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Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  4,532 ratings  ·  258 reviews
A renowned biochemist draws on cutting-edge scientific findings to construct the mosaic of life’s astounding history.

How did life invent itself? Where did DNA come from? How did consciousness develop? Powerful new research methods are providing vivid insights into the makeup of life. Comparing gene sequences, examining atomic structures of proteins, and looking into the ge
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published June 22nd 2009 by W. W. Norton & Company
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 ·  4,532 ratings  ·  258 reviews

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Feb 22, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, biology
I had a lot of fun reading this book up until the end, when I started to worry about the author's propensity towards exaggeration and speculation.
For anyone who wants to learn about cutting edge speculation on the origin of life, Eukaryotas, and sex, it's definitely worth a read!
Anyone allergic to new-age nonsense sociology, just skip the last 9th chapter.
Everyone should take the last chapter with a very large grain of salt, because it's full of speculation, overblown claims, and other lies.

1. T
Lois Bujold
Nov 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Lois by: spotted in list of other-books-by

Excellent pop science writing, as absorbing as a novel (I read it in two days). The author has a knack for compelling narrative flow that seems both natural, and accumulating to some sense of Getting Somewhere by the end, always very satisfying.

Lots of new things from recent (and less recent) research that I hadn't yet heard about, which was much of what I was hoping for from this book. It also gives, in passing along the way, a good sense of how science itself evolves. Wow has biology ever adva
Jun 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
What were the ten greatest inventions of evolution? According to Nick Lane, author of Life Ascending, they were the Origin of Life itself, DNA, Photosynthesis, The Complex Cell, Sex, Movement, Sight, Hot Blood, Consciousness, and Death. It’s a pretty good list. I thought about it and could not come up with any substitutions.

The origins of life are arguably not evolutionary science at all, but a separate field called abiogenesis. Nevertheless, this book’s chapter on how life started is one of its
R Nair
Jan 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An excellent book that really delves into the biochemical reasons for things being as they are in nature. From the origin of life in alkaline vents surrounded by sea water creating organic compounds to the evolutionary reasoning behind the existence of death itself, originating from the process of apoptosis (cellular suicide) in bacterial prehistory to curb bacteriophage infections.
This book is an excellent introduction into the chemistry of life and the various major fields of study where rese
This was one of the best books I have ever had the pleasure to read. If you like a book that delves deep into every tiny detail, this is the book for you. If things like ATP, leaky mitochondria, bacteria that can live in strange conditions, how DNA was discovered (and how Crick thought aliens put it on Earth), you will enjoy Lane's wonderful adventure of how life came to be. The science in this book was outstanding. ...more
Jan 16, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I found this to be a mixed bag. I found some chapters such as Complex Cells and Hot Blood fascinating and others such as Movement and Consciousness quite tedious. The author does a good job of reducing complex biological processes into simpler terms but I felt he used weird analogies far too often to illustrate his point. When he started comparing muscle proteins into classical music I had to roll my eyes. In addition, a few more illustrations would be useful to show some concepts.
It was nice to
Jul 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Hayes, Susanna
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch

Nick Lane is a self-described evolutionary biochemist and presently Senior Lecturer in the Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London. His Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution was awarded the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. He has previously published Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World and Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life. His What is Living? Why Energy Drives the Origin and Evolution of Life
Dec 28, 2017 rated it really liked it

A well written description of the (in the authors opinion) ten greatest "inventions" of evolution

These include
the origin of life itself,
the eukaryotes,
warm bloodedness (homeothermy),
and death.

The author is a biochemist and his analysis is very chemical oriented , but still very readable for a layperson. He explains various techniques for discovering the information in a way I could understand.

I admit that in some places I lost him but
Nov 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Before reading Nick Lane I have never had interest in Biology. I didn't even watch Animal Planet. And for a month now I can't stop talking about mitochondria, DNA, evolution, etc.
His books are fascinating. I like the way he structures his statements, his sense of humor, the analogies he makes, the notions that start floating in your head. I like that he obviously likes The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy :)
Somebody here has said that he is speculating too much with unproved theories. May be bec
Apr 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: natural_world
38th book for 2018.

