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The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life

Nick Lane · 6 HN comments
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Amazon 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 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. 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?
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The article seems to suggest he's simulating a "soup" of many different molecules and seeing which combinations lead to sustained reactions. Nick Lane's book "The Vital Question" [1] discounts the primordial soup idea (that life arose in tidal pools or streams near volcanos due to the right chemical mixture being present in the water at that time) and suggests underwater alkaline hydrothermal vents as the location of the first formation of life. The hydrothermal vents produced (see also his recent paper [2]) alkaline fluids which mixed with acidic seawater within micropores provided by the geological structures of a particular type of vent. This, he hypothesises, led to proton gradients which are essential for life.

Of course, both these guys are experts at the top of their fields, at respected institutes. I possess neither of those qualities.



Peripherally related book recommendation: Someone here on HN recommended it to me and it was an awesome read (that I doubt I understood).
I really loved this book -- it's definitely highly recommended by many folks (I think know Bill Gates was a big fan). But I don't recall it containing much -- if anything at all -- about CRISPR?
It doesn't directly. However, in reading the article I was able to think about what I learned about prokaryotes, archaea, and generally just feel like having read that book I enjoyed the article a lot more, if that makes sense? :)
Ah got it -- I thought maybe I missed something in there! Was a great book, for sure.
I listened to the audio book and must state that it's very involved and not really for the layman like me. I got lost on the eukaryotes explanation which lost me for much of the other topics.
I've found audiobooks (and podcasts) to be great for lighter reading, but I tend to drift in and out. That's not a great system for something more scaffolded like a textbook where you have to thoroughly understand each part in order to build the next piece on top
As someone who is severely dyslexic: basically the only way I can consume large amounts of written content in an acceptable amount of time is audio book. Thankfully- I'm pretty sure listening to an audio book for me is the same level of comprehensible intake as a non-dyslexic via written word. :)
IIRC it was on Bill Gates' book list last year.
In line with this, I'd also like to recommend 'The Gene'[0]. The author has informed me of new things (Even though I studied biochemistry during college) and also focused a lot on the ethical discussions relating to genetic modification. It also directly discusses CRISPR as it is quite new. I'd recommend all of Mukherjee's other books as well (Mainly Emperor of all Maladies).


I'd second this recommendation - currently reading it right now and it has the nice combination of being really interesting and really easy to read. Mukherjee's style is really clear and enjoyable.
Is that life itself is relatively "easy" and is likely to be common.

Life appears common, but multicellular life appears to be extremely uncommon and appears to have evolved only once on earth, at least according to Nick Lane's excellent (though inadvertently depressing) book The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life ( I can't gauge the accuracy of his claims but the book does not appear to have been rebutted, at least from what I've found. Given all the discussion about biology on this thread I'm surprised no one else has mentioned it.

Also, as far as we know, single-celled life also evolved exactly once. This is one thing I haven't seen a good answer for -- if life came about so early, that would indicate that it is easy. But since it occurred only once, that would indicate that it is hard.

The common explanation is that once life evolved and began to spread, that it would prevent other life from appearing by out-competing it. But there is plenty of raw materials and sunlight to go around, so I don't buy that explanation.

The only thing that seems to fit, is that life is hard to evolve, but has extra-terrestrial origin. If that is the case then life should exist (at least in bacterial form) wherever a suitable habitat is found.

Jun 05, 2016 · ChuckMcM on Nest’s time at Alphabet
Yes, they used that exact term, invoking Darwin at the same time. And I agree with you about the time frame.

I've been reading "The Vital Question"[1] of late and it has been the first book in a while where I've had several "oh that makes so much sense!" moments. And one of the tenets is that Darwin was correct in the small, and wrong in the large understandings of evolution.

Something that jumped out to me while reading it, is that information extraction drives our technology systems like energy drives biological systems. Read the book and then sit back and analyze Twitter as a multi-cellular organism with information as energy and individuals as cells. A sort of Datasaurus. Fun stuff.

[1] "The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life" -- based on the recommendation tweeted by Gates and comments here, I read it through cover to cover while camping, and now going through a second reading to pick up what I overlooked the first time.

