Life Ascending

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 geochemistry of  rocks have helped explain evolution in more detail than ever before. Nick Lane ( and expertly reconstructs the history of life by describing  the ten greatest inventions of evolution (including DNA, photosynthesis, sex, and sight), based on their historical impact, role in organisms today, and relevance to current  controversies. Who would have guessed that eyes started off as light-sensitive spots used to calibrate photosynthesis in algae? Or that DNA’s building blocks form spontaneously in hydrothermal vents? Lane gives a gripping, lucid account of nature’s ingenuity. He has given us a work of valuable reading for anyone who has ever pondered the science underlying evolution’s greatest gifts to man’.

There is a major caveat to all this, of course. It is tempting to think that the ascending complexity and ingenuity shown in the tools of evolution have all been ‘leading up‘ to something. In other words it’s tempting to believe that humankind is the apex of creation, and that everything else has been a backdrop or a stage-set to our glorious appearance. Most evolutionary biologists are at pains to point out, to the contrary, that humankind is only one among the myriad of creatures that have lived on Earth. Every current living species is as successful as any other. Every one is the end point in a long line of successful adaptations. After the extinction of humankind (say in the event of a global catastrophe) it is most likely that bacteria and many insect species would survive to evolve into the future. We must firmly reject the idea that ‘life ascending‘ means that it is straining towards some kind of perfection. There is no state of perfection in the living world. There are only adaptations which are more or less successful for the time they inhabit their ecological space. There is no ‘great chain’ or ‘hierarchy of being’. That is a major fallacy.

This book won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books ( in 2010.

Originally published 2009.

448 pages in Icon Books Ltd. paperback edition

ISBN 978-1848311503

Nick Lane

Nick Lane

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