This book confirms that my opinion that the very best science writing is inevitably done by active and opinionated scientists.

This is a wonderful book that covers everything from the origin of life, though the creation of DNA, photosynthesis, sex, movement, sight, warm bloodness, consciousness and even death.

Courtney Johnston
How do I love this book? Let me count the ways ...

I love Nick Lane's tone, which manages to balance wit and clarity without overusing the analogy button:

Thermodynamics is one of those words best avoided in a book with any pretence to be popular, but it's more engaging if it's seen for what it is: the science of 'desire'. The existence of atoms and molecules is dominated by 'attractions', 'repulsions', 'wants' and 'discharges', to the point that it becomes virtually impossible to write about chem
Dec 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
One can study the biochemistry of photosynthesis in some detail and be unaware of the different pathways that exist and existed in different organisms, of its effect on the color of the sky, of its effect on the structural components of large plants and animals, and of the peculiarities of its evolutionary origin. Nick Lane gives a brilliant overview of the nature, significance and origin of the 10 greatest inventions of evolution including, the origin of life itself, DNA, photosynthesis, the eu ...more
Sheng Peng
Oct 26, 2015 rated it it was ok
For all the topics that are covered in his magnum opus Power Sex Suicide, the author is eloquent as usual. But on other matters on which he is obviously not a true expert, the writing is no different than random musings from a layman. The chapter on Consciousness is so bad that it is verging on philosophical contemplations with the signature incomprehensibleness of writings from that field, and reminds one of hot air from the typical TV talk head babbling on a random subject. To have written thi ...more
Nov 28, 2015 rated it did not like it
Shelves: reviewed
I saw so many positive reviews for this I thought I'd write something quick and offensive.

If you "love science", by which you mean you're subscribed to MinutePhysics and DNews on YouTube, seen some TV documentaries and "love Sheldon" from The Big Bang Theory, then you'll love this book.

On the other hand, if you were educated in biology beyond the age of six, have an IQ above 7 and prefer accuracy over 'colourful' (euphemism for inaccurate) descriptions, then this isn't for you.

I can't be bothere
Feb 12, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2014
I had high hopes for this book, because I thought it had an interesting, well thought-out structure and because of its high rating on Goodreads. My main problem with the book was the author's writing style, which came across as arrogant and overly digressive. Unfortunately, this became such a problem for me that I didn't get past the first two chapters.

Maybe I will give this book another go in the future; some of the reviews have given me renewed hope that it gets better!
Jul 26, 2017 rated it did not like it
Mourning the loss of the tree that produced this unfortunate OP-ED. I love reading and studying about evolution in almost every aspect, but I don't love having to read almost 300 pages of a grown man's temper tantrum. Nick Lane does an injustice to the scientific and anthropological communities by waiving basic ethics and sound argument and leaning so heavily upon his biases that I cannot, in good faith, call this a book of science. ...more
Joseph Carrabis
Aug 31, 2019 rated it did not like it
I’m not even sure if this is a popsci book. It had an interesting premise - The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution - but the author’s handling of the subject matter is almost schoolgirl giddy, a kind of “Oh, look how neat this is! Now look how neat this is! And how about this? Isn’t this neat?”
The tone and style of the book put me off and made it tough reading. Others may find it a fine read.
Abdelmoneim Hamdy
Sep 24, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, favorites
This was such an eye opening book..Fascinating
Bill Leach
Jul 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
This book has much more content than the title would suggest. The ten inventions are examined in detail from an evolutionary perspective, providing the latest knowledge and current theories as to how and when each evolved. Super engaging.

