Book (P)review #1: Life Ascending, The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

By Carl Zimmer | June 24, 2009 9:54 am

life-ascending-cover440.jpgLast month, I asked you how to handle the ever-growing pile of science books I receive (before I donate most of them to the library, of course). A plurality of you voted in favor of frequent thumbnail descriptions, rather than alternatives like the less frequent all-out review. That’s a relief, because that was my own preference. So let me pull off the top book from the pile,  Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane.

The reason it’s on the top is that it happened to be very useful to me right now with an article I’m working on (more on that next month). Lane has selected a handful of key features of the natural world, from DNA to sex to warm-bloodedness to consciousness, and has written a chapter about each, explaining what we understand about it and how it evolved. The list is, as Lane himself admits, a bit arbitrary, and on first inspection it may give off a whiff of Scala Naturae, arranging life on a ladder from lower to higher. But once you delve into Lane’s writing, those minor qualms will evaporate. Lane, the author of two previous books about biology, writes about tricky topics like the chemistry of photosynthesis with grace and ease. On the topics I’m familiar with, I can vouch that he has picked good studies to showcase. Lane is also a scientist himself, and he not only reports on the latest research on each topic but also sometimes steps in with intriguing ideas of his own.

As with future posts of this ilk, this is not a full-blown book review. Call it a book (p)review: a heads-up about a book that has grabbed my attention. While I started reading Life Ascending for work, I look forward to finishing it for my own enjoyment.


Comments (10)

  1. Alex

    Great timing. Just this week I finished Nick Lane’s Power. Sex, Suicide. I really liked his writing style and the main idea (how mitochondria are key drivers of complex life) struck me as being wonderfully holistic, something that’s missing all too often from most of the biology I spend my days reading. Looking forward to seeing this one.

    Also, if anyone’s in London next week, Lane’s giving a talk this coming Monday at UCL.

  2. Argh. I started reading this one because the evolution of these novel processes interest me. But I find the the overly colorful analogies and anthropomorphisms distracting and annoying. Please don’t tell me C and H are just too shy to react, and need a drink or two before they’ll form a randy threesome with O to make glucose. He spends all his time drawing lewd cartoons instead of describing the physical and chemical properties that govern the reaction. I want science, not sitcoms. But it seems common that popular scientific literature overly simplifies and dumb-down the material, the only alternative being a dry, heavy text books. Books like Microcosm that manage to avoided both pit falls are rare.

  3. Unfortunately, dumbed down books sell. There seems to be a ready-made market for books that don’t make people think too much.

  4. Gary


    My 15 year old daughter is taking AP Bio this Fall. I’d like her to read a book on evolution this Summer as preparation, both because her grasp of it is not good and to give her an intellectual foundation for the concepts that she will encounter. What are your thoughts on an approachable, readable primer that I can give to her to read that won’t have her moaning to me for the month of July because its too hard, unreadable, boring, all of the above?

  5. Aatish

    How about Evolution, by Carl Zimmer. I’m told it’s an excellent book.

  6. Keith

    Heres two more:
    ‘Why Evolution is True’ By Jerry Coyne
    ‘Your Inner Fish’ By Neil Shubin

  7. Gary, I recommend About Life, by Agutter and Wheatley. The book is about 200 pages, and it was written at a level that should be accessible to your daughter. It’s an excellent primer to the modern understanding of how life works. IMO, evolution is in itself a pretty simple concept, and your daughter could probably understand it just from her Bio class. However, if she wants a leg up going into AP Bio, reading About Life will give her an introduction into most of the major concepts she’ll be covering. She’ll still have a lot of memorization to do in school, but the concepts shouldn’t be a problem.

    I thought Shubin’s Your Inner Fish was excellent, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to someone who hasn’t had high school biology yet. Same with Microcosm – great read, learned a lot about evolution and genetics, but written for someone who already knows a bit about DNA and chromosomes. Reading About Life helped me get through both of those.

  8. Greg Peterson

    Jackal, I suppose what you are complaining about is precisely what I liked about this book so much. I didn’t think he overused those little splashes of color and humor. And I’m not insensitive to such things, having despised “The Canon” for, in my mind, way, way overdoing the cleverness. It’s exhausting reading a book in which ever paragraph has to have some witty gimmick in it. (Having said that, Natalie Angier’s columns and essays are a complete delight for highlighting exactly the same kind of writing…I just don’t think it’s sustainable over many, many pages.)

    I think this is a terrific book written at the popular level, and for people like me who know a fair amount of biology from personal study, but were not biology majors, it fits a real need. I can well imagine that a real scientist might find it irritating, but trust me when I say that for the rest of us to get on board with current ideas in evolution, this is precisely the type of book we need. I saw mentions of “Your Inner Fish” and “Why Evolution is True,” too, and along with “Only a Theory” and of course one of my all-time favorites, “At the Water’s Edge,” this is just the sort of literature required to help people who “believe in” evolution understand what it is they mean when they say that.

    I just got “Power, Sex, Suicide” on the strength of how much I appreciated “Ascending,” and I haven’t gotten past the first chapter yet, but it strikes me that I might have gotten the same book twice. It seems to cover a lot of the same ground, but with a particular focus on just the mitochondria. Ah well. It’s not like I’m getting bored with the topic.

    One more thing: I think this book helps round out one particular aspect of our understanding of evolution, and that’s biochemistry. Sean Carroll has dipped into this area, and other writers have made references to it, but along with evo-devo, it’s not a topic within evolutionary biology that has been very well explored in popular books yet, I think. Perhaps a better book is coming someday, but for the time being, I find “Ascending” to have real advantages for folks who wish to move beyond fossils and basic genomics.

  9. johnk

    Started reading “Life Ascending” last night.

    I’m a neuroscientist and I’m interested in “consciousness” so I started with the last chapter. A very difficult subject, and Nick Lane in my mind makes a good effort, but fails. To begin with, he doesn’t address a critical evolutionary issue: what is the value of consciousness? Nor does he deal with it in an evolutionary perspective. He covers a lot of territory, and gives due to a number of consciousness theories, but doesn’t come up with satisfying answers or speculation. He ends with a “feeling” theory — from Damasio, I think. If consciousness is mainly about having inner feelings (although I don’t think it is), what’s the survival value? I do agree strongly on one point: consciousness is a difficult subject, in part, because the people who write about consciousness don’t refer much to each other or other theories.

    I found the first few chapters much more difficult. I also missed discussion on the evolutionary importance of the cell membrane.

    Can’t decide whether I like the style or not.

  10. Greg Peterson

    You know, if I were to grade this book on providing answers, I’d probably have to give it some low marks. But in fairness, Lane is taking on some of the very most difficult questions in biology…hell, in all of science. It doesn’t get much tougher than the origins of life and consciousness. That wouldn’t excuse sloppy thinking or half-baked fantasies or anything, but I don’t feel like that’s what Lane gives us. I think he gives us some plausible pathways for further thinking on some real brainbusters. I guess what I mean is, I’m not sure the extent to which I missed answers and speculation because I was focused primarily on having a new way even to think about the problems. But johnk, you do raise an interesting criticism and I think it’s well-given.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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