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Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of…
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Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution (2009)

by Nick Lane

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486832,152 (4.16)33
  1. 20
    The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins (SamMartinez)
    SamMartinez: Dawkins' book is the "macro" behind evolution, whereas Lane's book covers the "micro" of evolution. Dawkins' book is best read first, I think, because his work essentially creates an understanding of what evolution precisely is and how it works on the large scale, and Lane's book explains how the mechanisms of evolution as laid out by Dawkins work on the micro. These two books balance each other out.… (more)
  2. 10
    At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea by Carl Zimmer (davesmind)
  3. 00
    Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins by Robert Hazen (davesmind)
  4. 00
    Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth by Richard A. Fortey (davesmind)
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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Really well written and although it deals with some fairly complex - for me - concepts and theories, it all hung together. It is also quite chatty in style with some gossipy bits about the scientists involved in the research.The books chapters worked for me - starts with smallest units of life , the cell and finishes with a chapter on the evolutionary importance of death. Whilst there is a little politics hidden away its not a blatant all out attack on creationists or anyone else and that did make a refreshing change from Richard Dawkins [b:The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution|6117055|The Greatest Show on Earth The Evidence for Evolution|Richard Dawkins|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1302127919s/6117055.jpg|6295163]continuous digs at ways of thinking other than his own. Possibly my top non-fiction book this year. ( )
  HenryRawlingson | Jul 1, 2019 |
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 ( )
This review has been flagged by multiple users as abuse of the terms of service and is no longer displayed (show).
  MarkBeronte | Mar 4, 2014 |
I am very impressed with this book. Nick Lane has taken what he calls "ten great inventions of evolution" and given some well argued narratives of how it all happened.
Shows some of the interesting linkages in muscle fibres which seem to run through all life. He has also a nicely argued story about the origins of life itself in the white smokers on the ocean floors.

A nice juxtaposition of scientific fact and plausible speculation. Well argued. At times a bit hard going but worth persevering.
  Rozella | Aug 20, 2012 |
This is a fascinating account of ten crucial developments of evolution, from the perspective of a biochemist, beginning with the origin of life and ending with death. It is information dense but chatty, nicely organized with a succinct 25 or so pages per chapter. I can't really do justice in a review. A decent summary would occupy pages, and I'd need to reread and research to be sure I got it right. Don't let this deter you. My background is possibly at the level of biology 101, awhile ago, and the explanations were perfectly coherent. It is not necessary to grasp and remember every biochemical detail; it is enough to realize that micro biochemical reactions and changes underlie macro features of organisms. Each of the ten developments, including some that would appear to be oddly out of place, such as consciousness, is traced back to molecules that appeared early in evolution. Alas, one criticism, my frequent complaint: Oh why why why don't books include more diagrams?

Because the origin of life is, well, completely cool, and because the first chapter is about disequilibrium at the interface between hydrothermal vents and the ocean, a Wikipedia link, with diagrams: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrothermal_vent.

An excerpt:
"Thermodynamics is one of those words best avoided in a book with any pretense to be popular, but it's more engaging if seen for what it is: the science of 'desire'. The existence of atoms and molecules is dominated by 'attractions', 'repulsions', 'wants' and 'discharges', to the point that it becomes virtually impossible to write about chemisty without giving in to some sort of randy anthopomorphism. Molecules 'want' to lose or gain electrons; attract opposite charges; repulse similar charges; or cohabit with molecules of similar character. A chemical reaction happens spontaneously if all the molecular partners desire to participate; or they can be pressed to react unwillingly through greater force. And of course some molecules want to react but find it hard to overcome their innate shyness. A little flirtation might prompt a massive release of lust, a discharge of pure energy. But perhaps I should stop there. My point is that thermodynamics makes the world go round."

(read 27 Nov 2011)
1 vote qebo | Jan 1, 2012 |
The entire premise of Life Ascending is that Lane lists the ten most important evolutionary developments that have shaped life on Earth into what it is now - evolution's "inventions," as the title implies, though Lane is careful to define how he uses the word "invention" in his Introduction, lest the reader make the mistake of assuming that there is a higher power driving evolution. Lane tries to ensure that his book steers well clear of the concept of Intelligent Design, which he opposes, though not as vociferously as Dawkins.

At any rate, Lane lists the following as the ten greatest inventions of evolution: life itself (obviously), DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death. Each one has a chapter of its own, wherein Lane explains in-depth why he believes that the subject in question might be considered one of the ten greatest inventions of evolution, and the chapters are arranged so that the previous chapter leads up to the next, and builds upon the previous one. Since Lane is a biochemist, his views on evolution come from a biochemical perspective, but he expands upon that by including insights drawn from geology, paleontology, physics, medicine and psychology - a good thing, since even he admits that he is not an expert in everything, but that does not mean he can't expand on his knowledge by drawing upon other sources. Lane also utilizes illustrations - a great help, particularly for someone who might get lost in the technical terms he employs (like me).

