Rossdavidh's Reviews > The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life

The Vital Question by Nick Lane
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really liked it
bookshelves: black

You remember that teacher you had, in junior high or high school, who was so enthusiastic about his or her topic that you found yourself enjoying the class? Even if it was in a field you had not liked up until then, the right person can have a level of excitement with a subject that is contagious. Nothing is more boring than someone who is bored, and very little is as exciting as someone who is excited about what they're trying to teach. Reading Nick Lane's book is a little like having a teacher like that.


When I was a child in school, I was taught that life could be divided into animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria. Some time after that, maybe in college or perhaps later, I heard that they had divided bacteria into two groups, one of which was still called "bacteria", the other was now called "archaea". This seemed, to me, a pointless splitting, like people who think that post-punk and deathrock are totally different, and should be considered independent genres on the level of jazz, rock, and classical.

But, it turns out, this wasn't just some researchers in bacteria getting nitpicky about their chosen topic. It turns out that our cells, and those of every mammal, bird, lizard, fish, etc. in existence, are made of bacteria trapped inside archaea. It's like our cells shouldn't even be called the same thing as bacterial cells. Somewhere back in time, probably in a single event, a bacteria got lost inside an archaea cell, and somehow neither one of them died.

Imagine if you ate something, and it didn't die, but it also didn't make you sick. In fact, after a while, you started to depend on it to survive. Life, it turns out, is weird, and evolution isn't only about bigger things killing smaller ones. Sometimes, it's more about cooperating than competing, but figuring out how something like that could happen is a pretty difficult topic.

Nearly as improbable, is that a researcher in the field of the origins of life would decide that a book on the origins of, and distinctions between, archaea and bacteria, would be suitable for the general public. Or that he would convince a publisher of this. Or that it would turn out to be true.

It helps a lot that Lane is unstinting in his use of pictures and diagrams, and that he has a narrative voice which is the very opposite of the dry, third person, emotionless narrator that so many science textbooks use. He is interested in his topic, he can't wait to tell you about it, and you can practically see him grinning with excitement and gesturing wildly with his hands as you read.

We spend a lot of time at the bottom of the ocean in this book, near hyrdrothermal vents. We also spend a lot of time shrunk down to microscopic size and looking around at how things work, or used to work, or perhaps maybe used to work. We find out that "sex is far more widespread than seems reasonable." We are also called upon to sit up, read carefully, and think over what we just read from time to time. But, we never have to stifle a yawn; this is the kind of book that calls for an effort, but never requires an effort to stay awake. This is not your high school science textbook, not least because it's covering not only established science, but also a good bit of speculation and informed guesses that may or may not turn out to be true.

We are, I have said before, living in the Golden Age of popular science writing. Nick Lane's book is another example of why.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
February 20, 2016 – Shelved
February 20, 2016 – Shelved as: black

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