Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution Paperback – Jan 7 2010
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The emergence of life itself remains obscure. But as Lane shows with clarity and vigor, fascinating studies on the subject abound. — The New York Times
Excellent and imaginative and, similar to life itself, the book is full of surprises. — Nature
Lane lays out processes of dizzying complexity in smooth, nimble prose. — Kirkus Reviews
If Charles Darwin sprang from his grave, I would give him this fine book to bring him up to speed. — Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Nick Lane is a biochemist in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London, and leads the UCL Origins of Life Program. He was awarded the 2015 Biochemical Society Award for his outstanding contribution to the molecular life sciences. He is the author of Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, which won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books, as well as Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life and Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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That's ultimately what I came away with from this book. We now know a LOT about the evolution of key moments in living organisms. Lane starts by summarizing the most plausible explanation for the origin of life itself. It's not only plausible, it may well turn out to be quite likely that life turned out the way it did for the reasons Lane summarizes (I should note that the vast majority of this book isn't based on Lane's personal research). Lane then progresses through more complex evolutionary events, like photosynthesis, movement, eyes, and ultimately, death. At each step along the way the reader is treated to a wealth of details and fascinating facts. The only chapter I felt was lacking was the chapter on consciousness. That's a very difficult subject to tackle, and one I'm not all that interested in to be honest. I would have rather seen some other kind of more tangible behavior, but fortunately, the chapter is short and leads to perhaps the most important chapter, death. For research is increasingly pointing in the direction that death need not occur at ages 80-100 in humans. There may well be ways of both prolonging health (complex, but doable) and ultimate lifespan (much more complex, much less immediately feasible). The implications of this kind of science is huge. "Curing" old age, and all the attendant problems with it, would be a colossal step for humanity.
I can't discuss too much more without both going into too much detail and giving away important parts of the book. I will mention that perhaps the only drawback of the book is that it assumes (in my opinion) at least some knowledge of biology. Strong high school or early university at a minimum. The talk about genes, proteins, and chemical reactions are well explained to those familiar with science, but will probably be a bit of a chore to those without any kind of science background. That's hard to avoid because life really is complicated. Understanding the evolution of life and its many inventions isn't easy. But the reward is astounding. I found myself repeatedly amazed at just how much we now know about the evolution of life and various adaptations. For anyone interested in knowing the facts about who we are, what life is, how it developed, this is a fantastic time to be alive. And this is a really great book for explaining just why that's so- life is really, really, cool and understanding it is even more so! Highly recommended as it's easily one of the best science books I've read this year.
"This book is about the greatest inventions of evolution [where invention does NOT imply a deliberate inventor], how each one transformed the living world, and how we humans have learned to read this past...It is a celebration of life's marvellous inventiveness...It is...the long story of how we came to be here--the milestones along the epic journey from the origin of life to our own lives and deaths. It is a book grand in scope. We shall span the lengths and breadths of life, from its very origins in deep-sea vents to human consciousness, from tiny bacteria to giant dinosaurs. We shall span the sciences, from geology and chemistry to neuroimaging, from quantum physics to planetary science. And we shall span the range of human achievement...
My list of [ten] inventions is subjective...and could have been different; but I did apply four criteria [that the author outlines] which I think restrict the choice [of inventions] considerably to a few seminal events in life's history...Beyond these...formal criteria, each invention had to catch my own imagination."
The above comes form the introduction of this extraordinarily interesting book by biochemist and author Nick Lane. He is a biochemist at University College, London, England.
This book is a treasure trove of past, recent, and new scientific knowledge. And the writing is superb. A book like this could have been dry and boring. But the writing is so good that this never occurs. For example, here is a writing sample from the chapter on sex:
"If sex is an occupational folly, an existential absurdity, then not having sex is even worse, for it leads in most cases to extinction, non-existential absurdity. And so there must be advantages to sex, advantages that overwhelm the foolhardiness of doing so. The advantages are surprisingly hard to gauge and made the evolution of sex the 'queen' of evolutionary problems through much of the twentieth century. It may be that, without sex, large complex forms of life are simply not possible at all: we would all disintegrate in a matter of generations, doomed to decay like the degenerate Y chromosome. Either way, sex makes the difference between a silent and introspective planet, full of dour self- replicating things...and the explosion of pleasure and glory all around us. A world without sex is a world without the songs of men and women or birds or frogs, without the flamboyant colours of flowers, without gladiatorial contests, poetry, love, or rapture. A world without much interest."
A criticism of this book that I have read is that certain inventions of evolution cannot be adequately explained and therefore should not have been included in this book. I disagree. Take the invention of consciousness for example. True we don't have all the answers. But what we do know makes for interesting reading. Thanks to Lane's writing, these chapters don't only make for interesting reading but stimulating reading as well.
Finally, this book could have benefited from a glossary. True, Lane defines terms in his narrative but I think a glossary would have made this book easier to read.
In conclusion, this book is essential reading for anyone who has wondered about our very existence or even questioned the science underlying evolution!!
(first published 2009; introduction; 10 chapters; epilogue; main narrative 285 pages; notes; list of illustrations; acknowledgements; bibliography; index)
<<Stephen Pletko, London, Ontario, Canada>>
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Lane begins by positing a theory for the origin of life. He presents a strong case for life's origins occurring near what are called "alkaline vents" to distinguish them from the volcanic smoker type. He goes into great detail about how this could conceivably happen. It involves a reactive form of vinegar known as acetyl thioester, carbon dioxide, free radicals found in the vents, ATP, etc. ultimately culminating in more complex organic molecules. The discussion is very interesting and seems quite plausible. In the next topic - DNA - he presents another detailed explanation for the development of DNA from RNA and other precursors found in the vents. Here he again presents a compelling explanation for the origin of this basic constituent of life.