The result is an interesting survey of what does appear to be the ten most important things to have come out of evolution, very different from Dawkins's book, but not in a bad way. In fact, Life Ascending builds on what Dawkins wrote about, focusing instead on the biochemical side of things. This is a very enlightening way of looking at evolution. By trying to understand the core biochemical processes that lie at the heart of evolution, Lane offers an interesting perspective: the "micro" supporting the "macro" of evolutionary processes.

Although the first chapters are interesting in their own way - not to mention they form the basis for the other chapters - it is the later chapters that may prove the most interesting to readers. I found the last four chapters - Sight, Hot Blood, Consciousness, and Death - to be more interesting than the ones before them, even the chapter on Sex. Not to say that the other chapters aren't interesting, but these chapters contained information that kept me thoroughly fascinated.

For example, the chapter on Sight not only explained the evolution of sight and the organ that allows it to happen in the first place, but it revealed an interesting fact regarding how humans see color - or imagine they see it. Apparently, red is an imaginary color, because it is the result of two different signals from two kinds of cone cell in the eyes. One of these cells "sees" green, and the other "sees" in the yellowish-green scale. That's right: the eye has no specialized cone cell that "sees" only red. To "see" red, the brain receives no signal from the green cone, but a fading signal from the yellowish-green one. This registers to us as the color red. Lane states (in one of the endnotes) that this is the power of the imagination at work, that the brain is capable of seeing a color that, scientifically speaking, really isn't there.

The chapter Hot Blood was equally fascinating because it focused on a question that has intrigued me since I was young: were the dinosaurs hot-blooded, or cold-blooded? Of course, Lane problematizes the terms "hot-blooded" and "cold-blooded" based on the terminology preferred (or not preferred) by scientists, but that's besides the point. That it dealt with dinosaurs in the first place was enough to keep me reading. Well, the question of hot or cold blood was interesting too, but still: dinosaurs. He also addresses the question of whether or not birds are the direct evolutionary descendants of dinosaurs, which is another question that has interested me since I learned of the theory years ago.

The chapters Consciousness and Death will, I am sure, raise the most questions and cause the most introspection in readers. These are two topics that are usually reserved for literature, philosophy and religion. People tend to get uncomfortable when science gets near them. But Lane dares to approach them with a scientific mind, and while his discussion of consciousness being the result of evolution still raises more questions than it answers, his discussion of death offers one very large and potentially controversial bomb regarding the question of human immortality - or at least, extending the human lifespan beyond current extremes.

Now, as interesting as this book is, it does have its problems. My biggest issue is with the jargon. Life Ascending is not a fast read, unless one is already familiar with biochemistry and hence can get around the jargon with ease. To be sure, Lane is a pretty good writer, and he does try to make his material as friendly and approachable to the average reader as possible, but there is simply no getting around the technical stuff. Lane tries his best by explaining difficult terms in layman's language, and the book does have quite a few illustrations and photographs, which do help with understanding, but it takes a while to actually digest everything.

The first chapters, in particular, can be difficult to wrap one's head around. I had to take my time with the chapter Origin of Life, which proved to be a bit of a hurdle given all the large concepts that Lane was throwing my way while I was reading it. Again, this isn't to say that Lane's a bad writer; he's a pretty good one (albeit not as lucid as Dawkins). It's just that the concepts he's trying to get the reader to understand aren't all that "average" to begin with, so the average reader has to go slow, or risk missing something important.

Despite that issue, though, I still think Life Ascending is a great book, taking a look at topics and ideas, controversial or otherwise, in an attempt to explain just which mechanisms and processes allowed - and still allow - life to flourish on this lovely blue marble we call home. I do recommend, though, that the reader get a copy of Dawkins's The Greatest Show on Earth, and reading that one first, to help gain a proper understanding of what just evolution is in the first place. Life Ascending is a step up in the "reading skills" department, as it were, and it will read somewhat more smoothly if The Greatest Show on Earth is read first.
4 vote SamMartinez | May 6, 2011 |
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For my mother and father | Now I am a parent I appreciate all you have done for me more than ever.
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Set against the consuming blackness of space, the earth is a beguiling blue-green ball.
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The Origin of Life
Night followed day in quick succession. On earth at that time a day lasted for only five or six hours. The planet spun madly on its axis. The moon hung heavy and threatening in the sky, far closer, and so looking so much bigger, than today. Stars rarely shone, for the atmosphere was full of smog and dust, but spectacular shooting stars regularly threaded the night sky. The sun, when it could be seen at all through the dull red smog, was watery and weak, lacking the vigor of its prime. Humans could not survive here. Our eyes would not bulge and burst, as they may on Mars; but our lungs could find no breath of oxygen. We'd fight for a desperate minute, and asphyxiate.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393338665, Paperback)

“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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:41 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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W.W. Norton

2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393065960, 0393338665

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