Each human culture has its own origin myths. The Telefol, a mountain people of New Guinea, relate that in the beginning there was a mother called Afek, who had four children: a long-beaked echidna (an egg-laying mammal), a ground cuscus (a cat-sized marsupial), a rat, and a human. The echidna’s eyes were irritated by hearth-smoke, so Afek told it to go to the high forest. The human and the rat stayed in and around Afek’s hut, as initially did the ground cuscus. But he was cheeky, and overly curious about his own origins. When he inserted a digit into his mother’s vagina, Afek chopped it off and exiled him to the forest.
The Telefol say that this story explains why ground cuscuses have four digits on each forepaw. Except they don’t: I’ve seen plenty, and they all have five. Whenever I came across a ground cuscus in the company of Telefol, I’d point out the five digits. They would carefully and thoughtfully examine the creature before exclaiming that it couldn’t be a true ground cuscus—because real ones have only four! Origin myths, it seems, are so powerful that they can survive in the face of almost any amount of contradictory evidence.
The biblical book of Genesis includes two origin myths—the six days of creation, and the making of Adam from dust, which God animated with his divine breath. The idea of a God-given life force (a soul) as something separate from the body was almost universal in Western cultures until the early twentieth century, and it remains strong today. It’s easy to see why belief in a life force is so tenacious. The transition from life to death is familiar to us all, and in that process all the complexity that is contained in a living being seems to vanish. It’s a natural reaction to ask where we go with the expiration of that last breath, and where we came from in the first place.
In The Genesis Quest, the science writer Michael Marshall argues that belief in a life force long stymied progress in understanding life’s origins. It was only with publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection in 1859 that the notion that the first living thing must have had a precursor became widespread. As science advanced, it was established that a collection of molecules with some lifelike properties must have given rise to life. Marshall’s book focuses on the chemical research—from the first speculative insights made by brilliant minds to the complex experiments that have increasingly dominated the field—into life’s origins. It’s a fascinating and challenging story, and leavened with mini-biographies, the best of which are based on his own interviews with his subjects.