An accessible look at the greatest wonders of evolutionary science.
For such a short work, Lane (Biochemistry/University College London; Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, 2005) is admirably ambitious in scope, tackling such complex subjects as DNA, photosynthesis and consciousness in living things. Natural selection is a powerful creative force, notes the author, and has produced some ingenious and elegant scientific processes. Starting with the electrochemical reactions that may have produced the first life on Earth, Lane clearly explains how these landmark processes work and why they are so important. In an engaging chapter on photosynthesis—as well as others dealing with the complex cell, the sense of sight and the emergence of sex and movement among organisms—Lane lays out processes of dizzying complexity in smooth, nimble prose. He also provides a smattering of scientific history, showing how these processes were worked out by thinkers and researchers. (Footnotes provide more detail for the scientifically astute reader.) In the final and most insightful chapter, Lane looks at death as a beneficial process that allows organisms to avoid genetic diseases associated with living exceedingly long life spans. “[D]eath and disease are not random,” he writes. “Death evolved. Ageing evolved. They evolved for pragmatic reasons. In the broadest of terms, ageing is flexible, an evolutionary variable that is set against various other factors, like sexual maturation, in the ledger book of life. There are penalties for tampering with these parameters, but the penalties vary and in a few cases at least can be trivial.” The author cites a Japanese study that found that one tiny variant of DNA made people twice as likely to live to be 100.
A lucid introduction to complex concepts of evolution.