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Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution
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200 of 212 people found the following review helpful
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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58 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 2010
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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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2009
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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. 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 ever 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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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
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. What is significant in his book is that, as befits a biochemist, he has not concentrated on, say, hand and wing morphology, but on the molecules within cells that make the whole biological and evolutionary process go.

To start off, necessarily, Lane considers the origin of life. Darwin had no way of knowing about the current best candidate for primordial life, the fissures within the basalt of the ocean floor. The vents bubble a supply of hydrogen which could react with the carbon dioxide in the water to form organic molecules, and a cross section of the vents shows a labyrinth of compartments that could have concentrated the organic molecules to become precursors of RNA, the primordial relative of DNA. After examining the origins of DNA, Lane tackles photosynthesis, the process by which sunlight powers reactions to strip electrons from water and install them into carbon dioxide, producing oxygen and energy-rich sugars. The chloroplast, the organelle in which photosynthesis takes place, evolved only one time, and from that start, now every green plant and alga has them. Why do we have sex? You may form your own ribald answer to the question, but it has been a real puzzle to biologists. After all, if a successful creature could just clone itself asexually, the success could not but continue. There are costs to sex, from the effort expended to finding a mate to the transmission of venereal diseases. There are plenty of possible explanations, and computer-driven mathematics behind them, about which Lane says, "... although it's a messy solution from a mathematical point of view, nature can be as messy as she likes." Lane goes on to discuss movement; initial life forms didn't power themselves, but the ability to do so was a huge advantage. The contraction of muscle depends on an intricate and coordinated pull of molecules like actin, and the actin in your muscles is almost exactly the same as the actin within immobile yeast cells; it forms the cytoskeleton in such cells, the foundation for movement of intracellular stuff, and evolution has borrowed it to make muscular movement. The closest Lane comes to concentrating on morphology rather than biochemistry is his chapter on vision, but even here he tells about the visual pigment rhodopsin, which evolved just once long ago and is the photoreceptor common to every creature that sees. Hot-bloodedness, or simply the ability metabolically to provide a stable temperature, is the next invention on the list. It gives us an advantage when weather changes, and it gives us stamina, and also allows big brains. Big brains in humans (let's not quibble about other animals) produce the next subject, consciousness. We have a single integrated perception from all sorts of input; take a look around you, for instance, and it seems as if you are looking at one scene, but there are two different scenes, one from each eye. This stereo vision is integration is of the simplest form; the higher issue of how feelings, which are just neurons firing, feel so real is full of paradoxes. And finally Lane winds up with, well, finality: death. Simple cells split and multiply, but all the complicated creatures die. Why on earth would we have genes that program senescence and death?

There are wonderful explanations here, and even better questions. In each chapter, Lane has shown some of the history of scientific effort to come to understanding. "...science has a unique power to settle scores through experiment and observation, through tests in reality, and the countless details give rise to something bigger, just as, with the right distance, innumerable pixels paint a compelling picture." It is just the sort of picture made by the unity of the chapters in this compelling book.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2011
Update 2015. I upped the rating to 4 stars from 3.
I reread the book again, after reading many more books on microbiology and biology.
I enjoyed it more the 2nd time through, as I was better able to appreciate what the author was getting at.

If you don't have much of a biology background you may pick up on the significance of how these things evolved.

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The material in the book is incredible. Its fascinating, broad, and deep, and better than other books. The author introduces one idea after the next, and takes the reader step by step through a problem or process, explaining the consequences along the way. Even reading one chapter will give you a lot to think about.

The big problem I have with the book is its not well organized. Its disjointed, and rambling, and some important things are not explained well. If you are a Bio-Chemist or have an advanced degree in Biology you may not mind, and then this book is a 5 star book for you.

If you have a general science background, or are just interested in the subject, you will probably have a hard time absorbing more than a fraction of the material. I was looking at a couple of other similar books, and this one is so much better, its a shame it wasn't edited better. I much prefered the first half to the second

This may be the best book I've read that ulimately failed, because the ideas were not explained well.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2011
This an amazing book, but I really had a difficult time with much of the material.

I took all the science classes I could in high school. I took organic chemistry, biology and zoology in college, and I really do love to read any good book on any aspect of science.

When I started this, I was intrigued and fascinated, but even the first chapter soon devolved into excruciating detail that probably only a post-doctoral student could understand.

The author seems fond of run-on sentences, and in fact, even run-on paragraphs.

I was sad to have to quit the first chapter about half way through, after flipping page after page of obtuse minutiae that added little to the reasoning.

In fact, the first three chapters all had this fault. I almost gave up on the book, but by the time I staggered into the fourth chapter, "The Complex Cell," it really became fascinating. Even here, however, well into it I lost him completely with details too obtuse for me to understand, or care about. The only other chapters that I really enjoyed were the ones on Sight and Death, but only the fist third of them were understandable.

This is an odd mix of science for the amateur and a stolid textbook discussion for the professional.

If Stephen Hawking can write fascinating and understandable books on the cosmos, it should be possible to do likewise on the subject of evolution. Even Darwin's "Origin of Species" is far more lucid and readable.

Many parts of this book deserve five stars, others only one or two.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I picked up this book based on the recommendation of the Royal Society (Best science book of 2009). Absolutely full of interesting tidbits and little-known facts pertaining to the evolution of life, from bacteria to humans, LIFE ASCENDING is sure to please the curious and will provide many impressive conversation pieces. It is a great resource for those wishing to expand their knowledge on the fascinating topic of evolution, and science junkies will devour it in no time. A word of caution, however, for those not already familiar with the rudimentaries of evolution, genetics, and molecular biology: Nick Lane jumps right in with some complicated concepts that will leave some readers behind. I wouldn't recommend this book to those without a good foundation in these topics.

