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Living Things and Nonliving Things: A Compare and Contrast Book

Living Things and Nonliving Things: A Compare and Contrast Book

Kevin Kurtz
Arbordale Publishing
2017
32 pp.
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If we wanted to define “games,” we might say they involve competing, keeping score, following rules, and having fun. However, in some games, players cooperate and don’t keep score. And while all games have rules, so do many other activities that may or may not be fun. In this book, Kevin Kurtz extends this line of argument to the nature of life.

Are living things the only ones that move, or grow, or reproduce? Kurtz elegantly reveals that some nonliving things can do these things, whereas some living things can’t.

Astute readers may find themselves wishing for a deeper discussion of viruses. Viruses lack cells of their own, but they confiscate their host’s cellular machinery to replicate themselves, thus complicating any cellular definition of life. The conceptual ambiguity of viruses underscores a deeper, albeit understandable, omission from the book: the existential quandary of death.

Ultimately, Kurtz ends with the unsettling realization that there is no categorical distinction between living and nonliving. Instead, he proposes a family resemblance model in which something that has many of the characteristics shared by living things probably belongs to the category.

The book is beautifully illustrated with high-quality photographs of nature, animals, and inventions. Despite its simple text, Living Things and Nonliving Things is deceptively deep and provides a valuable lesson in scientific uncertainty.

About the author

The reviewer is an associate editor at Science.