Review – Oxygen: The Molecule That Made The World

Posted October 27, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World by Nick LaneOxygen: The Molecule that Made the World, Nick Lane

I’ve tried twice to read this in full, and found that though at the beginning it’s engaging and interesting, the sheer level of detail starts to wear on me. This time, I was well served by having the first year of a BSc behind me: it’s easier to understand what the by-products of photosynthesis are when you have a good grasp of how photosynthesis works, and why it generates highly reactive intermediates. Despite Lane’s aim at the general reader, then, perhaps it’s worth noting that at least some knowledge of chemistry is very helpful in understanding what Lane is saying.

The problem with his theories is that he includes so much speculative material, and when I went looking for some corroboration, this review in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine is pretty damning:

These are generalities, and the identification of more specific points of reservations and disagreement in the text will depend on the particular interests and expertise of the individual reader. Various statements that are questionable, perverse or just wrong will be picked up by medical readers.

And indeed, I have to admit that despite my lack of specialist knowledge, on the topic of genetics I could see some flaws. It’s well enough known now, I think, that so-called “junk DNA” is in large part no such thing; damage by radiation to any part of the DNA can be damaging (though “junk” may not be involved in that point in an organism’s lifecycle, may have repetitions which ameliorate the effect of the damage, etc). I know this book is from 2002, and that view of “junk DNA” is relatively new (enough that Nessa Carey’s book on it wasn’t unnecessary!), so perhaps I shouldn’t judge too harshly. But it’s definitely shaky ground, and if I can see that as a layman, I don’t know how much to trust in his expertise in other areas (though it’s worth noting he is a biochemist).

The subject is interesting; Nick Lane’s introduction to it piques the interest. But I don’t think he follows through on his promises, and if you do read it, I would do so with caution.

Rating: 2/5

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