Sunday, October 18, 2009

Great moments in evolution: Nick Lane's "Life Ascending"

For years I'd been looking for a quick, readable synopsis of what is currently known about the origin of life. I'll bet a number of you out there are looking for the same thing. It's an area of active research, so whatever you learned about it in your Biology class (if anything) is probably not current anymore. Well, Nick Lane gives a straight-forward account of it in Life Ascending. Almost all of what he wrote in that essay was news to me, and fascinating news at that!

For that essay alone, I'd recommend this book. But on top of that, there are nine more of the good parts in the grand tale of evolution. It's a quick and fun way to get up to speed on the big ideas of Biology for those of us whose day job revolves around some other field.

His ten "great inventions" are the following:
1. The Origin of Life
2. DNA
3. Photosynthesis
4. The Complex Cell
5. Sex
6. Movement
7. Sight
8. Hot Blood
9. Consciousness
10. Death

In each of the ten essays, the author sets up some mystery about how or why the given trait evolved, then he builds up to explaining one or more theories about it -- along with giving you a good explanation of what kind of evidence backs each theory. Some of them almost feel like "Encyclopedia Brown" stories, leading the reader to guess what solution he'll propose. It makes for a pretty entertaining game, especially when he sets up questions I hadn't thought of. For example, with the case of warm-bloodedness, he sets up such a strong case for why it's inefficient, that it makes it fun to try to guess why it ever would have given an animal a selective advantage!

Another really interesting one was the evolution of photosynthesis. It had a pretty unexpected evolutionary path. And I learned that photosynthesis has two steps, the first of which is to use a photon to split a water molecule into its components. I hope not too many of you will laugh at me for not having already known this (I guess I wasn't paying as close of attention in Biology as I thought). But it turns out that people are very close to understanding precisely the reaction that would allow us to use sunlight to separate Hydrogen and Oxygen in water.

Whenever I'd heard people talk about how Hydrogen will be the new fuel (once we run out of fossil fuels) it always seemed to me to be a half-baked idea, because where does the Hydrogen come from? Splitting water molecules costs as much energy as we can hope to get back by burning the Hydrogen later, so at best it's like a type of battery -- not a source of energy to solve our energy problems. The fact that there's a good solar trick for isolating Hydrogen is the missing piece that makes this idea make sense. Considering how bad-and-worsening our energy/environment situation is getting, it's nice to hear a bit of a hopeful idea for a solution to part of the problem.

I wasn't totally convinced by Lane's explanation of death, but I think the fluffiest one was his essay on consciousness. That's probably because it's the most complex and least understood item on the list. Throughout the book Lane goes out of his way to avoid offending theists, but it was particularly funny in the consciousness chapter when he was talking about the "God Helmet" -- which causes people to believe they've seen God (by magnetically stimulating certain regions of the brain):

Persinger, incidentally, is at pains to point out that the physical induction of mystical experiences does not argue against the existence of God;

Of course not. That would mean ignoring the obvious explanation that God exists and just happens to be irresistibly attracted to that helmet! ;^)

But seriously, If you're curious about evolution and don't know it as well as you'd like to, this book will put you on the fast track to some of the most exciting parts!


MoHoHawaii said...

Thanks for the tip. I'm going to read this one.

BTW, my favorite book ever on the subject of evolution is Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MoHoHawaii!!!

I love that one too! I read it a number of years ago.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Sounds great. I'll have to get it.