The Vital Question. Why is life the way it is?

About the book

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 form. 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.


  • One of the deepest, most illuminating books about the history of life to have been published in recent years.
  • A strikingly unconventional view of biology… Dr. Lane’s broad perspective, which attempts to address the origins of life, sex and death, is seductive and often convincing.
    Tim Requarth, NEW YORK TIMES
  • He is an original researcher and thinker and a passionate and stylish populariser. His theories are ingenious, breathtaking in scope, and challenging in every sense ... intellectually what Lane is proposing, if correct, will be as important as the Copernican revolution.
    Peter Forbes GUARDIAN
  • "A bold, eloquent, confident book… Nick Lane is not only a master storyteller, but this is his research… he’s that rare species, a scientist who can illuminate the bewildering complexities of biology with clear, luminous words"
    Adam Rutherford, OBSERVER
  • Comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher's mind.
    Matt Ridley TIMES
  • Nick Lane is emerging as one of the most imaginative thinkers about the evolution of life on Earth... A scintillating synthesis of a new theory of life.
    Clive Cookson FINANCIAL TIMES
  • Succeeds brilliantly… I cannot recommend The Vital Question too highly. Lane's vivid descriptions and powerful reasoning will amaze and grip the reader.
    Caspar Henderson TELEGRAPH
  • This is a book of vast scope and ambition, brimming with bold and important ideas... The arguments are powerful and persuasive... an incredible, epic story.
    Michael Le Page NEW SCIENTIST
  • An exciting tale, thrillingly told... This is a potent book, one that not only brings you up to date with biology but also stuns you with the wonder of it all.
    Bryan Appleyard, SUNDAY TIMES
  • A tour de force of inventive science.
    Philip Ball PROSPECT
  • "The Vital Question” is a stunning inquiry into the origin of life. I loved this book. This Biology Book Blew Me Away
    Bill Gates
  • Nick Lane works to uncover what has constrained the evolution of life on Earth and what this could mean in terms of understanding how we got here, as well as how life may potentially evolve elsewhere in th
    Chemistry World
  • Nick Lane presents an eloquent, compelling argument that draws on cutting edge research from biochemistry, cell biology and genetics, and approaches the question of the origin of life from a very different perspective: energy.
    The Times Higher Education
  • His question is not one for a static answer but rather one for a series of ever sharper explanations—explanations that apply at different resolutions to specific increments in the continuous chain of life, to the whole, and to generalizations of the proce

Chapter extracts

Introduction - Why is Life the Way it Is

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