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81 of 82 people found the following review helpful
on 29 June 2009
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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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
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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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 26 February 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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 27 November 2012
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Life Ascending

In Life Ascending, biochemist Nick Lane examines his particular candidates for the top ten "inventions" of evolution. These are; the origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, the eukaryotic cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness and death.

The book itself is a fascinating account of some of the central themes of life, from the origin of life itself, through to consciousness and, finally, death. It is extremely well written by a passionate scientist and provides a clear and lucid insight into current scientific thinking regarding the evolution of the subjects selected for inclusion in the book. While the whole book is comendable, one of my favourite chapters is the very first, which explains how the discovery of submarine hydrothermal and alkaline vents, their structure and chemistry have transformed our understanding of the origin of life on this planet.

The author isn't afraid to tackle some difficult concepts head on and the first 3 chapters in particular deal with some pretty complex biochemistry. Whilst this is obviously intended as a popular science book, I would suggest that it possibly isn't all that suitable for the evolution/science novice.

Overall, a fascinating and well written account of our current understanding of the evolution of the chosen subjects, although if you are looking for a more "introductory" text, or a more general overview of evolution, I would suggest something like Jerry Coyne's excellent; "Why Evolution is True" or Dawkins' most recent offering; "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution".
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on 27 July 2009
This is one of the best scientific books I have ever read and understood,and written for the non-scientist!! Lane takes the reader beautifully from the origins of life to the finality of death. The chapter on the origins and evolution of sight stands out especially, while the one on photosynthesis isn't far behind.
I will reread it endlessly.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 12 April 2010
As the book's subtitle says, this covers ten significant evolutionary inventions, including movement, sex, consciousness, death and so on. Each is covered in some detail (although necessarily abridged and summarised) from a genetic/molecular biology perspective, but also from a more thoughtful esoteric standpoint.

Despite having read a number of similar books, including all of Dawkins' work and Steve Jones' Almost Like a Bear, I still found this hard going in places (quite a few places actually!) and, from that point of view, readers uninitiated in the world of evolutionary biology should approach it with a little caution. Nevertheless it is still a very well written, concise, readable book and the author's passion and humour show through. If you're willing to be flummoxed in places on the first pass (never anything to be ashamed of, I believe), it's quite suitable for the lay reader.

I still think that The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene tower above all other entries in the popular evolutionary biology genre and these are, I suspect, useful reading before you pick this one up. However the strong point of this book is that it brings the subject as bang up to date as any popular published work can and it is invaluable in that respect.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 29 October 2011
I rarely write book reviews, but enjoyed this so much that I feel compelled to share!

This is a thoroughly engaging and interesting book, with my favourite chapter being on The Origin of Life, no, Hot Blood, no, Photosynthesis, no.... to be honest I can't pick! However, for someone wanting an up to date and comprehensive view on the possible origins of life on Earth chapters 1 and 2 are a must read.

True, it is not an 'easy read' - the writing is small and you might have to take it slow and read a bit at a time or pause to cogitate and comprehend - but I think that Lane really has the knack of explaining complex science in a way that is accessible to the non-specialist.

That being said, I am a Biology teacher so may have an advantage of understanding it here and there. I have recommended it to all my A Level students (and many colleagues), and it fits particularly well with the A2 course.

I have now started reading Lane's "Power, Sex and Suicide" which is also good, but I am finding it a little more difficult to get through.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 2 March 2011
Well, it was hard work, and I've nearly finished it. The main problem for me was all the bio-chemistry that underpins much of the work that Nick Lane describes. I can see that its necessary for him to go into that level of detail, and its good that he assumes his readers know something rather than nothing. But I've struggled with large parts of it. Its difficult to read a section of it, understanding nothing, and knowing that the next section builds on what you've just read and not understood. There was a period of about a week when I didn't read any of it, and the book sat on the table taunting me with my ignorance.

But, there were sections that I thought I did understand (the Permian extinction, how muscles contract) and some things that amazed me (lenses made from minerals forming in animals). So I do think I've leaned stuff, and I'm (fairly) confident that I will re-read the book sometime soon so that I might even learn more stuff.

One thing I do need to look at again: he says that life started in the black smokers at the bottom of the sea, but I couldn't understand what was the switch that turned clouds of minerals into life.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 28 October 2010
The first chapter in this book is the best description of the 'possible' origin of life on earth, that I have ever read. It is a tour de force of the latest cutting edge biochemical research and findings and intelligent speculation; fusing together thermodynamics, biochemistry and cellular biology - to give us, a new and radical view of how life 'might' have originated. You leave it feeling like God. It's awe inspiring and it left me breathless. The following chapter on Photosynthesis continues the theme of biochemical evolution. The book is brilliantly written. This is no dry scientifuc treatise. This has been lovingly etched and thought and pondered over. Nick lane is clearly fascinated by his subject matter and it shows. I would rate this as my 2nd or 3rd best popular science books. My first and second would probably be The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker (By Dawkin's). The other great thing is that it does not dumb down the science. It aims to inform; and therefore it's not an an easy a read as some other science books, but the extra effort is rewarding in the end. As I said, you'll leave it feeling like God. I have seen. I have understood. I am awed. A deserved winner of the recent Royal Society Science Book Prize of 2010
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