‘Life changing’ principles a fascinating and provocative read

By SciBooks 01/01/2014

Cellsby Michael Edmonds

REVIEW Cells to Civilisations: the Principles of Change that Shape Life
by Enrico Coen, FRS

Princeton University Press
Shortlisted for the Royal Society’s 2013 Winton Prize

How could I resist reading a book claimed to be “the first unified account of how life transforms itself” and covering the “four great life transformations – evolution, development, learning and human culture?” I’ve always enjoyed biology, however, I chose a career in chemistry partly because I found biology less “organised” than chemistry. Could molecular geneticist, Enrico Coen, show me a unified approach to biology?

The answer to this question is, largely, yes.

In Cells to Civilizations Professor Coen distils seven core principles underlying the biological processes surrounding evolution, development and learning, and also extends these principles to the development of human culture. These processes are discussed in terms of journeys through genetic, developmental, neural and culture spaces, respectively.

The seven core principles identified by Professor Coen are population variation, persistence, reinforcement, competition, cooperation, combinatorial richness and recurrence. Chapter by chapter, these principles are used to frame the various life processes. In some cases the framework of seven principles seems to fit more smoothly – I found its application to evolution and culture most compelling, while its use to describe learning seemed a little forced. However, this could be due to the academic complexity of this section, for which the author even suggests that the reader may “prefer to skip some of the more detailed explanations”.

The book uses  art history to introduce and explain a range of biological concepts, for example, describing how the combinatorial richness of DNA derived from just four bases is analogous to the richness of a Cezanne derived from the combination of different individual brushstrokes. Initially I found these references to art history distracting, however, they were generally easy to understand and converged nicely towards the end of the book where Professor Coen applies his seven principles to an explanation of human cultural development. I found the final chapter, where he interlinks the four spaces (genetic, developmental, neural and cultural) to be insightful and thought provoking.

Cells to Civilizations is a fascinating read. Professor Coen has obviously spent a great deal of time thinking about this new approach to describing life processes. As someone without a strong biology background but with general science knowledge, I found most of the book fairly accessible and enjoyed the clarity provided by the framework of the seven principles. I will be interested to see how those working in the biological science interpret this interesting, and perhaps provocative work.

Dr Michael Edmonds is a chemist by training and a science educator/communicator by choice. He is currently Head of Engineering & Architectural Studies at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology