Book review: The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way it is? by Nick Lane

April 22, 2015
(Profile, £25)

Natural selection is one of the most elegant, powerful and convincingly verified theories in science. But it has remarkably little predictive power. We can rationalise in retrospect how it made life the way it is, but we can’t calculate what it holds for the future. We can’t, as biochemist Nick Lane points out, explain why life is the way it is.

For several years Lane, sometimes in collaboration with evolutionary biologist Bill Martin, has been arguing that regarding evolution as a Darwinian battle of genes overlooks a crucial constraint on the forms that it has produced: energy. In this book he assembles his case fully for the first time, offering a tour de force of inventive science that postulates an account of everything from the origin of life to the sudden appearance of complex animal forms half a billion years ago. For the preceding three billion years or more, evolution came up with little more than single-celled organisms: bacteria and the superficially similar archaea.

But the tedium of the “boring billions” was relieved with a suite of innovations—cell nuclei that parcel up the chromosomes, sex, death, complex multicellular forms, and us—that Lane attributes to the most productive merger in history, when an archaeal cell engulfed a bacterium that became the mitochondria, our cells’ energy generators.

In advocating his case Lane is, despite unflagging eloquence, unable to avoid many details that non-specialists will find hard work. His case is controversial—but one of the book’s virtues is in showing just how little consensus there is about the vast tract of evolutionary history before the glamour of the Burgess Shale and the rise of the great lizards.