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Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

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  • Posted March 27, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Eye-opening and mind-stretching!

    Evolution is not a palpable singular entity, but a scientific term; the constituents of which are overwhelmingly numerous and mind boggling intricate, even for seasoned researchers. Nick Lane narrows the field for the “layman” reader, focusing on, in his opinion, “the ten great inventions of evolution” in his book, Life Ascending. I enclose layman in quotes above to differentiate between the layman readers of science who cannot name the four amino acids that code genes and the “layman” readers who recall what ATP is and does as the learned it in their Intro to Biology college course. The latter have stored ample amounts of esoteric knowledge to read Lane's book at a reasonable speed; the former should stay beside a computer in order to assess Google or Wikipedia when (not if) necessary. Unfortunately, a glossary was presumably deemed inessential. Regardless of the esoteric jargon, Lane is a down-to-earth and witty tour guide. He explains the criteria used to choose the “ten great inventions of evolution” and recognizes that others contest his choices. Leading the reader through the micro-instances of evolution, Lane does not merely explain as if the knowledge dropped from the sky onto the page, but introduces the reader to the people and research behind the facts, acknowledging contradictions, controversies and the limits and flaws of current methodologies and technologies. Through Lane's in-depth descriptions, evolution begins to unravel, allowing itself to be known (as well as currently possible) by the human mind. Each chapter feels as if someone has ripped the reader's ninth grade self from a idyll classroom, where evolution was reductively defined as “adaptation to the environment overtime” with a couple pundit squares thrown in for good measure, and plopped him before the strongest microscope in existence to watch “adaptation” occur on a molecular level. The formation of the eye, in chapter seven, is an excellent example of such micro-evolutionary revelations. Lane strategically lays down the breadcrumbs of the researchers who've gone before until smacking the reader with the same startling revelation—the eye commandeered proteins from other parts of the body “as if the army conscripted only form a standing army” (p. 191). Lanes clever analogies pepper the book like well-dispersed chocolate chips of mental delight. In chapter ten, Lane tackles the most enfeebling evolutionary invention—death. Unfortunately, Lane veers away from expounding the significance of the adaptation (at least, I see death as a sort of adaptation), promulgating a prescient vision of research in science and technology granting humans immortality by halting or reversing cell degradation. This smacks of subverting evolution, nonchalantly kicking down the system Nick Lane had lovingly and meticulously erected for his audience. Personally, I felt betrayed. The title should have been a warning; the word 'ascending' has connotations of rising to a improved state, something higher up the ladder of life, when the scientific verity is that evolution has no goal, no personal agenda, to create a better eye, a faster muscle fiber, or a self-aware brain. Evolution is happenstance; if intelligence suddenly became disadvantageous, natural selection would choose against it. The previous nine chapters still stand out as exemplar literature on evolution, painstakingly recreating the particulars of minute molecular occurrences.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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