Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution – Nick Lane
January 20, 2010 § 10 Comments
The quest for the origin of life is not an attempt to reconstruct what happened at 6.30 a.m. on Thursday morning in the year 3,851 million BC, but for the general rules that must govern the emergence of any life, anywhere in the universe, and especially on our planet, the only example we know.
I had been putting off reading this book because of two reasons: 1, because I had wanted to read Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, the mother of all evolution theories and books, before reading this one. And 2, because it looked like an intimidating book.
Well. Turns out I didn’t manage to finish Darwin’s book. But instead of pushing Lane’s book aside, I thought I might give it a try. And I’ve come to the conclusion that just because the book looks intimidating, does not necessarily mean the writing is.
I. Loved. This. Book.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but when I was in high school, I did both Chemistry and Biology, up to A-Level equivalent (not sure what it’s sister qualification is in the US..). And I really really enjoyed my classes then. I was one of the few in class to take notes as our teacher was saying something, and I had at least 2 reference books for each of those subjects. So yes, I was passionate about my lessons.
And then I went on to do architecture. Which, needless to say, has absolutely nothing to do with Chemistry or Biology.
Reading this book though, had me excited right from the beginning. It felt like I had fallen asleep for a long time, and now I’m waking up to some familiar things (like DNA and genes, my pet subject), and to some very amazing developments (some of which of course were already discovered when I was still studying Chem and Bio, only we never did go in depth).
I realise I’m rambling. But that’s how the book made me feel. The writing was never dry, and I think Lane quite succeeded in writing a book that didn’t sound too science-y. He used everyday analogies to explain some very complicated processes, which I found quite entertaining. There were some times when I felt he went a little over-the-top in trying to joke about something, but nevertheless, the effect was there. The book was both entertaining and informative.
One thing I loved about Lane’s writing, is that he doesn’t push you to a corner. I’ve tried reading Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion, and though I’m not religious as such, I did feel that Dawkins was quite harsh. None of that here.
So wait. What are the 10 great inventions?
First, of course, would be the origin of life. How did life ever start on earth? What were the circumstances that allowed for that to happen? We’re already so far ahead in time from when life was said to have first started, so then how do we go about determining the means in which the first cells developed?
From there we go into DNA, the building blocks of life. Genetics. DNA is built from proteins, proteins built from DNA. How is this chicken-and-egg cycle broken?
Then we get photosynthesis, the mechanism that is existent only in plants, and that create the food and energy we need to survive. From where does chlorophyll come from? How did such a complex mechanism, one that involves the breaking down of the water molecule (one of the most stable elements in the world), ever evolve? And why do only plants have them, and not animals?
What about the complex cell? The cell that is so different from the bacteria. Why did we develop cells that have a nucleus? How did we gain the mitochondria, the energy generator?
Why do we have sex? Why, when it’s easier for the plants to just clone themselves since they’re rooted in place, do they insist on pollination via insects and birds?
Then there is movement, which is muscle development. Sight, which talks about how we might have gained the eye, which has been argued to be so perfect that it most certainly cannot be a product of evolution and natural selection.
Discussions on hot blood, consciousness and death end the book. I say ‘discussion’ here, because Lane openly admits that science has not yet found a satisfactory answer as to how these developed. And that’s sort of what I feel is the magic of science. Science is such a dynamic subject, it moves along with every new experiment, every new discovery, every new hypothesis.
Do I believe in all the theories that were presented in this book? I don’t know. For me, it was more like discovering that there are so many schools of thought, so many things we don’t know, and to be adamant about one way of thinking is to deprive myself of all the other possibilities out there.
Lane ends his book well.
It is a most wonderful thing to share so much with the life around us on this blue-green marble, floating through the bleak infinity of space. There is more than grandeur in this view of life. There is fallibility and majesty, and the best human eagerness to know.