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

Lane, Nick. The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. Norton, New York, 2016. NF;10/16.

Reviews of this book on evolution and chemistry hail it as an intellectual and scientific breakthrough. Most reviewers find the explanations and logic crystal clear. I’m sorry: something must be wrong. I endured and passed three years of chemistry in university, have an undergrad degree in cell biology, and bought this book because I’m very interested in life’s fundamental questions, but I found it so opaque and confusing I couldn’t finish it.

Dr Lane argues for a particular location and mechanism of the origin of organic chemistry and possibly life including DNA, mitochondria, and the cell. If he’s right (maybe he is for all I understand after reading as much as I could stand of his book) the implications are enormous and fascinating. Life or something like it arguably must exist or have existed elsewhere than on earth.

But I’m afraid Lane makes the mistake Pinker warned against in The Sense of Style: his is self-conscious academic writing imagining that the reader is interested in (and can understand) the professional minutae he and his small colterie of colleagues spend their lives studying.

The problem is that the explanation of Dr. Lane’s theory, far from helping laypeople grasp what he’s talking about, is so peppered with technical chemistry and biology that nearly all his readers, most of whom aren’t capable at high school let alone graduate level chemistry, wouldn’t be able to follow what he’s talking about. So if we are honest how could we conceivably enjoy what we can’t understand? It reminded me a bit of Rethinking Aging by Norton Hadler. Why do hundreds of thousands of people buy these books? And why do reviewers crow in public about their excellence? Are we all trying to convince ourselves or others how smart we are?

If so I think we’re making a simple mistake.  These books contain information that can only be properly understood with special knowledge. It has nothing at all to do with intelligence. If overly-technical books were well-written we average-to-smart people could get the point without having to wade through PhD theses wishing but ending up pretending we understood them.

At one point I was surprised by enjoying Dr. Lane’s enthusiasm for his subject. It’s impressive that the surface area of the interior of a submicroscopic mitochondrion would cover three tennis courts or whatever it was, and that its energy output understood in proportion could power a city. But otherwise I spent my time feeling embarrassed that I couldn’t fathom the chemistry and hoping that Dr. Lane would start using figurative terms that would hold my interest. That only happened once.

I don’t very much like the curmudgeonly old-man conviction I’m left with. Maybe some people buy this kind of book to pay homage to the author’s achievement, but I’m afraid most of us just want to be associated with something we’ve been told is fascinating and important, and don’t get past the first chapter.

As I said (and at the risk of sounding like an outdated old fart) I still bet I know more chemistry, biology, and evolution than – I don’t know – maybe 95% of the literate population, but nearly all of the detail in this book flew way over my head. Hard to blame Nick Lane for following a publisher’s offer and cashing in on his special knowledge, but he might have done a lot better if he’d hired a good science journalist to put it within reach of the rest of us.

8.5 (I presume)/3.0.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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