The Vital Question

  • by Nick Lane
  • Narrated by Kevin Pariseau
  • 11 hrs and 26 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

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 forms. 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?


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

A must read for the interested, literate nonscientist

Nick Lane is that rare combination of deep thinker, lucid writer and passionate advocate for the messy business of science.

The Vital Question's wonderful epilogue reminds you just how down the rabbit hole he's taken us as he lays out the case for BioEnergetics as as a key driver of the interactions that led to the rise of multicellular organisms. I finished it and went right back to the start to retake the guided tour.

Kevin Pariseau's voice and engaged delivery is a perfect complement to Lane's clear, personalized narrative.

Not an easy book by content, but a remarkably well told story and one and well worth your time.
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- Irfan Khan


I like popular science books – over the years they have been my favourite reads and listens. I’m always looking out for new ones, so when the author of the seminal popular science book, ‘The Selfish Gene’, recommended this popular science book in a newspaper article I read I jumped onto Audible to download it. The only problem is that, for me, it wasn’t popular science, it was rocket science.

I’d like to tell you what the book is about, but I’m not really sure. I’m currently on my second listen because I’m determined to try to understand it – but I think I’m losing this battle.
The author tries very hard to make it comprehensible to the intelligent lay person with a bit of scientific knowledge, but either I don’t meet these criteria, or he fails. There are lengthy passages all about the biochemistry taking place inside a cell and I was totally lost. Here’s what I think I did sort of understand:

Life started with single celled creatures (prokaryotes) and then suddenly multi-celled creatures (eukaryotes) came on the scene. People have always thought this was a straightforward progression as the single celled-creatures would have joined together to form multi-celled ones but if that was the case you would expect to find bacteria joining up to form multicellular life forms all over the place, but that isn’t the case. Every single eukaryote (all plants, animals, birds, fish, fungus etc) alive today traces its origin back to a single common ancestor (or a single colony in any case). So it must be really hard for prokaryotes to join together like this and it must have taken very rare and special circumstances.

The fundamental problem seems to be a lack of energy. If a prokaryote gets bigger, then it can no longer transfer energy efficiently because the machinery for this is near the cell walls, and this leaves a giant blob of useless soup in the middle of the cell that can’t perform metabolism because it’s too far from the cell walls where the energy is. So that limits the size of single celled organisms. Prokaryotes don’t have mitochondria, and these organelles seem to be the magic trick that appears to make multicellular life possible.

The author argues that the most likely place where mitochondria could have evolved is in underwater alkaline hydrothermal vents. The most incomprehensible sections of the book are where he explains why these chemical environments are so well suited to this purpose.

So it was a rare event that’s happened only once (successfully) in the history of life on this planet, and it could theoretically also happen occasionally on other planets, because physics is the same throughout the universe.

I think…I think that’s what he’s saying. Anyway, judging by the reviews, other people have managed to understand it, so if you think you know your cellular biochemistry then I’m sure it’s an excellent book. If you don’t, then I wouldn’t recommend it.
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- Mark

Book Details

  • Release Date: 07-20-2015
  • Publisher: Audible Studios