Evolution book wins science prize that could soon become extinct

An account of the 10 greatest inventions of evolution has won this year's Royal Society Science Book Prize, which may be the last time the awards are given following the failure to find a sponsor.

Life Ascending, the Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, by Nick Lane, a biochemist at University College London, has taken the £10,000 prize. One reviewer said that if Charles Darwin sprang from his grave, this would be the best book to bring him up to speed.

Life Ascending reconstructs the long history of life on Earth from the viewpoint of some of its greatest breakthroughs, from DNA and sex to hot blood and consciousness. It was competing with five other books on the shortlist, ranging in subjects from cosmology to climate change.

Maggie Philbin, who chaired the judging panel, said: "Life Ascending is a beautifully written and elegantly structured book that was a favourite with all of the judges. Nick Lane hasn't been afraid to challenge us with some tough science, explaining it in such a way that we feel like scientists ourselves, unfolding the mysteries of life.

"Science writing shouldn't patronise readers, it should help them to develop their scientific thinking and apply it to the world around them, something exemplified by this wonderful and engaging book," Ms Philbin said.

The Science Book Prize has been running since 1988 and was initially sponsored by the French pharmaceuticals company Rhone-Poulenc. The sponsorship of the prize was then taken over by another company, Aventis, which pulled out in 2007. Since then it has been supported mainly by the Royal Society which said it could not afford to continue sponsorship indefinitely.

"The Royal Society greatly values the prizes. However, in these tough economic times we have to secure a sponsor to ensure they can continue in future years," said Lord Rees, the president of the Royal Society, who presented the prize to Dr Lane last night at an awards ceremony in London.

Some of the book prize's previous winners include Stephen Hawking, Bill Bryson, Steve Jones and Stephen Jay Gould. The original aim of the prize was to bring general science books into the mainstream.