I've been reading The Vital Question by Nick Lane, where he puts forth some theories about the origin of eukaryotes, and life in general. It does make it seem that abiogenesis and eukaryote-genesis are much more difficult than we give them credit for.

So in the Drake Equation, I think that F[L] is probably pretty low.

And because eukaroyte genesis is difficult and only happened once (and it took a billion years of bacteria & archea hanging out before we got a eukaryote), and eukaryotes are a prereq for multi-cellular organisms and thus intelligent life, F[i] is also really low.

This gets my vote. My hunch is that intelligent life like the kind we would love to meet happens either on the order of once or twice per galaxy during the galaxy's entire lifetime, or it happens SO rarely that, if the universe is infinite in extent, then any intelligent observer looking out from the "center" of their observable universe will most likely be in the only intelligent civilization in that visible radius.

Depressing, but it seems more plausible than things like "Great Filters of DOOM". It would predict that there is a lot of intelligence in the entire universe, but each cluster of intelligence is profoundly alone.

Then why the fuck do we keep killing ourselves?

Seriously, if we taught this level of intelligent-life appreciation to every born soul... the world would be a better place.

Rather than starting with the teachings we do for youngsters; why not just teach them how freaking rare and lucky they are to be a consciousness present to hear that fact and then know that they can then expand the known universe... but do this in a much more deliberate fashion than we are now?

We need to be much much more deterministic from a species if we will survive for eons.

We keep killing ourselves because so many people are so damned reassured that death isn't the end. That or they just pessimistically assume there's no way we'll make it to eons.

I think we could easily last for eons, but yeah. We have to get people on board with that possibility.

> Then why the fuck do we keep killing ourselves?

We are slaves to our own genetic sequences to a much larger extent than we usually think.

It's pretty easy to show that the behaviors that lead to people killing each other are driven by mechanisms initially evolved to ensure that our own genetic sequences keep multiplying and spreading out, eliminating competition. And they're pretty dumb mechanisms, running on the lower levels of our brains, so don't expect them to be very selective, or run without failure. Sometimes they hit an internal bug and become runaway destruction loops, which sometimes even turn against the individual itself.

Many things that are typically considered "evil" can be traced back ultimately to these mechanisms that ensure that our own genetic sequences win the race. In a way, "evil" was actually useful, way back in time, in an evolutionary sense. It's just recently that we've acquired new desires and aspirations, which are in conflict with the old, narrow, dumb routines.

> Then why the fuck do we keep killing ourselves?

Because the knowledge that "us killing ourselves" collectively is bad for us collectively does not affect the decision for an individual to kill another individual.

>Then why the fuck do we keep killing ourselves?

Not enough game theorists in charge.

To quote Ender's Game: "I am not a happy man, Ender. Humanity does not ask us to be happy. It merely asks us to be brilliant on its behalf. Survival first, then happiness as we can manage it."

It doesn't really answer why we commit suicide. But it does give an answer to why we aren't happy.

Where do you get the estimate of "once or twice per galaxy"? I can agree that it might be "rare," but I have no idea how you would pin down the rareness to that level of accuracy.
It's a total guesstimate. The interesting thing to me is that I have no idea how anyone else pins down THEIR estimates to any level of accuracy, but they are apparently confident enough in their estimates to posit things like the "Great Filter", when other (equally likely) estimates such as mine require no such thing.
Panspermia is one solution to this.
All problems [in philosophy] can be solved by another level of indirection...
Ha! But it does solve the 'this rare event happened here on Earth but it is very unlikely to happen anywhere' because those little single cells came here from somewhere else. That source infected millions of planets.

It moves the problem of starting everywhere to starting in one place (more likely)

Getting it to occur once is more likely than getting it to occur many times. However, it does give you a new problem: making cells that can survive hard vacuum, radiation, and extreme cold, for millenia (at least), and still be viable when they reach a new planet. We're not talking speed-of-light propagation here. We're probably not even talking 0.01 c. So even to the nearest neighboring star is probably thousands or tens of thousands of years. In vacuum. In extreme cold. Without even photosynthesis to provide energy. Yeah, I'm kind of skeptical of this actually working.
If panspermia does happen in the universe, I bet that it happens with the sheltering of asteroids and meteors. Life develops on low-gravity planets with turbulent atmosphere -> some cells get into space -> get caught by comets and other objects -> slowly propagate within comet -> comet has an unstable orbit that sends it to another system, where it has an encounter with a habitable planet.

