The Vital Question

The Vital Question

Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life

Book - 2015
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WW Norton
To explain the mystery of how life evolved on Earth,Nick Lane explores the deep link between energy and genes.
The Earth teems with life: in its oceans, forests, skies and cities. Yet there’s a black hole at the heart of biology. We do not know why complex life is the way it is, or, for that matter, how life first began. In The Vital Question, award-winning author and biochemist Nick Lane radically reframes evolutionary history, putting forward a solution to conundrums that have puzzled generations of scientists.For two and a half billion years, from the very origins of life, single-celled organisms such as bacteria evolved without changing their basic form. Then, on just one occasion in four billion years, they made the jump to complexity. All complex life, from mushrooms to man, shares puzzling features, such as sex, which are unknown in bacteria. How and why did this radical transformation happen?The answer, Lane argues, lies in energy: all life on Earth lives off a voltage with the strength of a lightning bolt. Building on the pillars of evolutionary theory, Lane’s hypothesis draws on cutting-edge research into the link between energy and cell biology, in order to deliver a compelling account of evolution from the very origins of life to the emergence of multicellular organisms, while offering deep insights into our own lives and deaths.Both rigorous and enchanting, The Vital Question provides a solution to life’s vital question: why are we as we are, and indeed, why are we here at all?

Baker & Taylor
An award-winning author and biochemist, building on the pillars of evolutionary theory and drawing on cutting-edge research into the link between energy and genes, argues that evolution of multicellular life was the result of a single event.

Book News
The author argues that biological energy is the key to evolution and how complex cells arose from bacteria. He demonstrates how the properties of life emerged from the disequilibrium of the planet, how the origin of life was driven by energy flux, that proton gradients were key to the emergence of cells, and that their use constricted the structure of bacteria and archaea. He describes how these constraints affected the later evolution of cells and kept bacteria and archaea simple organisms, and how an endosymbiosis in which one bacterium got inside an archaeon broke those constraints and enabled the evolution of more complex cells, and why it only happened once. He discusses how this relationship predicts the properties of complex cells, such as the nucleus, sex, two sexes, and the distinction between the immortal germline and the mortal body, and how this can allow the prediction of fertility and fitness in youth and aging and disease. Annotation ©2015 Ringgold, Inc., Portland, OR (

& Taylor

A biochemist, building on the pillars of evolutionary theory and drawing on cutting-edge research into the link between energy and genes, argues that the evolution of multicellular life was the result of a single event.

Publisher: New York : W. W. Norton & Company, 2015
Edition: First American edition
ISBN: 9780393088816
Branch Call Number: 576.83 L243v
Characteristics: 360 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm


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Jul 03, 2016

Found the book difficult to follow and had to read it slowly and refer to glossary often but all seemed worthwhile. It was an eye opener for me to learn about the relation between energy and living. This was not a typical text book and contained more questions than answers. Wonder how the author's origin of life theory will stand the test of time.

May 13, 2016

This was the third Nick Lane book I've read. It's difficult territory but he tries to make the going easier. This is serious science writting but with a light touch. My under-graduate degree was zoology and I still found this book full of things I did not know. It's full of excellent biology as well as addressing one of the big science questions "how did life on Earth start ?". Fully recomend this book but it is only for the interested reader.

Dec 13, 2015

This is an interesting, but challenging, book. It took me quite a while to get through, as it delved beyond my high school chemistry. I'd call it evolutionary biochemistry. The author made a real effort to simplify his explanations and provide diagrams, but I still felt like I wasn't getting some of his arguments. On the positive side, it provided a really different perspective than most of contemporary biology, with its emphasis on physiological processes rather than information storage in genetic material.

Dec 01, 2015

This book is a significantly more challenging read than Lane's previous book on the 10 great inventions of evolution. The reader should have at least some high school chemistry (and remember it!) to best appreciate the arguments put forth. Lane delves deep into cell chemistry and composition to explain how complex life (eukaryotes) evolved and to postulate that if it evolved elsewhere in the universe it would need to be similar in structure due to restrictions imposed by chemistry and energy transfer.

Sep 11, 2015

This looked like a mighty interesting book, but I couldn't go farther than page 6, where the author, Lane, wrote an appalling mischaracterization of the great scientist and thinker, Lynn Margulis - - a very cheap shot for no justifiable reason.
And while this review should have been about evolutionary cell biology, instead allow me to set this author straight: never have I read anything by Dr. Margulis, or either of her two sons with Carl Sagan, which was anything but factual information, factual data and intelligent questions regarding the events of 9/11 - - something this author might attempt to ask should he ever remove his head from his posterior! When Michio Kaku sounds like the world's biggest donkey's rear talking nonsense about the global economic meltdown [obviously he knows nothing about finance, economics, nor is a certified fraud examiner] or Neil deGrasse Tyson makes idiotic comments about Monsanto's GMOs [Tyson did qualify and retract those remarks later] it show that scientists should keep their bloody mouths shut about subjects they are completely ignorant of, or at least attempt to learn something before they speak!


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Jun 19, 2017

(Not quite on the topic, but interesting):...Could there be a subconscious connection between the modularity of proteins and cells, and our sense of aesthetics? Our eyes are composed of millions of photoreceptor cells, rods and cones-each receptor switched on or off with a ray of light, forming an image as a mosaic. This is reconstructed in our mind's eye as a neuronal mosaic, conjured up from splintered features of the image-brightness, colour, contrast, edge, movement. Mosaics stir up emotions in part because they splinter reality in a similar way to our minds. Cells can do this because they are modular units, living tiles, each one with its own vital place, its own job, 40 trillion pieces making up the wonderful three-dimensional mosaic that is the human being. (page 237-8)


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