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Planet Earth

Book (P)review #1: Life Ascending, The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

The LoomBy Carl ZimmerJune 24, 2009 6:54 PM

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Last month, I asked you how to handle the ever-growing pile of science books I receive (before I donate most of them to the library, of course). A plurality of you voted in favor of frequent thumbnail descriptions, rather than alternatives like the less frequent all-out review. That's a relief, because that was my own preference. So let me pull off the top book from the pile, Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane. The reason it's on the top is that it happened to be very useful to me right now with an article I'm working on (more on that next month). Lane has selected a handful of key features of the natural world, from DNA to sex to warm-bloodedness to consciousness, and has written a chapter about each, explaining what we understand about it and how it evolved. The list is, as Lane himself admits, a bit arbitrary, and on first inspection it may give off a whiff of Scala Naturae, arranging life on a ladder from lower to higher. But once you delve into Lane's writing, those minor qualms will evaporate. Lane, the author of two previous books about biology, writes about tricky topics like the chemistry of photosynthesis with grace and ease. On the topics I'm familiar with, I can vouch that he has picked good studies to showcase. Lane is also a scientist himself, and he not only reports on the latest research on each topic but also sometimes steps in with intriguing ideas of his own. As with future posts of this ilk, this is not a full-blown book review. Call it a book (p)review: a heads-up about a book that has grabbed my attention. While I started reading Life Ascending for work, I look forward to finishing it for my own enjoyment.

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