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Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane

Review by Sid Perkins

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Since Charles Darwin sketched out evolution’s process 150 years ago, a landslide of data has swept scientists into a more detailed understanding of how life’s variety emerged. In Life Ascending, Lane, a biochemist, describes how 10 evolutionary inventions transformed the living world. These “inventions” — a term Lane uses to convey the astonishing creativity of nature, not the idea of deliberate creation — result from natural selection, he contends, the driving force behind Darwinian evolution.

In chapter-length treatments, the author engagingly blends background information on the discovery and function of each invention with data from the latest analyses and experiments. The first great invention, life itself, may have developed billions of years ago at hydrothermal vents dotting the ocean floor, Lane recounts. He walks readers through the process by which DNA, another invention, enabled an organism to pass genetic material to its offspring. And he explains how photosynthesis enabled some organisms to glean energy from sunlight, supercharging Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen in the process.

Other inventions include the complex cell (which includes a nucleus and various organelles), movement (which allows animals to roam in search of food) and sight (an ability so important that 95 percent of all modern-day animal species possess it). Warm-bloodedness, consciousness, sex and death round out Lane’s tally.

Besides documenting evolution’s major innovations, Life Ascending offers a fascinating look at how scientists have come to understand evolution with an ingenuity rivaling that of nature herself.

W.W. Norton, 2009, 344 p., $26.95.

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