Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

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Nick Lane expertly reconstructs the history of life by describing the ten greatest inventions of evolution (including DNA, photosynthesis, sex, and sight), based on their historical impact, role in organisms today, and relevance to current controversies.

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Nick Lane expertly reconstructs the history of life by describing the ten greatest inventions of evolution (including DNA, photosynthesis, sex, and sight), based on their historical impact, role in organisms today, and relevance to current controversies.

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Le Page - New Scientist
“Original and awe-inspiring... an exhilarating tour of some of the most profound and important ideas in biology.”
Peter Dizikes
For about 150 years, we have known how species evolve. The emergence of life itself remains more obscure. But as Lane shows with clarity and vigor in Life Ascending, fascinating studies on the subject abound. A trained biochemist, Lane smoothly pulls in evidence from genetics, proteomics (the study of proteins), paleontology and geophysics to show how the critical components and mechanisms of complex life—from DNA and photosynthesis to sex and vision—could have developed.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In this wonderful book, Lane (Power, Sex, Suicide), a biochemist at University College London, asks an intriguing and simple question: what were the great biological inventions that led to Earth as we know it. (He is quick to point out that by "invention," he refers to nature's own creativity, not to intelligent design.) Lane argues that there are 10 such inventions and explores the evolution of each. Not surprisingly, each of the 10-the origin of life, the creation of DNA, photosynthesis, the evolution of complex cells, sex, movement, sight, warm bloodedness, consciousness and death-is intricate, its origins swirling in significant controversy. Drawing on cutting-edge science, Lane does a masterful job of explaining the science of each, distinguishing what is fairly conclusively known and what is currently reasonable conjecture. At times he presents some shocking but compelling information. For example, one of the light-sensitive pigments in human eyes probably arose first in algae, where it can still be found today helping to maximize photosynthesis. While each of Lane's 10 subjects deserves a book of its own, they come together to form an elegant, fully satisfying whole. 20 illus. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
An accessible look at the greatest wonders of evolutionary science. For such a short work, Lane (Biochemistry/University College London; Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, 2005) is admirably ambitious in scope, tackling such complex subjects as DNA, photosynthesis and consciousness in living things. Natural selection is a powerful creative force, notes the author, and has produced some ingenious and elegant scientific processes. Starting with the electrochemical reactions that may have produced the first life on Earth, Lane clearly explains how these landmark processes work and why they are so important. In an engaging chapter on photosynthesis-as well as others dealing with the complex cell, the sense of sight and the emergence of sex and movement among organisms-Lane lays out processes of dizzying complexity in smooth, nimble prose. He also provides a smattering of scientific history, showing how these processes were worked out by thinkers and researchers. (Footnotes provide more detail for the scientifically astute reader.) In the final and most insightful chapter, Lane looks at death as a beneficial process that allows organisms to avoid genetic diseases associated with living exceedingly long life spans. "[D]eath and disease are not random," he writes. "Death evolved. Ageing evolved. They evolved for pragmatic reasons. In the broadest of terms, ageing is flexible, an evolutionary variable that is set against various other factors, like sexual maturation, in the ledger book of life. There are penalties for tampering with these parameters, but the penalties vary and in a few cases at least can be trivial." The author cites a Japanese study that found that onetiny variant of DNA made people twice as likely to live to be 100. A lucid introduction to complex concepts of evolution.
“Excellent and imaginative and, similar to life itself, the book is full of surprises.”
“Excellent and imaginative and, similar to life itself, the book is full of surprises.”
The New York Times
“The emergence of life itself remains obscure. But as Lane shows with clarity and vigor, fascinating studies on the subject abound.”
Matt Ridley
“If Charles Darwin sprang from his grave, I would give him this fine book to bring him up to speed.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393065961
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/22/2009
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 704,238
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Nick Lane is a biochemist and honorary reader at University College London, where he lives. His book Power, Sex, Suicide was named an Economist Book of the Year and was shortlisted for the Aventis Science Book Prize.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 The Origin of Life 8

2 Dna 34

3 Photosynthesis 60

4 The Complex Cell 88

5 Sex 118

6 Movement 144

7 Sight 172

8 Hot Blood 205

9 Consciousness 232

10 Death 260

Epilogue 286

Notes 288

List of Illustrations 307

Acknowledgements 310

Bibliography 313

Index 327

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • 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.

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  • Posted September 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Nick Lane in a simple and well-organized way presents his take on the most important aspects of evolution. Full of interesting and factual information for casual readers and science scholars alike. Easy to read.


    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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