The Vital Question by Nick Lane

Vertigo

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Sorry, this turned into more of an essay than a review but that's simply because no book I've read in several years has made me think so much about its content. My thanks to @Stephen Palmer for his original recommendation.




“If life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest, death is nothing but that electron come to rest”

A Book examining the biochemical origins and evolution of life probably can’t help waxing philosophical on occasion and Nick Lane is certainly not shy of doing so but not to the extent that it would cheapen what is an excellent and serious but accessible examination of why life is the way it is. Life on Earth can be broadly broken into two categories – simple and complex – and probably the two greatest questions about life are how simple (bacteria and archaea) life began and, probably even more important and even less known, how that life made the transition to the complex cells that make up all other life on Earth. The DNA evidence is pretty conclusive that each of these events occurred just once (at least successfully); at the genetic level all life has more in common than in difference and all complex life from algae to trees to humans is chemically almost identical. And the truly extraordinary thing is that we STILL know almost nothing about how life got to be this way. Yes, with phylogenetics (which does rather tend to hog the limelight) we can broadly read the history of evolution through tracking common genes. But nearly all the features of complex life (cell walls, cell nucleus, mitochondria, etc.) appear in the genetic record pretty much fully formed. This is not so much a missing link as an entire missing thread.

In The Vital Question Nick Lane puts forward his hypothesis about how life might have evolved from simple organic chemistry and how the resulting simple bacteria and archaea might then have managed to make the transition to complex life. He does not claim or even expect his hypothesis to be correct in every detail but does hope it is broadly correct; this is leading edge biochemistry and though his hypothesis does make testable predictions the process of testing them is still very much ongoing. This book presents the known facts, hypothesises on how those facts could have evolved, and does this in a remarkably accessible manner. This was never going to be an easy task; biochemistry is mind bogglingly complex and nothing’s going to change that. Much of the detail was beyond me, but Lane skilfully provides that detail in a way that a non-biochemists like myself can at least grasp the general principles.

It is easy to be impressed with the awesome complexity of life, even without a background in evolution and biochemistry we can still be amazed by its beauty and its solutions to the infinite variety of environmental challenges. But what’s less obvious is how much of a mess it all is. Nick Lane quotes the geneticist David Penny:

“I would have been quite proud to sit on the committee that designed the E. coli genome. There is, however, no way that I would admit to serving on the committee that designed the human genome. Not even a university committee could botch something that badly.”

The thing is, biochemically we could come up with much better ways to store and transport energy and use that energy to manufacture proteins but evolution didn’t have the privilege of designing life to fit a specific end goal. Instead it had to get there by small incremental steps each of which, critically, must provide a selection advantage. The result is far more Heath Robinson (Americans might say Rube Goldberg) than elegant design. And it is staggeringly inefficient; even the simplest cells today, after 4 billion years of evolutionary refinement, produce around 40g of waste for each 1g of useful protein produced. This book brilliantly explores what those steps might have been and how they might have evolved.

It is not uncommon for people to point to life’s expansion into almost every feasible environmental niche as proof (or at least a very strong indicator) that life will be abundant anywhere it can be abundant. However that presupposes that two critical events were inevitable. First the original genesis of simple life (bacteria and archaea). This happened quite quickly, around half a billion years after the formation of Earth, and the necessary organic chemical evolution is quite possibly inevitable on any rocky water bearing planet. But following this nothing much changed for the next two billion years; the bacteria that are around today are structurally much the same as the original bacteria of 4 billion years ago. Then around two billion years ago the first complex cells finally appear and the fact that all complex cells today, from fungi to plants to animals to amoeba are almost identical in both chemistry and function suggests, very strongly, that this happened (successfully) just once. Think about the implications of that. To form complex cells one bacterium managed to successfully enter an archaeum and SURVIVE and in two billion years of evolution that appears to have happened successfully just once. This seems to suggest that simple life like bacteria is likely to be common through the universe but complex life (plants and animals) is probably much less so. Understanding that one simple fact is why I would recommend this book to any SF reader. And Nick Lane’s piloting of the reader through the journey to this understanding is almost as exciting as many of the SF books I’ve been lucky enough to read.

I have no background in biochemistry, yet Lane managed to enlighten me without totally drowning me. I won't pretend it was an easy read, a fair bit of the detail was inevitably beyond me, but Lane guides the reader through that complexity with an exceptional clarity.
 
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Brian G Turner

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Just to ask, does he argue - or simply run with - the assertion that all life comes from a single common ancestor, or does he consider alternative ideas?
 

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