Nice refresher course in biology

Life Ascending, The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

What little I remember about the organization of life from my few high school biology classes in the early 1980s is that the realm of the living was divided into animals and plants.

The world of biology has not, it seems from this book, stood still in the intervening years. Animals and plants are still there, but they make up an ever dwindling part of the taxonomic tree of life, hidden somewhere on a branch behind amoebæ together with fungi.

The ten great inventions of evolution are, according to Lane:

  • The origin of life
  • DNA
  • Photosynthesis
  • The complex cell
  • Sex
  • Movement
  • Sight
  • Hot blood
  • Consciousness
  • Death

Of each of these things he discusses where they came from and how they got where they are now, mostly by looking at the genetic record.

I had two problems with Life Ascending. The first was Lane’s insistence on talking about religion. I have attended a Catholic elementary school, grammar school and university for more than 24 years combined, and the only time ever teachers talked about religion was during the bible readings at the start of the school days, and during the weekly religious lessons. Biology classes were blissfully spared from any religious intrusions, and the reason is obvious. When talking about science, you should not be going to give any attention, not even a little bit, to the rantings of kooks.

Religion simply doesn’t live on the same plane as science, so why even discuss it in a book that purports to be about science? Lane weakly argues that religion tries to come up with answers to questions about where life came from, but so do all kinds of crazy people who are not inspired by faith, and Lane doesn’t take a single of their theories seriously.

What is more, Lane doesn’t seem to like religion very much, which makes him come across like those hordes of American priests who publicly condemn homosexuality in the strongest of words, but then get found out as both lovers and connoisseurs of smoking the meat cigar.

Spending three, now four paragraphs to talk about Lane’s love of discussing religion’s crazy antics makes it seem the book is full of such talk, and there I can gladly put your mind at ease. For the full length of the book, the author takes about as much space talking about religion as the reviewer takes here berating him for it. The reason I mention it at all is the same as the reason you might mention catching a short glimpse of the waiter scratching his balls in your review of an excellent meal at the world’s finest restaurant—it still grates.

My other qualm with Life Ascending is that Lane often declares certain evolutionary paths to have been inevitable (the evolution of eyes and the cell wall), and others to have been sheer coincidence, without giving more of an explanation than “the DNA done it.”

Let me explain this for a second. If you see evolution as a tree where some features have come into existence repeatedly, and other features have only come into existence once, this would suggest that some things are evolutionary inevitable, and others are the opposite.

Take eyes. There are some 13 different branches of eyes that have all evolved separately. You can discover these things by comparing DNA of living and dead creatures and determining if they are similar or distinct. If the DNA for a single feature, no matter how far it has further developed, is strikingly similar across species, you may assume that all these species had at one point a single ancestor, the thin part of the hour glass they crawled through.

But Lane only mentions the “one or many ancestors” bit, and then blithely ignores the exploration of the much and much harder issue of why a certain feature would be likely to happen or not.

I only mention this because I am completely incompetent in judging a book about biology on its biological merits, and therefore have to judge it on its methodological merits, and a scientist who shows not much curiousity is just a tell-tale sign for all kinds of trouble.

But then again, as a result I spent a lot of time simply checking Lane’s facts, and I guess that is a positive thing. Although, once you have found out there are plants with eyes, you will contemplate giving up all food for a while, before becoming more omnivorous than ever.

Lane’s own prime concern with his work appears to be that his selection of the ten great inventions of evolution are perhaps not the best he could have made, and I tend to agree with that. But that is probably the wrong way to view this book. Life Ascending is instead a solid, accessible refresher course for people like me (the arts ‘n’ humanities crowd), people who got a few sprinklings of biology classes a couple of lifetimes ago and weren’t really aware that the world of biology has decidedly moved on since then. It is an excellent spring board for further exploration, and I really recommend you buy it just to get your facts about Life (and that interesting feature, Death) re-aligned.

My rating: 4.0 stars

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