The book, while broken up into 10 critical (according to Lane) evolutionary "inventions", is compiled in a way to tell a complete and continuous tale about how life as we know it has come to be. From the beginnings of life in theoretical deep-ocean vents to the scientific view of how and why consciousness arose, this book covers a broad spectrum of topics that together spell out an incredible multi-billion-year journey that continues to this day. Parts of the book, especially the first and last couple of chapters, deal with some fairly speculative ideas, but Lane does a wonderful job of meshing the prevailing hypotheses and evidence into plausible (usually convincing) scenarios that come close to explaining some of the most complicated questions humans have dared ask ourselves.

To me, the first few chapters (Origin of Life, DNA, Photosynthesis, and Complex Cells) were a bit dry, while informative, reminding me of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry classes from my graduate-school days. This part of the book was longer than it needed to be and yet simplified things a bit too much, making it seem almost easy for such insanely complicated mechanisms and reactions to arise. To me, cramming something that baffles the mind into a falsely-understandable box runs counter to Lane's intentions, and was disappointing in this book. The next four chapters (Sex, Movement, Sight, and Hot Blood) were much better in my opinion, explaining the importance of each topic, then detailing how and why life would evolve them. Plausible, interesting, and well-founded in current research, this portion of the book was more like what I had expected out of the entirety. The last two chapters, however, were easily my favorite. Examining Consciousness and Death in light of evolution is something that I had not before considered, and Nick Lane's efforts here were absolutely magnificent. Full of speculation by necessity (we still know little about why these phenomenons evolved), these chapters discussed some of the most interesting and important topics in current biology. It is this kind of grand explorations and unanswered questions that inspire new scientists, and it was these chapters that brought my ranking up to a perfect 5-stars.

I highly recommend this book to those with an understanding of evolution and a good foundation in genetics. A very well-written and fascinating history.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2010
The first four chapters are the greatest. They explain and convince the reader how elementary chemical reactions under very special circumstances can lead to self-perpetuating entities. In other words, it was somehow just the case that our planet earth was conducive to the development of things like the Kreb cycle, RNA and DNA. As Lane marvels, "We are lucky to be here at all" (p. 117)

The middle chapters ("Movement", "Sight", "Hot Blood") are a bit different from the earlier chapters. They are more about physiology than biochemistry but still highly interesting and relevant. They are not as chronological as the previous chapters.

I am however a bit diasppointed by the chapter on consciousness. Being a medical specialist myself, I easily spotted some minor inaccuracies on some medical conditions (p.240). These by no means are vital. More crucially I don't think this chapter is totally appropriate to be in the book to start with. Lane himself says that regarding the question of consciousness, "at present we can barely conceive of how the answer might look" (p.234). So the whole chapter is filled with a lot of speculations which is very different from the rest of the book. It will be fitter to replace it with a chapter on the brain instead.

Likewise, the topic of the last chapter is also puzzling. Whilst death may be inevitable due to the nature of life itself, I would not rank it as one of the "great inventions of evolution".

So overall, despite the last two chapters, I still give it five stars. I have learned a lot and enjoyed it deeply.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2009
I picked up my first book by Nick Lane, Power, Sex and Suicide, because I thought someone had mis-shelved a book on politics in the biology section. I was fascinated and challenged by the details, amazed at some of the discoveries over the last few years, and determined to check out some of the references. I immediately asked my local library to get Life Ascending for me.

You may not agree with his choice of the 10 most important steps/events, but Nick Lane always does a fantastic job of describing, detailing, explaining, and educating in a style that is still highly readable. He doesn't assume his readers are dummies, but still provides an excellent explanation for sections of material you may not be familiar with, and plenty of references to fill in any gaps in your knowledge.

I've asked my high school librarian to order a copy of this book - our science and biology classes start dealing with evolution in year 10, and go into details of DNA replication, and mechanisms for evolution,
in years 12 and 13. This book is easily understandable by our seniors because of the good explanations,
and would extend and update their knowledge since high school curricula and texts rarely manage to keep so up to date as this work.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 2010
"Life Ascending" by Dr. Nick Lane is a fascinating adventure. I would not recommend it to you as your first book on evolution and probably not as your second or third. However, if you have read enough to somewhat appreciate the role of DNA and genes in evolutionary science, then you will find this book very worth reading. The author is a biochemist and he looks at evolution through a biochemist's eyes. He stops short of introducing structural formulas of organic compounds and focuses more on describing in words, the effects of these chemicals on life processes. In other words, he writes in a popular prose to keep a wider audience interested. Being a chemist myself, but never having taken biochemistry in college, I would have liked to have seen what some of those molecules looked like.

Dr. Lane can reach farther back in time than any author who I have ever read. All living things have a common origin if you go back far enough in time. I never imagined that common traits go so far back as this author has identified. Multi-celled life may have evolved less than one billion years ago. Yet, our origins go back much farther than that. The first chapter entitled,"The Origin of Life" takes you back to the very beginning of life on this planet. He discusses the theories, which have come and gone. He identifies their strengths and weaknesses. Finally, he introduces the theory which he believes is most likely to be true. He delivers a convincing argument for it. The remaining chapters examine: DNA, Photosynthesis, The Complex Cell, Sex, Movement, Sight, Hot Blood, Consciousness, and Death. Each chapter examines the history of research on these topics, evaluates the prevailing theories and finally presents the reader with his favorite and sometimes personal explanation for how evolution worked its magic.

I enjoyed this book immensely! I had previously done a lot of reading on evolutionary topics and wondered if I would be rehashing the same old concepts. I didn't need to worry about that with Dr. Lane. He took me to places I had never been before and made the trip very stimulating.

Ralph D. Hermansen, September 30, 2010
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