The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution.
By Nick Lane.
For about 150 years, we have known how species evolve. The emergence of life itself remains more obscure. But as Lane shows with clarity and vigor in “Life Ascending,” fascinating studies on the subject abound. A trained biochemist, Lane smoothly pulls in evidence from genetics, proteomics (the study of proteins), paleontology and geophysics to show how the critical components and mechanisms of complex life — from DNA and photosynthesis to sex and vision — could have developed. Because “a chemical reaction happens spontaneously if all the molecular partners desire to participate,” he dismisses the “thermodynamically flat” primordial soup as a starting point for life and instead looks for ways hydrogen and oxygen can get together. Someday we may need a sequential illustration showing man standing upright after emerging from porous rocks in hydrothermal vents — where suggestive research locates the first signs of complex molecules and DNA. This is not a comprehensive textbook, and the concluding chapters on consciousness and death lack the biochemical signature of the best sections. Still, Lane shows how thoroughly, if provisionally, we can reconstruct evolutionary developments. Reading the remote past, he argues, “is a science in its own right, one that can only enrich our understanding of life.”