Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

About the book

Night followed day in swift succession. On earth at that time a day lasted for only five or six hours. The planet spun madly on its axis. The moon hung heavy and threatening in the sky, far closer, and so looking much bigger, than today. Stars rarely shone, for the atmosphere was full of smog and dust, but spectacular shooting stars regularly threaded the night sky. The sun, when it could be seen at all through the dull red smog, was watery and weak, lacking the vigour of its prime. Humans could not survive here. Our eyes would not bulge and burst, as they may on Mars; but our lungs could find no breath of oxygen. We’d fight for a desperate minute, and asphyxiate.

The earth was named badly. ‘Sea’ would have been better. Even today, oceans cover two-thirds of our planet, dominating views from space. Back then, the earth was virtually all water, with a few small volcanic islands poking through the turbulent waves. In thrall to that looming moon, the tides were colossal, ranging perhaps hundreds of feet. Impacts of asteroids and comets were less common than they had been earlier, when the largest of them flung off the moon; but even in this period of relative tranquillity, the oceans regularly boiled and churned. From underneath, too, they seethed. The crust was riddled with cracks, magma welled and coiled, and volcanoes made the underworld a constant presence. It was a world out of equilibrium, a world of restless activity, a feverish infant of a planet.

It was a world on which life emerged, 3,800 million years ago….

From the inside cover:

Renowned biochemist Nick Lane draws upon cutting-edge scientific findings to construct the mosaic of life’s astounding history.

How did life invent itself? Where does DNA come from? How did the eye evolve? What is consciousness? Why do we die? Over the last decades, groundbreaking new research has provided vivid insights into the makeup of life. We now have the technology and resources to compare whole genome sequences, examine atomic structures of proteins, image neurons as they think, and scrutinize the geochemistry of rocks, to chart how even the air changed in the past. These discoveries have helped explain the evolution of life in more detail and with greater precision than ever before.

Drawing on this treasure trove of new scientific knowledge, biochemist Nick Lane expertly reconstructs the history of life by describing the ten greatest inventions of evolution, based on their impact on the living world, their importance in organisms today, and their iconic power. 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 describes how each of evolution’s great inventions—from DNA to sex, from hot blood to consciousness and finally death—transformed life and often the planet itself. The result is a stunning, lucid account of nature’s ingenuity and a work of essential reading for anyone who has ever questioned the science underlying evolution, or wondered at how we came to be here.


