A Mini-Review by William C. Frederick, October 2015, of
THE VITAL QUESTION:
ENERGY, EVOLUTION, AND THE ORIGINS OF COMPLEX LIFE
(New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015)
Author: Nick Lane
Here is a short list of the book’s main ideas:
The author, Nick Lane, is a biochemist at University College London and leader of the Origins of Life Program there. He is well known for several earlier and widely-acclaimed books. For him, “the vital question” of his most recent book is to seek answers about how life began on planet Earth. As noted above, he believes Energy is the source, not only of the origin of Earthly life but also a likely life-originator on other Earth-like planets throughout the Universe. The scientific evidence is laid out in 360 pages: an Introduction, 7 chapters, and an Epilogue, but in this mini-review, I’ll spare you most of those supporting, and most impressive, details.
What he does not explain, at least beyond an occasional hint, is where that life-giving Energy came from. Guess what? I think I know something about Energy’s origin: it was the Big Bang that spewed out all of the Energy that led to the formation of galaxies, stars, planets, and organic life. In fact, I told that story in Natural Corporate Management: From the Big Bang to Wall Street. What Lane’s book adds is just how that Big Bang’s energy was converted into early life forms on planet Earth. As a creative, enormously well-informed biochemist, Lane tells how the most basic, primitive life forms seized the incoming energy flows, combined those energy fluxes to form more complex cells that led eventually to the evolution of organic creatures, plants, and human beings.
So, we have an explanation about Energy and Life, but what about Business? Lane, a biochemist, understandably doesn’t explore how Business is driven by the same energy flows that shape organic cellular life. That story, like Lane’s, is too long to re-tell here but can be found in two of my books: Values, Nature, and Culture in the American Corporation and Natural Corporate Management: From the Big Bang to Wall Street. The essence of that story is that the decisions, strategies, and policies of the business corporation are nothing but an expression of those same primal sources of energy that were responsible for the creation and evolution of Earthly life. The business firm’s quest for profit is the same as any organism’s quest for organic survival; both involve finding, organizing, and using the ecosystem’s supply of energy to sustain their respective lives. Lane’s complex cells do exactly the same thing: In the economist’s language, cells economize and focus their use of energy; in the ecologist’s language, they do so within an ecosystem context that channels and shapes the energy fluxes. Both the business firm and cellular organic life adapt to, and survive within, their respective environments. Lane’s research at the cellular level is entirely compatible with what happens at the behavioral level of the corporate executive. It is a perfect theoretical combination that explains both the origin and evolution of life and the underlying logic of business enterprise. Lane’s “vital question” obviously has more than one answer.