- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (June 14, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393338665
- ISBN-13: 978-0393338669
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 113 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #213,479 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution Reprint Edition
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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.”
“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
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.
Top customer reviews
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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.