Book Preview: The Vital Question

Lee turned me on to Nick Lane's book The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. I'm only about a tenth of the way through it, but as is my want, I can't help commenting. It's a terrific book.

I took a senior level course in Evolution only a semester ago, so I thought I was sort of up to date on the subject, but Lane's book made it clear that my textbook was already at least a decade out of date even though it's copyright is 2013, at least on the question of the earliest cells.

Naturally I haven't gotten to the core of Lane's argument yet, but several points are obvious: he believes that the key event in the rise of complex cells (the eukaryotes) which constitute humans, plants, fungi, and several very diverse groups of unicellular creatures was the incorporation of the bacterial endosymbionts which became mitochondria into our ancestral archaebacterial cells. Moreover, this occurred only once (or, at any rate, only descendants of this singular event survive) in the history of complex cells.

Exactly what the implications of this are, I'm not yet sure, but presumably some light will be shown on such fundamental questions as:

How and why did the nucleus evolve? What about sex? Why do virtually all eukaryotes have two sexes? Where did the extravagant internal membranes come from? How did the cytoskeleton become so dynamic and flexible? Why does sexual cell division (‘meiosis’) halve chromosome numbers by first doubling them up? Why do we age, get cancer, and die?

Lane, Nick. The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life (p. 43). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

As well as others like the prospects for life in the universe.


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