Books

Life Ascending by Nick Lane

There’s a tendency to look back to at earlier times as some sort of golden age. Even scientists to this despite the fact that “2011 is the most futuristic year there’s ever been” to misquote Paul Sinha. People look back to time when Carl Sagan or David Attenborough were titans of television and, coincidentally, we were all younger. Nick Lane in his book Life Ascending harks back to Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man. As good as Bronowski was, I firmly believe that the golden age of science writing is now, and Life Ascending is an prime example of why 2011 is an excellent time to visit a bookshop to read popular science.

The basic premise behind Life Ascending is that Nick Lane has chosen the ten most innovations created through evolution and given a chapter to each. His choice is personal and requires that the change be a major effect on all life and that the innovation is also still relevant today. Some of the choices are obvious like Sight, or The Complex Cell. Some less so, like the closing chapter Death or Hot Blood. Biologically they’re important, but to someone outside they’re not things that automatically come to mind. Flight doesn’t make the list as such, but there is a chapter Movement.

The spur for getting the book is that we’ll be covering it in SciReadr. I’d heard it was good, but the idea doesn’t sound that compelling. In fact it sounds like a cast-off from Channel 4, like one of those cheap TV programmes where stand-up comedians you’ve never heard of pontificate on past fads. “Antennae, remember those? They were really big in the 70s. Even my Gran had a pair.” I was utterly wrong. It was a brilliant idea.

The reason it works is because of the execution. The list isn’t randomly ordered and the choices work to build up more information and context for the later choices. The start is The Origin of Life and the discussion of energy and the chemical environment of deep sea vents is carried through to the next chapter on DNA. Here the chemistry is used to discuss the development of DNA and RNA and their relationship to the building of complex biochemical structures. This is expanded on further in Photosynthesis which shows how a small change in two biochemical units can dramatically change what is possible. By the time you get to chapter four, The Complex Cell, you’re drawing on information from the three prior chapters. This makes the book a far more satisfying read than if the chapters were each self-contained units on one innovation. It allows ideas to develop and mature, rather than stay perpetually basic. It makes the book harder work. Some adolescents might be frustrated that you can’t just flip ahead to the chapter on Sex and understand it. But all the effort and preparation is worth it because you’ll find Sex a much more meaningful experience than if you’d rushed headlong into it.

Another key feature which you can’t escape with books are the words, and Nick Lane has them. I struggle with opening sentences. Once I’m going I’m fine, but a good opening is a skill. Here’s the opening for Life Ascending which beats “It was a dark and stormy night“:

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.

I knew all this before I started reading, but it’s still powerfully evocative. This tempestuous birth is in striking contrast to Darwin’s warm little pond. Whatever the origin of life, it had to be able to cope with what we would call extreme environments from the outset.

If the origin of life was not tranquil, then neither is its study. Nick Land refers to recent research throughout the book but also repeatedly refers to the fact that many of these ideas are contested. Most strikingly in Hot Blood he notes:

The other major source of rancour in the avian world is feathers. Feduccia and others have long maintained that feathers evolved for flight in birds, imparting to them a disturbingly miraculous sense of perfection. But if feathers evolved for flight, they certainly should not be found among non-avian theropods like T. rex. According to Feduccia, they’re not; but a parade of feathered dinosaurs has marched out of China over the last decade.”

A similar situation occurs in Consciousness:

I should say at the outset that this chapter is different from the other chapters in this book, in that not only does science not (yet) know the answer, but at present we can barely conceive of how that answer might look in terms of the known laws of physics or biology or information. There is no agreement among scholars of the mind about exactly how the firing of neurons could give rise to intense personal sensations.

The book isn’t just about the delivery of facts, it’s about how we know these facts. I find Consciousness the weakest chapter, the other chapters have at least a strong scaffold to hang the discussion of details on. Consciousness doesn’t really have this, but even so the focus on How do we know what we know, means it isn’t bad as such. Just not as focussed as the rest of the book. In its favour it does show that the book is about scientific practice as well as evolution.

I think another reason Consciousness reads a bit oddly is that elsewhere Nick Lane is masterly at drawing together diverse disciplines into one coherent narrative. The conclusion is brief, but in it he underscores that the Biological findings correlate with what we know independently from Geology and Astronomy. Evolution works because it makes sense, and the same can be said of Life Ascending. Collectively the chapters work with each other to emphatically and stylishly make sense. This book isn’t one where you’re impressed and dazzled but slightly at sea when you try and work out what the author is saying. With this book, I know if I forget details I can flip back and see the answer laid out clearly. Reading this I now know what the correct answer to the evolutionary riddle “What use is half an eye?” is not that it’s half as good as a full eye, but that sometimes it can be a lot more useful than a full eye.

If you want to know why, research shrimps or read this book.

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