A new book on the shelf is Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane. The chapter titles in the table of contents look interesting: The origin of Life, DNA, Photosynthesis, The Complex Cell, Sex, Movement, Sight, Hot Blood, Consciousness, Death. It’s a list of turning points in the evolution of Life from before its beginnings up until death. The fly leaf reads well and the author has great credentials so this should be a great upgrade on one of my favorite books from 1986, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life: A Scientific Detective Story (Canto) by A. G. Cairns-Smith.
The introduction sketches out the author’s criteria for how he chose his turning points, (1) it had to revolutionise the living world, (2) it is still operative and important today, (3) it has a component of natural selection, (4) it had to be iconic for life. Okay, so far so good and I got off to an enthusiastic start on chapter 1, The origin of Life. But then — Oh, horrors!!! This is awful! It is loaded with all of the things which make this subject ridiculed by most serious people. It reads like some of the more purple phraseology and imagery one all too often hears and sees on science TV. I waded through several pages of this passionate prose and was about to toss the book aside as overblown drivel but then thought to give the author a second chance and went to the last chapter hoping that by that time he would have gotten over his hallucinatory rhetoric. Am glad I did, for that chapter called Death was very well written and fully charged with interesting ideas. Death as he clearly shows is very important for life and for evolution and it hones a species into a more adapted and vibrant condition while living.
The subject of death is of special interest when it comes to human beings because it concerns us personally and so it is reasonable that a human author should devote several pages to that single species. It may be only one of millions or perhaps billions of species to have inhabited this planet, depending on who’s counting, but our species is special in several ways. He makes a good case for why we should not wish to live forever. It would be a curse like the mythological Greek Tithonus’s who received everlasting life but forgot to ask for youth and so he got absolutely feeble but didn’t die. He makes the case that humans might rather ask not for greatly extended lifespan but rather for what he terms healthspan. The goal is not to live for some super lifetime of 200 years but to have 100 years with perfect vigor and then drop dead. That he believes may soon be made technically possible for most people.
I am once again looking forward to hours of enlightening reading on the middle chapters.
One tiny annoyance. The cover, spine and every chapter’s first page has a picture of a lizard or possibly a gecko prominently displayed. Perhaps there is a reason for that which will become apparent in the book. It would have been far better for this particular subject, Life Ascending, if it were a Tiktaalik because that was one of the absolutely most important turning points of evolution. That was the recently discovered fossil fish found by Neil Shubin which first set foot on dry land and it was the founding species for most every big thing on the land and in the air.