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Ruth’s Reviews: Life Ascending – Nick Lane

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Ruth Francis, Nature’s Head of Press, is reviewing all the entries shortlisted for the Royal Society’s science book prize. She’ll be reading one per week and is posting her thoughts on The Great Beyond every Friday between now and the prize ceremony on 21 October.

Last year was a year of Darwin celebrations, with two big anniversaries about six months apart. It’s unsurprising, then, that an explosion of books on evolution hit the shelves in 2009. I am surprised that only one made it onto the Royal Society’s shortlist.

Nick Lane’s Life Ascending is eminently deserving of its place, offering readers insightful tours through ten great inventions of evolution.

He outlines his criteria as follows: the invention had to revolutionise the living world, and the planet; it had to be of surpassing importance today; it must be a direct outcome of evolution by natural selection; and finally the invention had to be iconic in some way. Some readers may disagree with his ten choices, as the introduction acknowledges, but I went with the flow and it made sense to me.

Beginning with DNA and the complex cell, building to sex, consciousness and death, via movement and sight, Lane’s picks certainly tick the four boxes. What’s more, the reader is taken on a journey, gaining knowledge as the facts unfold, with each chapter building on what’s gone before.

Lane’s writing is elegant and his narrative thread clearly thought through. Occasionally he asks the reader to hold one thought while he explains something else first, or reminds you that you met a researcher before in chapter x.

As I read I fold down the corners to remind myself of quotable passages, or well-described theory. The book I have in front of me has many, many turned-down pages and it’s impossible to choose one passage to quote.

From start to finish, origin of life to death, this book is a pleasure to digest. As I turned the final page it crossed my mind to go back to the beginning and enjoy it all over again.

Previously on Ruth’s Reviews:

Ruth’s Reviews: We need to talk about Kelvin

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