Friday, 3 February 2012

Life Ascending by Nick Lane

Winner of the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, 2010

The subtitle of this book is "The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution" and that's what it's about. But which are the ten things Nick Lane chooses? There's always going to be some room for disagreement about the list, but the ones covered in the book are hard to argue against: the origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, death.
Each theme is a chapter in its own right, and could be read independently of the rest, if you wanted. You might read the list and imagine how the subject would be covered—after all, there have been plenty of other books published that seem to cover this kind of ground. But you would probably be wrong. The book takes a fresh approach to the material, seen in the light of the breath-taking advances in biology over recent years. Nick Lane is a biochemist, working at University College London on the role of bioenergetics in the origin and evolution of complex life. His biochemical take on life shines through the book. You may think this is off-putting. It’s not. Let me explain…

When I was young, an undergraduate sitting through biochemistry classes, I could hardly imagine anything more boring than biochemistry. My professors would get us to learn, parrot-fashion, the Krebs Cycle (and the others) and the serial dilutions in the labs drove me to sensory deprivation in a bathtub, complete with white noise and ping-pong ball halves over the eyes. Really! So, I’ve never been a big fan of biochemistry. So, believe me when I say that the biochemical angle of this book is what makes it truly brilliant. I loved it, and I think you will too.

Basically, it’s the biochemistry that helps to bring everything together and show how these amazing aspects of life evolved. I particularly liked the chapters on photosynthesis (and how it manages to be so efficient), sight (the eye evolved just once, and you’ll be surprised to discover the organism involved), hot blood (why bother?) and death (not as depressing as you might think). The chapter on consciousness was the least convincing for me. There is an obvious reason for this: it’s the one we know least about and so there is much more speculation here. But I can understand why it’s on the list and why we need to be exploring the issues covered.

The book is very well-written, and the writer knows his stuff. It’s great to be led by someone with Nick Lane’s talents. On the other hand, sometimes the ideas are a bit demanding. It will help to be a biologist at university, because you’ll have more familiarity with some of the terms than the general public. But, brain in gear, you will get so much out of this book, that a bit of effort will be repaid many times over. Who knows, you might even have to admit to a grudging respect for biochemistry after all! Even if you don’t you will marvel at the beauty and adaptability of evolution—and how life on Earth got to be where it is now.

By the way, if you liked this book, you might want to try another of Nick Lane's masterpieces: "Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life". I'll try to persuade John Moody to put a review of that book on this site. 

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