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Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution [Paperback]

Nick Lane
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 Jan 2010

Powerful new research methods are providing fresh and vivid insights into the makeup of life. Comparing gene sequences, examining the atomic structure of proteins and looking into the geochemistry of rocks have all helped to explain creation and evolution in more detail than ever before. Nick Lane uses the full extent of this new knowledge to describe the ten greatest inventions of life, based on their historical impact, role in living organisms today and relevance to current controversies. DNA, sex, sight and consciousnesses are just four examples.

Lane also explains how these findings have come about, and the extent to which they can be relied upon. The result is a gripping and lucid account of the ingenuity of nature, and a book which is essential reading for anyone who has ever questioned the science behind the glories of everyday life.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (7 Jan 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1861978189
  • ISBN-13: 978-1861978189
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 15,588 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nick Lane is a biochemist and writer. He is Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London. His research focuses on the role of bioenergetics in the origin of life and the evolution of cells. Nick was awarded the first UCL Provost's Venture Research Prize in 2009 and will receive the 2015 Biochemical Society Award. He has published three critically acclaimed books, which have been translated into 20 languages. The latest, Life Ascending, won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. His books have been shortlisted for two other literary prizes and named a book of the year by the Economist, the Independent, the Times, the Sunday Times and New Scientist. He was described by Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek as "a writer who is not afraid to think big - and think hard." For more information, visit

Product Description


'Nick Lane is clear and concise in his writing, delivering concepts and ideas with ease and enthusiasm'
--How It Works

'This is a science book that doesn't cheat: the structure is logical, the writing is witty, and the hard questions are tackled head on' --Guardian

'The most coherent and convincing summary of the dawn of life and of DNA that I have ever read.' --Michael Le Page, New Scientist

'With clarity and vigor Lane smoothly pulls in evidence from genetics to show how complex life could have developed.' --New York Times

'The structure is logical, the writing is witty, and the hard questions are tackled head on.' --Tim Radford, Guardian

'Wonderful... Lane does a masterful job... an elegant, fully satisfying whole.' --Starred Review, Publishers Weekly

'This is an exhilarating tour of some of the most profound and important ideas in biology.'
--New Scientist

'Lane brings science alive with the kind of beautiful prose that turns a book full of interesting information into a book you simply cannot put down.' --Amanda Gefter, New Scientist

'Life Ascending is a beautifully written and elegantly structured book that was a favourite with all of the judges.' -- Maggie Philbin, Chair of the Judges, Royal Society Prize for Science Books 2010

'Nick Lane is one of the most exciting science writers of our time.' --Steve Connor, Independent

'with vast scope, page-turning revelations and elegant prose' --Robert Matthews, Daily Telegraph

'an outstanding contribution to evolutionary writing' -- Independent

'Nick Lane employs a clarity of thought and an adroitness of expression' --Laboratory News


'If Charles Darwin sprang from his grave, I would give him this fine book to bring him up to speed. It's a breathless bulletin from the accelerating rush of news about the secrets of life on planet earth.' - Matt Ridley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
78 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bigger Picture 29 Jun 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I don't think it is an overstatement to say that every one of these ten chapters could be expanded to fill ten books! This book is therefore very fast moving, absolutely packed with information and bang up to date.

It is a tribute to the writing skills of the author, that the ten separate inventions follow from each other so smoothly and logically.

Particularly outstanding chapters included the subjects of DNA, photosynthesis, sight, hot blood and death. Here, the level of understanding conferred far exceeded the average poular science book.

A few of the chapters proved quite a challenge, notably the origin of life and conciousness. Whilst these subjects arguably deserve their status in the top ten, the difficulty is possibly that they are less well understood by the current status of science.

Overall, if you really want an inspiring, deeper understanding of the mechanics of evolution, I can't fault this book. If however you are fairly new to the subject, then Richard Dawkins classic "The Selfish Gene" still lays the foundations of understanding without dumbing down.

Some subjects really are more complex than a post-it note explanation, intellectual effort is required, but Life Ascending makes the quest both accessible and richly rewarding. An awesome read!
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rich dispatches from the frontier 31 Jan 2011
By Jason Mills VINE VOICE
This is a thrilling book. Lane picks 10 milestones in evolution and explores their biochemistry. These landmarks are: the origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness and death. He presents the problems, the research, the contending hypotheses and his careful conclusions, all in a depth of detail that flatters the reader's intellect (this reader's anyway!), yet remains eminently comprehensible throughout. The arguments and explanations are bang up to date and constantly surprising: it was a real delight to me that despite my reading any number of popular texts about evolution, there was still almost nothing here that I already knew!