An icey comet could provide radiation protection and it could accidentally go through a gravity assist to increase it's speed.

I suppose that the best evidence we could collect to prove or disprove panspermia is to see if it's happened between planets/moons/objects within our own solar system.

One thing to keep in mind is that the time interval of stability for Earth as a life-bearing planet is actually fairly close to the end. We're past the 75% point. The Sun's evolution will "soon" put an end to that (speaking on a cosmic scale).

So it seems like it was a close call. Life needed almost the full extent of that interval of stability to create an (arguably) intelligent species. There can be no reset and start over. This is it, for the solar system. If we fail to survive, this whole star and its planets have failed to produce viable intelligence.

If Earth turns out to somehow be unusually stable as a life-bearing planet, this might explain a large portion of the Fermi paradox. This might be a large chunk of the Great Filter.

"How long do you say the sun had left?"

"...5 billion years."

"Whew, that's OK, I though you said 5 million!"

> 5 billion years

The Sun will get significantly hotter over the next 1 billion years. Life on Earth will become impossible (unless artificially maintained) quite a while before the end of that 1 billion year interval.

...I had so much I wanted to do :-(
Cheatsheet, without the affiliate links (another commenter posted these with affiliate links then deleted it after being called out):

The Road to Character, David Brooks -

Thing Explainer, Randall Munroe -

Being Nixon: A Man Divided, Evan Thomas -

Sustainable Materials With Both Eyes Open, Julian Allwood -

Eradication: Ridding the World of Diseases Forever?, Nancy Leys Stepan -

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck -

Honorable Mention:

The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, Nick Lane -

Affiliate links? Like, Bill Gates gets some money when you click through his blog? Please tel me I'm misunderstanding.
There are actually no direct links to Amazon (or other similar sites) in his blog posts. Parent meant other commentators in this thread.
No, another commenter posted links but slapped affiliate tags on them.
Just to mention - you can read 'Sustainable Materials with Both Eyes Open' on the authors' website (although I'm sure they wouldn't mind people buying it on Amazon as well).
I'm curious, why is it that people dislike affiliate-backed links if the link is relevant, useful, interesting and of equal quality to the normal link? Seems irrational.
Nothing wrong with affiliate links if you're a regular user of this site: we're capitalists here. I make sure to include them if I link to a book, because I could use the money more than Jeff Bezos. Of course, I don't link to stuff just for the sake of linking to it, but only do so if I would have anyway. I think it's pretty clear whether someone is a spammer or not. seems to be the person who included some links. They have clearly been here a while, participates constructively, and doesn't seem to spew out a lot of affiliate links (any, actually, that I can see).

I suppose some think there is an opportunity for disingenuous posting if there is monetary gain to be had. That said, I agree with you, and knowing I have posted affiliate links without trying, I think any malice attributed to it is misplaced.
With affiliate links, I sometimes make upwards of 10 dollars every few months - enough for a free book once in a while. I'll let you guess how that compares to my salary...

I think it's pretty clear from people's posting/comment history whether they're adding them in good faith or not.

Perhaps, but taking a famous person's list of books and reposting it with affiliate links and no disclaimer is definitely crossing the line in my book.
Why? I'm genuinely interesting in your line of reasoning.
Profiteering in comment sections pollutes the incentives for commenters. Sure the links were useful, but they were much less useful than a person providing a really insightful comment about a typical article that shows up here. I don't want one person making monetary gain over another.
> I don't want one person making monetary gain over another.

Seems like that shipped sailed a long time ago: there are a lot of people who link to their companies, offer jobs, and that kind of thing here. Making money is not a bad thing - spamming is.

If anyone's interested, I hereby offer to spend the entirety of my ill-gotten affiliate gains on beers if anyone ever visits Bend, Oregon.

If only there was a system where we could somehow crowdsource deciding which comments are "really insightful" and which are not...
Don't think I might have upvoted it, but it does represent a minor convenience.
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