Chapter 1 - The Origin of Life

It appears that life started in the alkaline sea floor vents where seawater reacts with newly exposed rocks, creating the mineral serpentine. A steady supply of hydrogen reacts with carbon dioxide to form organic molecules (reverse
Sajith Kumar
Jul 11, 2015 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Serious readers
Shelves: popular-science
This book showcases a chemist’s eye view of evolution, thereby affording another perspective to the charming story of life. In a survey of the history of life on earth, the author comes out with ten events, or rather inventions in his parlance, that thoroughly changed the course of life and diverted it into the highway leading to complex organisms like mammals and men. Development of the complex cell, sight, power of movement and sex constitute a few of the characteristics identified by the auth ...more
Jan 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science-fact
I don't envy authors who choose to write about biology. Of all the sciences, it lacks the rules and models that make chemistry and physics so enticing. In those subjects, we have the dance of planets generated from the simple inverse square law of gravity, the solved mystery of wave-particle duality, the puzzle pieces of have-electrons need-electrons chemical bonds. But in all those cases, we know what's going on and why--there are rules, there's a reason goddamnit.

And then there's biology. Biol
Amy Bowles
Mar 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wonderful! As a student of biology I followed all the science and was excited to learn new advances since I was in college. I see great things coming along these lines.
I was going to point out that the third chapter, about photosynthesis, was my favorite chapter because I could read it over and over again and I would still be fascinated, then I remembered that the second chapter was also as good, the fourth chapter as well. I really really loved the book and I will definitely read Nick Lane's other books starting with the book about Oxygen because the third chapter left its mark on me!! ...more
Gavin Drury
Jul 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
"I think that the picture painted in this book is true. Life most surely evolved, along the lines described here. That is not dogma, but evidence tested in reality and corrected accordingly. Whether this grand picture is compatible with faith in God, I do not know. For some people, intimately acquainted with evolution, it is; for others, it is not. But whatever our beliefs, this richness of understanding should be a cause for marvel and celebration. It is a most wonderful thing to share so much ...more
Ralph Hermansen
Feb 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"Life Ascending" by Dr. Nick Lane is a fascinating adventure. I would not recommend it to you as your first book on evolution and probably not as your second or third. However, if you have read enough to somewhat appreciate the role of DNA and genes in evolutionary science, then you will find this book very worth reading. The author is a biochemist and he looks at evolution through a biochemist's eyes. He stops short of introducing structural formulas of organic compounds and focuses more on des ...more
Jan 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Life Ascending, winner of the 2010 Royal Society prize for popular science books, is one of the greatest of all time. The OEDB list of greatest popular science books is out of date. This is science on the cutting edge, championing theories that have been gaining attention slowly in recent years, among those interested in biology but not in the mass media. Techniques, equipment and insights started with the Human Genome Project, plus the ability to see and model ever tinier structures, have led t ...more
Apr 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
And how did consiousness rise from lifeless matter? His chapter about consciousness has some interesting things to say about that. With that I mean that is has become possible to observe the brain working, seeing specialised regions at work in the brain.
They see how the brain - while the person looks at an object- has 30 to 60 regions of specialised neurons firing. They only fire when their litle aspect is recognised.
E.g. we have neurons specialised in firing only when an object moves from left
Ben McFarland
Oct 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is the first book I've read by Nick Lane and I already know I'm going to read more. Lane approaches scientific controversy with a light hand, but he talks about the real issues and the real science going on. Lane is a practicing biochemist who writes popular science, and it shows. This book is framed around 10 "innovations" evolved by life: all the way from the origin of life to mitochondria to consciousness and death. A lot of the general issues I've become familiar with from the scientifi ...more
Todd Martin
Sep 08, 2009 rated it liked it
In “Life Ascending” Nick Lane discusses in what his opinion are the ten most important developments in evolutionary history. They are:
1. The origin of life.
2. DNA
3. Photosynthesis
4. The complex cell
5. Sex
6. Movement
7. Sight
8. Hot blood
9. Consciousness
10. Death
In each section Lane discusses what we know about the topic, then moves into more speculative and cutting edge research. He does a good job explaining the basics, but does not provide enough information to carry the reader through the end
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Dr Nick Lane is a British biochemist and writer. He was awarded the first Provost's Venture Research Prize in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London, where he is now a Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry. Dr Lane’s research deals with evolutionary biochemistry and bioenergetics, focusing on the origin of life and the evolution of complex cells. Dr Lane w ...more

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