Reviewed: ‘Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution’ by Nick Lane
In October 2010, the Royal Society Prize for Science Books went to Nick Lane for his book ‘Life Ascending’, so it only seemed appropriate to give it a read and see what all the fuss was about. Thankfully it won’t be the last book prize the Royal Society will award, which looked likely to be the case until recently, since Winton Capital Management have signed a 5 year sponsorship deal giving birth to the mouthfilling Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Excellent.
With such high acclaim I approached Life Ascending with some enthusiasm, which was rapidly deflated when I found out Nick Lane is a biochemist – a field that has never exactly grabbed my imagination. But it is testament to Lane’s skill as a writer that he managed to keep me not just engaged but enthralled while explaining some of the finer points of biomolecular processes. However the book is more than just biochemistry, it is a run-down (or rather run-up) of 10 inventions of evolution that have had the greatest impact on the world, ranging from conditions in which the first proteins and genetic molecules were formed right up to consciousness and, surprisingly, death.
Of course, such a sweeping tour of the history of life on earth covers huge swathes of scientific topics, each with their own history, points of debate and unsolved mysteries, and Lane guides the reader through with what he personally regards as the most plausible theories. In doing so, he fills you in with lots of interesting backstories, eccentric scientists and industry quips (like “the second law of Leslie Orgel: Evolution is cleverer than you are”). For fear of getting lost in the details and asides the reader is often brought back to the big questions, such as why life only arose once from the common ancestor of all living things, or the evolutionary logic behind death. I think this is the greatest strength of the book: the mixture of light asides, big questions and fascinating details all held together in a logical structure that equally entertains and informs.
Lane receives a lot of praise for the elegance of his writing, and it is certainly displayed in passages like the description of the “futuristic cityscape” of the inner workings of a cell from the point of view of a single biomolecule. It is in the more biochemical chapters that you feel Lane is at home and enjoyably in command. While the later chapters are still fascinating (I was blown away by how birds’ lungs work), they don’t quite have the sparkle or the argument of earlier chapters – consciousness in particular was more of a run-through than a narrative. Nonetheless, it is clear why Life Ascending was awarded the Royal Society prize: Nick Lane makes a fantastic tour guide through the wonders of evolution.
Next to be reviewed:
‘Trick or Treatment?’ by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst – the book that kicked off Simon Singh’s well publicized libel case. I’ll try and keep the defamation to a minimum…