Saturday, March 31, 2012

Life Ascending

Life Ascending: the Ten Great Inventions of Evolution
© 2009 Nick Lane
344 pages

For my money, few subjects are as impressive, beautiful, and awe-inspiring as biology and evolution. Is there a greater drama in the cosmos outside the long play of life, its actors emerging epoch by epoch -- many vanishing into the darkness once more, but not before leaving their mark upon those that follow them? The thought that the immense and varied mass of life on this earth, so rich as to beggar description, is ultimately unified by common ancestry still staggers me. Earth's history of life is a parade of 'endless forms most beautiful', and in Life Ascending Nick Lane revisits some of the most pivotal moments in evolution history: the origin of life, the development of DNA, and the rises of photosynthesis, complex cells, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death.

Though I've never heard of Lane, he apparently has a strong following in Britain. I can certainly see why. He is easily one of the clearest science communicators I've read, using lively examples to illustrate key points, like describing the two different kinds of chlorophyll (both vital parts of photosynthesis) as a grasping miser and a street hustler. One forces water to surrender an electron; the other forces carbon dioxide to accept the same. Lane's specialty is biochemistry, so he is strongest early on when writing on DNA and photosynthesis; his treatment of topics like consciousness is comparatively lighter, but still raises up interesting questions, and I appreciate an author far more for acknowledging his limitations than attempting to sound authoritative in spite of them. In any given chapter, Lane first explains the significance of a key invention, and then -- as current scientific knowledge allows -- delves into how it functions and its origins.  He does not necessarily devote equal time to all three sections; in the chapter on movement, for instance, he wastes little time explaining why being able to move is an asset, choosing to devote most of the chapter on how muscles function. Later on, when writing on consciousness, Lane concerns himself with the meaning of consciousness rather than the cause of it, which we don't fully understand. Lane is thorough in explaining how we came to our current understanding, often working through rival theories before arriving that which currently prevails, or is the most accurate in his view. What I appreciate most about Lane is his ability to break down a topic into its most basic parts, allowing lay readers to arrive at a basic understanding of the subject at hand without being overwhelmed by information -- but he's not so general as to leave us ignorant of the actual facts, beyond generalities that we can't explain. The weakest section of the book is that of death: Lane doesn't explain why it is a wonderful invention. He mentions that it is tied to sex, and is thus tangentially important for that reason, but the bulk of the chapter is written on our attempts to find out why we age, with an eye for 'curing' it. He doesn't mention the role that death plays in evolution, which is a curious omission.

The highest praise I can give Lane is that he takes me back to 2006, when I was just starting to realize how incredibly wonderful and interesting science could be. A keeper, certainly, and one to revisit in the future and enjoy again.

"Be Mine" (Creation, the Universe, and the Evolution of Life set to a Funky Beat). This is a YouTube song about the history of the universe that ends with an unexpected proposal;  the history of life section actually follows this book in part.

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