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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?

©2015 Nick Lane (P)2015 Audible, Inc.

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

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.

31 of 35 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Top Tier Presentation

What made the experience of listening to The Vital Question the most enjoyable?

The author's concise, entertaining, and intelligent presentation of the material. And then Kevin Pariseau gave it some further propellant in his slick narration.

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Vital Question?

This is not one of those "memorable moments" presentations. Instead, it was a compelling and multi-layered treatise, building basic science first then expanding eloquently into the great questions under study, the main one of course being a discussion of how life might have emerged out of inorganic structure. I really enjoyed his explanation of the bioenergetics behind each hypothesis. On the other hand one must bear in mind that much of this material is speculative in nature due to the great gulf of deep time that lies between the emergence of life and the present moment.

Which character – as performed by Kevin Pariseau – was your favorite?

The mighty mitochondrion, of course.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Yes, a rare breath of fresh air compared to a lot of books.

Any additional comments?

Kevin Pariseau took this brilliant material and made it smooth and enjoyable. I had to nick one star off a complete five star rating in all categories because of a few moments of redundant rambling that occurred here and there, but these interludes were rare.

22 of 26 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Mark
  • Raglan, New Zealand
  • 06-24-16

Ouch!

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.

21 of 25 people found this review helpful

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  • Wayne
  • Matthews, NC
  • 01-24-16

Thoughtful and well reasoned theories...

...on aspects for evolution. The Vital Question is meant to provide information and theories about aspects of evolution from the perspective of biochemistry and physics. The author is successful in presenting well reasoned and documented arguments to support his positions. His weakest case concerns at what point of the evolutionary time scale sexual reproduction began. On the other hand he presents the relative advantages and disadvantages of asexual vs. sexual reproduction extremely well.

In my view most people without a strong scientific background would not find The Vital Question helpful. At the very least they would need to follow along with the PDF attachment that accompanies the audiobook and also look up the meaning of lots of the terminology.

11 of 13 people found this review helpful

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What an astonishing audio performance.

I now fully understand how life began all those ages ago. Brilliantly presented and fairly easy to understand. This book is a must if you really want to understand the awesome machinery of the living cell and how we became the way we are. Bravo!!.

15 of 18 people found this review helpful

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Great overview of origin of life theories

Fascinating content; a little hard to follow details of the chemistry at points but a great overview and springboard for further reading.

Only complaint is a few instances of belabored cheesy metaphors or gratuitous indirection ("we still don't know X, Y, or Z.. does this mean all of Darwinian evolution is wrong? [many words later] no, of course it doesn't mean that [proceed to actual substance]").

17 of 21 people found this review helpful

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Detailed, Brilliant, & Entertaining

If you could sum up The Vital Question in three words, what would they be?

Detailed, Brilliant, & Entertaining

Who was your favorite character and why?

Last chapter sums up his theory

What about Kevin Pariseau’s performance did you like?

Engaging reader

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

This book blow my mind again and again!

11 of 14 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

seminal work but too political and elitist

Until now, Nick Lane has been my favorite author. Increasingly, or at least in my estimation, he is joining the ranks of the old science guard who work hard to a) politicize science and b) make important science inaccessible to the non-scientific, but intelligent and curious, reader. If his discussion of Margulis had been half as balanced as the male scientists he discussed, who also got a few things right and a few thing very wrong, chapter one would have been tolerable. Francis Crick believed that DNA was put in cells by aliens (all that LSD he took:); and yet, not a mention of that by Lane in an attempt to discredit the whole of his work. When discussing the Miller - Urey experiment, Lane merely glosses over the fact that it doesn't jive with the most important law known to humans, thermodynamics. If he treated them like Margulis, he would have gone after them on a much more personal level.

Luckily for me, I was a science major. As such, I am lucky enough to appreciate the incredible work in this book. Lane reminds me of Newton, who when writing the Principia,made damn sure the lowly undeserving commoner could never have access to his ideas.

I much prefer authors, like physicist Sean Carroll or Paul Falkowski, who work hard to break down complicated information and package it for public consumption. However, if you are already extremely familiar with biochem, membrane bioenergetics, thermodynamics, and the like, this book, which reflects sheer brilliance, is for you. I remember reading Lane's paper on membrane bioenergetics. I was in love with every word of it. It took me 4 days to really pour over it. The RNA world and primordial soup hypotheses are missing important components because they cannot account for the energy required for replication. Lane's origin of life argument, which involves a natural energy source at deep ocean vents that acts just like a cell does when it makes ATP, is extremely compelling. Any hypothesis that doesn't take into account thermodynamics and required energy is doomed to fail. Both RNA world and primordial soup fail to hold up. Even if Lane's hypothesis turns out to be incorrect, it taught us that we *must* meet the requirements of thermodynamics and keep focused on energy needs and constraints in order to understand how life began. Any correct theory must provide an answer to how enough energy can be generated so that cells can replicate. Lane's hypothesis is simply the best candidate. If the vents were not the energy source, something was. If it's not the vents, it is likely something that works in a similar manner.

Despite the elitist tone of the book, this is the type of theory that shifts paradigms. It is, without question, a seminal work. I read one review that suggested Lane merely regurgitated what the reviewer had already learned in their science courses at university. I cannot imagine how that is even possible considering the novel nature of the work.

Absolutely worth reading if you can get through it.

27 of 39 people found this review helpful

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THE VITAL QUESTION

Nick Lane, a biochemist, offers a science driven explanation for the origin of life. As a non-scientist listening to Lane’s book, one may be overwhelmed by technical jargon without some additional research. The additional effort offers a better understanding of Lane’s explanation for a chemical theory of life’s origin. Though Lane’s story is laced with biochemical terms, he occasionally uses words that are understood by all; i.e. he argues the beginning of life comes from rock, water, and carbon dioxide that interact with each other when energy is introduced.

Evolutionary change is inherent in the process of human procreation. However, Lane doubts life can be extended beyond the age of 120 without taking the risk of genetic manipulation, an image reminiscent of Hitler’s Aryan nation or H. G. Wells’ “Island of Dr. Moreau”.

Lane’s “…Vital Question” remains a question at the end of his story. If life is just chemistry, where did the first prokaryotes come from? If they came from the big bang, what was there before the big bang?

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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One of the most fascinating, albeit complicated, books I've read

If you've ever wondered how it all started and how scientists could even possibly begin to speculate, this book will explain it all. You've heard of the "primordial goo" I'm sure. This book explains exactly what that means. It explains how we go from nothing, to something, to something slightly more complex, to something complex enough for natural selection to kick in; all while explaining how no laws of thermodynamics (and the tendency toward entropy and disorder instead of order) were violated. No pieces are left out for you to guess at. He explains it all and the research behind it. Like building Legos, you can see pieces falling into place, all leading to the evolution of us. Really was an amazing read.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful