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Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution [Paperback]

Nick Lane
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 14, 2010 0393338665 978-0393338669 1 Reprint

“Original and awe-inspiring . . . an exhilarating tour of some of the most profound and important ideas in biology.”—New Scientist

Where does DNA come from? What is consciousness? How did the eye evolve? Drawing on a treasure trove of new scientific knowledge, Nick Lane expertly reconstructs evolution’s history by describing its ten greatest inventions—from sex and warmth to death—resulting in a stunning account of nature’s ingenuity. 20 figures

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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 œinvention, 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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“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)

“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)

“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)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 Reprint edition (June 14, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393338665
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393338669
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #282,437 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nick Lane is a biochemist and writer. He is a Professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London. His research focuses on the role of bioenergetics in the origin of life and the evolution of cells. Nick was awarded the first UCL Provost's Venture Research Prize in 2009 and will receive the 2015 Biochemical Society Award. He has published three critically acclaimed books, which have been translated into 20 languages. The latest, Life Ascending, won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. His books have been shortlisted for two other literary prizes and named among the books of the year by the Economist, the Independent, the Times, the Sunday Times and New Scientist. He was described by Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek as "a writer who is not afraid to think big - and think hard." For more information, visit www.nick-lane.net

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
190 of 200 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Twenty-five years ago when I was learning creationism rather than biology in the Christian college I graduated from, we had a fairly good excuse. No doubt scientists knew the evidence well enough and found it overwhelmingly supported the fact and theory of evolution. But for non-biology students and typical laypersons, the evidence was never presented in an accessible or cogent enough way to persuade us, and so we defaulted to the easy-to-grasp, if simplistic, notion that "God did it." Period, quotation marks, end of story.

The excuse is gone, and each new book in this field seems to top the previous entries in some key aspect. "Life Ascending" takes a biochemical approach to the fascinating "inventions" of evolution, from the beginning of life to photosynthesis, sex...even death. Other writers have dipped into this important topic, notably Sean Carroll, but I am not aware of another popularly written book that focuses so extensively on this one aspect of evolutionary theory. And for my money, it's the most compelling evidence that exists.

The chapters on the origins of life and metabolism (Krebs cycle) are worth the price of the book alone. Will the hypotheses advanced convince a hard-core Intelligent Design promoter? Not likely. The speculation required still eclipses the evidence provided, but a very plausible-sounding pathway is put forth, and it's fascinating to think about. What's more, key elements of each hypothesis are TESTABLE, setting them well apart from the comparitively content-free notion of Intelligent Design.

The capper is how lucid the prose is, and how entertaining. Even when the topics get technical and potentially dry, great care is taken to turn phrases, add color, and supply interesting metaphors and examples to pull the reader through. I can hardly recommend this book more highly.
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51 of 55 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating yet frustrating July 28, 2010
Format:Paperback
At times the book makes its points clearly and it is fascinating. but so much of the time it is unfocused, not content with describing natures greatest inventions, the author insists on giving equal weight to the history of thought surrounding each invention.
When he is focused, he can be witty and compelling, but you turn around for a moment, and he has put down his rifle and is wielding a blunderbus.
There is so much that is interesting and compelling in the book, but then for long periods he throws in so many half-explained terms that it is like listening to an orchestra in which every instrument is being played at exactly the same volume.
For example, photosynthesis; he explains some things beautifully, such as the extraordinary stability of water molecules and therefore the inherent difficulty in separating oxygen from hydrogen. And he is entertaining as he employs the metaphor of a street hustler, who manages to sell an additional electron to the carbon dioxide molecule that is perfectly happy without it. But then, having convinced me so thoroughly of the difficulties involved, he seemed to rush over the exact details of how photosynthesis overcomes them.
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36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Introducing...Evolution's Top Ten Hits December 8, 2009
Format:Hardcover
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"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 from 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.
Read more ›
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolution's Triumphs on the Molecular Scale August 20, 2009
Format:Hardcover
It is one of the shibboleths of evolution that the blind forces which change genes and change creatures have no aim or direction. Our hands and the wings of bats may be wonderfully engineered biological machines, and may arise from the same basic limb design, but it is wrong to think that evolutionary forces set out to build up progressively so that hands and wings could emerge with their current efficient designs. It is hard, however, to get away from the idea of life forms progressing or ascending; we do, of course, speak of "lower life forms" without thinking of how astonishingly complex even an amoeba is. Nick Lane, a biochemist, knows that we are not evolutionarily "climbing the ladder of life", and especially knows that it is a parochial view that puts humans at the uppermost reaches of the biological tree. Nonetheless, his most recent book is called _Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution_ (Norton). These ten inventions are steps, if not steps up, in the complexity of life. The subtitle of his book also bears examination, and he knows it. In his introduction, he writes, "Evolution has no foresight, and does not plan for the future. There is no inventor, no intelligent design. Nonetheless, natural selection subjects all traits to the most exacting tests, and the best designs win out." Each of the chapters here looks at one of the ten winners within those tests. Lane admits he has made a subjective "Ten Best List", but he did have criteria. Each invention had to revolutionize the world, be of surpassing importance now, be due to evolution by natural selection rather than due to cultural forces, and had to be iconic in some way. Read more ›
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars An opportunity to know what you are...
Masterfully written with wit, humor and luscious prose. Nick Lane makes reading science and even it's complex nature fun and understandable. Read more
Published 21 days ago by Christopher J. Renzi
5.0 out of 5 stars Great writing meets science!
How can one man know so much and be able to write so well? Nick Lane takes difficult scientific concepts and weaves them into a pleasant read. Read more
Published 21 days ago by Tammy R
5.0 out of 5 stars phenomenal book
Must read for anyone with a scientific and inquiring mind. The vast range of topics addressed is both daunting and inspiring. This one I'll definitely reread
Published 1 month ago by Michiel Kotting
5.0 out of 5 stars Maybe my favorite author
His first three books really opened my mind. New ways of seeing biochemistry. Plus he's so much fun to read!
Published 2 months ago by Rainbow's Daughter
5.0 out of 5 stars A scholarly, brilliantly written, lucid account of milestones in...
This is the best book on evolution I have read for years, maybe, decades, possibly ever. Lane's combination of evolution and biochemistry, coupled with original thinking and a wry... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Aquagem
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
A compelling review of the sweep of life as we know it on this planet. Can we be unique in the universe? I surely hope not.
Published 2 months ago by John Stratfold
5.0 out of 5 stars Nicely done
This book is written in such a way that complicated evolutionary ideas are presented in a way that even a non-scientific type may understand them. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Twitch222
5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible coverage of a lot of material in a small space.
Though I once had a better ranking among Amazon reviewers, I’d given up doing reviews for some time for personal reasons; but this book really deserves a good review, and it’s... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Atheen M. Wilson
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging and thought-provoking
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Lane is a clear writer, and each chapter is full of ideas. If you want to think about the wonders of life and evolution and diversity, read this... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Alan C. Christensen
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
The author describes ten "Great Inventions of Evolution" and shows how scientists managed to basically "solve" -- i.e. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Steve L.
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