  • Original and awe-inspiring... an exhilarating tour of some of the most profound and important ideas in biology.
    Michael Le Page, NEW SCIENTIST
  • Nick Lane is one of the most exciting science writers of our time. THE INDEPENDENT
  • With its vast scope, page-turning revelations and elegant prose, Nick Lane’s Life Ascending is everything one could hope for in a science book.
    Robert Matthews DAILY TELEGRAPH
  • This is a science book that doesn't cheat: the structure is logical, the writing is witty, and the hard questions are tackled head on.
    Tim Radford, THE GUARDIAN
  • Excellent and imaginative... full of surprises...
    Lewis Wolpert, NATURE
  • With clarity and vigor... Lane smoothly pulls in evidence to show how the critical components and mechanisms of complex life could have developed.
    Peter Dizikes NEW YORK TIMES
  • Magnificent... explains life's workings, fabric and inner logic with a previously unapproachable coherence.
    Oliver Morton, PROSPECT
  • Audacious... For anyone interested in some of the most profound questions of twenty-first century science. Clearly and forcefully propounded.... This is a new take on why we are here. Do, please, read this book.
    John F. Allen, NATURE
  • Impressive… readable, provocative and often persuasive… undoubtedly important. An exciting and unusual book.
  • A persuasive, demanding attempt to answer some of the most fundamental questions in biology… One of the deepest, most illuminating books about the history of life to have been published in recent years.
  • Original and awe-inspiring... an exhilarating tour of some of the most profound and important ideas in biology Michael Le Page
  • The emergence of life itself remains obscure. But as Lane shows with clarity and vigor, fascinating studies on the subject abound. Excellent and imaginative and, similar to life itself, the book is full of surprises. Lane lays out processes of dizzying complexity in smooth, nimble prose. If Charles Darwin sprang from his grave, I would give him this fine book to bring him up to speed. Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen
  • 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. Ruth Francis, NATURE
  • Lane brings the science alive with the kind of beautiful prose that turns a book full of interesting information into a book you simply cannot put down. Amanda Gefter, NEW SCIENTIST, Books of the Year, 2010
  • Lane’s prose is elegant, poetic almost, and he reveals himself as a stylish, persuasive essayist. His award of the 2010 Royal Society Book Prize is eminently deserved. THE TIMES, Books of the Year 2010
  • An outstanding contribution to evolutionary writing. Peter Forbes, THE INDEPENDENT Books of the Year 2010
  • Lane is that particularly rare breed: a scientist who can not only offer a birds-eye view of an entire field but also tell you about his own very interesting ideas. Carl Zimmer, SCIENCE
  • Wonderful... Lane does a masterful job... an elegant, fully satisfying whole. Starred Review, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
  • Make no bones about it, this is an excellent book. It is great fun, readable, bubbling over with enthusiasm, and not afraid of controversial, even weird, ideas... Hopeless as a bedside book: you'd never sleep. Graham Cairns-Smith, CHEMISTRY WORLD
  • A clever concept is carried through with a clarity and enthusiasm that belies the sophistication of the science.. GUARDIAN SUMMER READING
  • It will blow your bloody mind… A series of lucid and logical explanations of the sublime intricacies and mechanics of biological evolution… blissful epiphanies on every page. Giles Broadbent, WHARF
  • A writer who's not afraid to think big - and think hard. Frank Wilczek, 2004 Nobel Laureate in Physics
  • An amazing scientist. Don Braben, TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION
  • Nick Lane's examination of the brilliance of evolution isn't as thunderous as Richard Dawkins' last book but in a strange way that makes it all the more fascinating… Lane provides a thought-provoking account of how inspirational life really is. SHORTLIST MAGAZINE
  • Nick Lane comes closer to achieving [my dream popular science book] than any other book I have read. From the first sentence he writes with a sense of wide-eyed wonder that (almost) always keeps its feet firmly on the facts... highly recommended as an update and tonic for any biologist who has lost touch with the subject’s excitement: bravo, Nick Lane! John Cheverton, THE BIOLOGIST
  • The book is, in the tradition of the best science writing, an ommateum (a compound vision) of the interconnectedness of everything in the world, as befits a poet who just happens to be extremely well-versed in physics, geology, and biochemistry. Lane tells a scientists tale in a way that adds to his reader’s sense of radical amazement.... It is literate and witty and one of my favorite science books of the past few years. Wayne Mones, AUDUBON MAGAZINE
  • Extremely well written... It should be read by all biology students and their professors. I have just concluded reading it, and despite having studied biology for about six decades I have learnt a lot from it. Lars Olof Björn, INTEGRATIVE AND COMPARATIVE BIOLOGY
  • Ambitious and stimulating... Captures the excitement of science in action, with its mysteries, questions and conflicts... exhilarating. Margaret Quamme, THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH (Ohio)
  • Lane lays out processes of dizzying complexity in smooth, nimble prose. KIRKUS REVIEWS
  • Life Ascending really is beautifully written, and Lane has a true flair for scientific story telling... uttery gripping. Lewis Dartnell, ASTROBIOLOGY SOCIETY OF BRITAIN
  • Ambitious... a fascinating and provocative scientific book for the layperson. LIBRARY JOURNAL
  • Explores many of the most important questions in biology... Nick Lane is clear and concise in his writing, delivering concepts and ideas with ease and enthusiasm. HOW IT WORKS
  • A fascinating look at how scientists have come to understand evolution with an ingenuity rivaling that of nature herself. SCIENCE NEWS
  • A vivid picture of how evolution has informed life. GLOBE AND MAIL (Canada)
  • Terrific explanation of the newest evolutionary findings. SUNDAY STAR TIMES (New Zealand)
  • There are wonderful explanations here, and even better questions... in this compelling book. Rob Hardy, THE DISPATCH
  • Lane writes about tricky topics like the chemistry of photosynthesis with grace and ease… he not only reports on the latest research on each topic but also sometimes steps in with intriguing ideas of his own. Carl Zimmer, DISCOVER MAGAZINE
  • A fun read, deep enough to give you some substance, yet clearly written with the general public in mind… a really enjoyable text. PZ Myers, PHARYNGULA
  • A very smart discussion of the status of our understanding of the origins of life, how life has changed over the millennia, and how we have learned about those things... I enjoyed it a great deal. Hal Harris, JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL EDUCATION
  • Lane is at his best, parsing competing theories with the command of a practitioner, yet cushioning the sharp edges of the technical details. He deftly employs metaphor, toeing the line between presenting the fully scientific details and sketching the larger picture. Jacob Lemieux, The OXONIAN
  • "A fascinating and beautifully written account of the great mysteries of life - how it arose, how it works, why things die, how consciousness evolved. It's a great read, and provides real insight into current scientific thinking about the big evolutionary puzzles without getting tangled up in difficulties. Ian Stewart
  • If Charles Darwin sprang from his grave, I would give him this fine book to bring him up to speed. Matt Ridley

Chapter extracts

Chapter 6 - Movement

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Chapter 7 - Sight

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Chapter 8 - Hot Blood

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Chapter 9 - Consciousness

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Chapter 10 - Death

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