Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex LifeTHE VITAL QUESTION

Written by: Nick Lane

Narration by:  Kevin Pariseau


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.

Planet earth is estimated to be four billion plus years old.  At earth’s earliest, rock, and water were present.  With an earthen core of molten rock, carbon dioxide is created from the interaction between rock and water.  Modern evidence of that interaction is observable in today’s THERMAL VENTS:

Those early elements lead to microscopic unicellular prokaryotes (bacteria and archaea) which have no nucleus (a center with a membrane), and only one chromosome (a genetic characteristic). Prokaryotes have DNA and an outer membrane with some of the elements of a bigger cell called eukaryotes.


Lane argues that over some period of time the constant motion of prokaryotes leads to a merge between one prokaryote and another to create a eukaryote; i.e. a new cellular formation with a nucleus (an internal element with its own membrane) and some added elemental features. One of the preeminent features of a eukaryote is its ability to become molecularly more complex; i.e. to become multi-cellular with multi-chromosome capability.


Lane argues, along with other biochemists, that the role of energy in the chemical creation of life is misunderstood until more recent times.

Lane reminds listeners of the physics law that says “energy cannot be created and cannot be destroyed”. With the growth of eukaryotes, energy became an integral part of cellular function. Adenosine Tri-Phosphate (ATP) became the power plant of the cell.

With a built-in energy source, a race began to create life with permeable cellular membranes that allowed molecular interior change and exterior growth. The conditions for evolution are set.

Interior changes included mitochondrial DNA.

Exterior changes included molecular bonding and sustained energy for evolution.

Lane also explains why separate sexes are important for evolutionary survival. Female eggs carry the critical element of mitochondrial DNA but opportunity for evolutionary change is guaranteed by male sperm fertilization. Evolutionary change is inherent in the process of human procreation. However, he 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?

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