I learned quite a bit from the chapter on photosynthesis. Lane describes how plants use the light from the sun to produce sugars utilizing water and carbon dioxide - all quite interesting. He then moves on to the topic of sex, discussing various ideas that have been promulgated throughout the years. He sums it up by saying "Mechanistically speaking, sex could have evolved quite easily." He goes on to describe three aspects that could have made this possible: cell fusion, segregation of chromosomes, and recombination. Another whole chapter is devoted to the topic of motion. Here he delves into the function and origins of the myosin and actin and ATP that constitute muscle tissue. We are shown how crystallography had demonstrated that the myosins and kinesins (a second family of motor proteins) did indeed share a common ancestor, and this despite the fact that they do not share a common gene sequence.
On the topic of sight, Lane provides for us plausible evidence to support its evolution. We learn that "the same committee of genes controls eye formation in both vertebrates and invertebrates." Tracing back to a common ancestor, we find that the visual pigment rhodopsin evolved in this ancestor under the control of this committee of genes. This cell later became duplicated, and the daughter cells became specialized to function in an eye or as a circadian clock. Very surprisingly, it may very well be that the earliest progenitor of the eye may have evolved in algae. Lane notes, "there's a good chance that the mother of all animal eyes was, of all things, a photosynthetic alga."
Lane next delves into the roots of the human mind - consciousness. He grapples with the how and why something called extended consciousness builds on core consciousness, and why core consciousness can turn on a feeling. And what is a feeling anyway? He speaks of "mind maps" and how these can be altered by "objects" in the world outside our minds. Regarding feelings, he concludes that they are "a neural construct, and not a fundamental property of matter." Actually whole books have been written on just this matter, so this is just an introduction.
On the final topic of death, Lane discusses Peter Medawar's theory on the role of genes in age-related diseases, but he is more concerned about the underlying cause of aging. He theorizes that "Age-related diseases depend on biological age, not chronological time. Cure aging, and we cure the diseases of old age - all of them." We learn of the role of sexual maturity, free radicals (not so bad maybe), and yes, the possibility of a single panacea to eradicate old age.
He concludes with ever so clever reasoning. "To doubt that life evolved, even if some of the details described in this book may yet prove wrong is to doubt the convergence of evidence [...] doubt the evidence of biology [...] doubt the veracity of experiment and observation [...] in the end, to doubt reality."
This is probably the best book I’ve read on these subjects (The origin of life, DNA, Photosynthesis, The Complex cell, Sex, Movement, Sight, Hot Blood, Consciousness, and Death) in literally ages. I was amazed at the amount of new insight that has been achieved over the past few years in many of the sciences and technologies involved in illuminating these areas. I was so impressed and found the read so satisfying that I returned my library copy of the book and bought one for my Kindle, so I could reread it; something I almost never do, on the premise that there are far too many books and way too little time to read them all. I can definitely say that this one is worth a thorough re-read.
Not always the easiest, even for someone who has followed these subjects, the book is yet approachable. (Those with a newer education, especially high school, than mine—I graduated with my last college degree in 1993 and refuse to admit how long ago I graduated from high school!!—will undoubtedly find it much easier going than I did.) It took me two days to read it, a long time for me. (Though I admit that I have an inordinate amount of time to read at my disposal on any given day.)
Through similes and metaphors, sometimes poetry and often humor, the author does a tremendous job of making the subject matter accessible to the nonprofessional/nonscientist among us. He definitely has an entertaining style—in short, I was not bored. He uses an historical approach in dealing with each subject, so that the reader gains some insight into how scientists have teased apart the various threads of information over time to achieve an ever closer approximation of how these aspects of living organisms arose. This may be a little confusing for some—it was for me—since the reader may feel he/she has come to “understand” the topic or feel they “already know” the material, only to discover down the line that new data have changed the story, sometimes drastically. I can only say that this reveals how science is actually done and more importantly how it is experienced by the people doing that research. It definitely gives one an appreciation for the very clever minds at work on these subjects. More importantly it also makes clear how the various disciplines and technologies involved intersect and potentiate one another, creating an almost exponential amount of information by doing so. This fact alone makes science one of the most potent tools ever created by the human mind.
I enjoy this type of reading material because, as I’ve said before in other reviews, I see it as “weight-lifting for the mind.” Since it changes so much over time, it challenges one to keep up with what’s new. Of all the topics the author chose to discuss, I was most impressed with the advances in origin of life studies. After plowing through a work by Christian De Duve on the subject years ago, I had sort of given up on the subject as virtually unknowable, at least to me, at the time. I see that there is new hope for a fascinating subject and for my own ability to understand it at least superficially. Like origin of life, each of the other areas also shows remarkable advancement. There was not a single chapter where I did not find that what I thought I “knew” had had a major overhaul or had been totally overturned by new evidence. Talk about a mental work out.
I especially appreciated the graciousness of the author in his willing acknowledgement of the key researchers who contributed to the advancements under each category—in fact, sometimes under several categories. He never spoke disparagingly of any one’s work; something that in my experience is not always the case in treatises of this kind—where the reader at least learns that scientists, too, are people and given to human weaknesses. He also paid due attention to research that led to false starts or outright failure. While disappointing to the research team, failures are important too, since they reveal what doesn’t work or isn’t true or simply needs a different approach—a point which the author himself made. While it doesn’t lead to Nobel Prizes, all of this is information. (I once had a professor who said he thought there ought to be a journal especially devoted to failed research for just this reason.) I also found interesting and encouraging the number of women whose work in various fields was cited. As a woman myself, it was nice to see that not only do women contribute but that their contributions are recognized and appreciated.
An incredible book.