems, was the urge to understand. It seemed to me that science, by its insistence on rationality and objectivity, offered the best way to approach truth. The study of life looked particularly promising. It was going to be my pathway to the truth: per vivum ad verum.
The dream soon receded. The demands of schooling and training--first in medicine, then in chemistry, finally in biochemistry--the struggle to establish a research group in postwar Belgium, the excitement of discoveries that led me to join the small band of investigators exploring living cells with modern methods, an appointment in 1962 that led me to share my time between my Belgian alma mater and the Rocke