The premise requires covering certain inevitable subjects, and so I approached the dull-sounding chapter on photosynthesis, for example, as a necessary evil: yet who could have expected that the molecular processes involved could be so exciting? Similarly, the unpromising topic of the mechanical operation of muscle fibres turns out to be fascinating. I found the chapter on consciousness comparatively weak, but it asks a lot for a biochemist to crack that one!

The book's apparatus includes illustrations, an annotated bibliography and extensive index. There are also endnotes: these contain commentary rather than citation, so are better read as one goes along (footnotes might have served the reader better).

This book passes my 'bus test': it made me want to get on the bus to work, so that I could continue reading it!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A bit of everything 26 Feb 2010
This book is well worth a read, as unlike many others in this field, the author discusses in detail, a variety of different topics. These topices range from basic cell structure, to muscles, sight, consciousness and death to name a few. For me, some chapters were fasinating (Consciousness)and not long enough, while a couple of others (muscles), were a bit on the long side. It is almost like ten different books in one, and if it were not for a couple of chapters, which I found repetitive, then it would be a definite 5 stars.
Having said that, if you are at all interested in the evolution of life, buy this book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I was excited about reading this book as I am interested in evolution, having read about the subject in Richard Dawkins' books. I also thought the idea of the 10 best "inventions" of evolution was very clever. I am curious to know how evolution could bring about, say, an eye, or the complex cell, and also why organisms that age and die should have evolved if natural selection is "choosing" those organisms that are better able to survive.

In reality I found the book to be overly technical - particularly the first 3 chapters (The Origin of Life, DNA and Photosynthesis). It seems that the author, who is clearly extremely knowledgeable of his subject, chose not to condense what is known about the subject into a simple idiot-proof, understandable explanation. Instead he has included a lot of technical detail and names of the scientists involved with the discovery of the corresponding theories. What I would have prefered, to be honest, is a layman explanation making use of analogies outside the field of biochemistry.

However, I did get something out of the following chapters: Sex, Consciousness & Death. I found these chapters (especially the latter two) to have slightly less technical detail and found them more readable than the rest of the book.

The author has a literary and thoughtful style and has clearly gone to great pains to make sure there are no errors in the book and I did not detect any typos at all (in the paperback edition).

In summary, I would suggest that this book is suitable for someone who already has a fairly strong background in evolutionary theory and perhaps some knowledge of biochemistry. If that is not the case, then I would be slightly wary about buying the book - although some of the chapters may be of interest (i.e. those three mentioned above).
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Excellent but exceeding hard to digest
Published 21 days ago by norman anthony
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book on fascinating topics
Fantastic book. Packs huge amount of real science into every page. I didn't know biochemistry was so interesting!
Published 27 days ago by wa233
5.0 out of 5 stars Modern Take on Evolution
One of the best science books I have ever read - and I haven't even finished it yet! Up-to-date material, presented in an accessible manner without dumbing down. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Old Timer
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book, poor kindle version
The book is great, i love the way Nick Lane tells the story, however, the kindle version was quite poor, some of the links didn't work at all, some were leading to the wrong place. Read more
Published 4 months ago by book mole
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most interesting and informative books I have read.
Virtually every page has some mind blowing insight or information. If you are intersted in evolution and science read this book.
Published 6 months ago by WiganPaul
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book - a heavy read unless you are a scientist
So much in here that explains the living world we see - lots of insights & lots of answers & some questions still remaining
This part of science is expanding at such a rate... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Mr Nigelson
5.0 out of 5 stars Life Ascending: The Ten Great inventions of Evolution
This book was lent to my 18 year son from his Science teacher in College in which he is
following the path of Science. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Rex
5.0 out of 5 stars FAB!
Arrived very promptly. I heard Nick Lane speak at UCL recently and he was very inspiring, Have had a quick scan and looks great. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Super ma
5.0 out of 5 stars Life in all it's intricacy .
I think that if your interested in evolutionary biology you have probably read Dawkins which is informative, well explained and easily digested, this book goes much deeper into the... Read more
Published 12 months ago by D. S. Sample
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read overall for those with a decent basis of biological...
A good book spanning lots of areas of biology, meaning that there is bound to be a chapter you find personally interesting. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Vicky Firth
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