The Vital Question – Nick Lane


(Read Between (28/12/16 – 26/01/17)

I decided to give this book the privilege of being my first book of 2017!  I heard a podcast on the origins of complex life earlier last year and Nick Lane appeared as a guest giving some insight into the matter. He then mentioned he had recently written a book on the topic and I was immediately interested. I had previously read Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by him. It is still one of my favourite scientific books to this day so I was excited to see what his next book had in store.

The book attempts to answer what Nick Lane sees as a “black hole” in biology. This is the fact that we don’t know why life evolved the way it did and why complex life appears to have only evolved once in four billion years! On top of this he looks to examine why all complex life on Earth shares elaborate traits such as sex to cell suicide, while none of these traits are shared by bacteria.

The first section examines how all eukaryotes all share a common ancestor, which arose just once in four billion years. They all have common traits that are written out in their gene sequences and in their DNA. Lane then goes on to examine what is considered ‘living’? By looking closer at this we see the importance of the environment. We discover that whilst life is about its structure (genes, evolution, etc.), living, growing and reproduction is largely governed by the environment also.

The second section looks at the origin of life and how complex life may have arisen. The problem with complex life is that there are no surviving evolutionary intermediaries that we often see. The fact that all eukaryotes have the same traits such as sex and cell suicide and death, seems to point to a common ancestor, however because this was so long ago, the organisms that were the original ancestors no longer exist.  However Lane makes arguments regarding how energy which plays a vital role in life, would have had a direct influence on how complex life arose and where. If anyone has read Nick Lane’s earlier book, Life Ascending, they will be familiar of alkaline vents. This section outlines how Lane believes these structures had a key role in the emergence of complex life. This is because they provide the exact conditions required for the origin of life:  a high flux of carbon and energy, physically channeled over inorganic catalysts, and then constrained which allows the accumulation of high concentrations of organics.

The third section looks at some of the key traits of complex life.  In this section we learn of the importance of mitochondria for the eukaryotic cell. Mitochondria are absolutely fascinating and has a electric potential of roughly 150-200 millivolts, which when we account for size is the equivalent of a bolt of lightning! The rest of the section looks at how important sex is to complex life, instead of the cloning method many prokaryotes use. It also looks at death and its role in complex life.

The book is interesting but its difficulty made it hard to enjoy for me in large parts. Unlike his earlier book, Life Ascending, I found myself lost in many parts of this book and felt it hard to keep up. However I must stress that despite reading a few popular science books, I have no great understanding of  biology beyond a basic level. I only studied biology in school up to the age of 18 so it was perhaps rather ambitious (or silly) to take on a book of this scope. Therefore I would recommend this book to readers who have better scientific knowledge or else to stick to Lane’s earlier and fascinating Life Ascending book, which I found easier to follow.