‘Bluntly put, we do not know why life is the way it is’ – The Vital Question by Nick Lane

What the hell is it that we’re all doing here, on this sometimes magical and sometimes wretched planet?” Is there a more irresistible, more impenetrable and yet more persistent question? Poets, mystics and philosophers have all had a punt but, in this age, it’s scientists to whom people increasingly turn for answers.

tvqnlNick Lane, a biochemist who leads the University College London ‘Origins of Life’ programme, is uniquely qualified (and uniquely placed) to analyse the same. In The Vital Question he begins his account with a tantalising admission – that there is a black hole at the heart of evolutionary biology:

‘Bluntly put, we do not know why life is the way it is. All complex life on earth shares a common ancestor, a cell that arose from…bacteria…on just one occasion in 4 billion years.’

And so you, me, lions, trees and mushrooms all share this ancestor – and it’s why all of us procreate, age, become vulnerable to disease and die. So was this leap – i.e. from bacteria to cell – a freak accident? Why has it only happened once? As things stand, there is no scientific consensus.

From the outside, as one merely looking on at the assured march of scientific progress, the above is a stark confession. And The Vital Question is Lane’s attempt not so much to answer, but to posit a theory for others to digest and pull apart.

Ever since Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (way back in 1988), there has been a real appetite for ‘popular science’. To be sure this is not the same as a dumbing-down of the subject, but rather a presentation that allows the layperson to connect with the ever-expanding frontier of human knowledge. Television has picked up on and run with the theme, and with iconic series like David Attenborough’s Life on Earth and Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe, it has played a huge part in the ‘popularising’ mission. The question that remains though is can books – stripped as they are of the visual dimension – carry academia and esoterica to the uninitiated, as effectively as television?

Lane’s credentials are unimpeachable. And moreover, by posing questions like ‘Why is life the way it is?’, ‘What is life?’ and ‘What is living?’, that there are spellbinding things to learn pretty much on every page, is almost a given. The critical question therefore, is of accessibility – just how much can the lay reader take from this book?

For those hoping for a ‘Dummies Guide To…’ sort of exploration, this most certainly is not it – here you will find rigorous, scientific argument. ‘Well ok’, one might think – then has the author been mindful of the casual reader, and taken care to hold his hand? At the top of page 2, like the proverbial canary down the coalmine, we get an early warning:

‘..bacteria have remained simple in their morphology (but not their biochemistry) throughout 4 billion years. In stark contrast, all morphologically complex organisms – all plants, animals, fungi, seaweeds and single-celled ‘protists’ such as amoeba – descend from that singular ancestor about 1.5-2 billion years ago.’

It is hard to imagine the lay reader – the kind with no knowledge beyond the science and Natural History programmes on telly – staying on-board for this ride. Despite the author having gone to real effort to introduce each chapter innovatively, the writing gets dense, and quickly. However for those with some platform beyond TV, it will make an incredible read. And for a youngster taking science A-levels, or considering degree-level study in the area, the book will be priceless.

Any Cop?: The Vital Question is the kind of book that will be gushed over by the critics, and to a large extent, it deserves the praise: scientific endeavour is awe-inspiring per-se; something for everyone to celebrate. But just like Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, many will buy it, start reading, and soon get hopelessly lost. They’ll have to wait until it is made over by the BBC before they ‘get it’.

Tamim Sadikali


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