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Several ScienceBloggers are reviewing Coming To Life today (see reviews by Janet, Shelley, RPM, Nick and PZ Edit: Razib has also posted his take), each one of us from a different perspective and looking from a different angle, so go read them to get the full scoop.

PZ Myers reviewed the book a few weeks ago. Someting that struck me was that PZ said that the book :

“….assumes nothing more than that the reader is intelligent and curious. Seriously, you don’t need a biology degree to read it!”

…while a reviewer, Edward F. Strasser (a math PhD whose hobby is reviewing books from this angle – how readable they are for laypeople) on Amazon.com states the opposite:

“I don’t think that a person who has never seen this material before is ready for this book, but I think that many people who need it for review will be OK.”

So, when I started reading the book I decided to try to empty my mind of all the knowledge I have and to read it like a complete lay-person. I wanted to see who is right – PZ or Strasser – and try to determine who is the real audience for the book.

First, I have to tell you that I absolutely LOVED the book. And that may be its biggest problem. The book will be appreciated the best by people like me – biologists with expertise in another field who want to brush up on their evo-devo (and just devo) and have an easy reference on the bookshelf. The book does absolutely great for people like that.

But, will it do the same for others? Developmental biologists do not have a need for it because they already know everything in it and 100 times more. But how about complete laymen, people with minimal formal science education but a keen interest in science, people who read popular science magazines, watch Discovery channel and read ScienceBlogs?

I’d say Yes, but very cautiously. In a way, the book is deceptive. Its small size and pretty cover art suggest a breezy read. But it is not. It is a textbook disguised as a non-fiction bestseller. The tone is a matter-of-fact, unexcited monotone. Trying to speed though it will be a disaster. Why?

A textbook on developmental biology would be an expensive, 1000-page, lushly illustrated avalanche of nitty-gritty details. Making the book small by eliminating a lot of that detail means that what remains is highly concentrated. Every sentence matters. Every sentence is a summary of a thousand papers.

There is no “filler” material, e.g., anecdotes and personal stories or interesting examples of, for instance, exceptions to the the rules in a strange species, or philosophical musings, kind of stuff that will let your focus wane every now and then without serious consequences to understanding. Only occasionally she slides in a little bit of history which is always a welcome change of pace on top of being very informative and placing the material in a historical context.

You need to slow down and read every sentence with concentration. Perhaps stop and think what it means every now and then. Sometimes you wish she has NOT omitted some of the details which may serve as a useful illustration of a big principle she is describing in that sentence or paragraph.

Several times I caught her using a technical word without explaining (or at least defining) it first. If you did not have Intro Bio recently, or are not generally well informed on basic genetics and molecular biology, that would throw you off, and make you rush to the back of the book to check the Glossary – something that breaks the flow of reading any book.

So, the book is great for people who have some biology background (at any level) but not much knowledge of developmental biology – people like sophomore biology majors. But how do you get them to slow down and read the book carefully? Well, use it as a textbook! For an Introduction to Development course. I am serious! It’s that good.

The instructor could spend time in class explaining the principles described in the book – a process which slows down the reading of the book. Then, each instructor is free to add as much or as little detail in lectures as the level of the course requires, plus cool examples, flashy images and videos, etc, and add a couple of more readings, e.g., scientific papers and reviews.

Heck, it could be used even for a General Biology class for science majors (e.g., a summer speed class). Genetics, development and evolution are the core of biology, so adding a couple of lectures (with additional notes or a similar book) on physiology, behavior and ecology at the end (and those can be built upon the edifice of genetics, development and evolution covered before), would work just fine in some contexts, eliminating the need for students (like mine, the adults) to buy huge expensive textbooks that only intimidate them with the wealth of detail. It would give the instructor more freedom to design a course well.

Why do I think that this book is better as a potential textbook than the usual texts? Apart from size, price, friendliness and giving the instructor greater freedom, I really like the way the material is explained.

From the very first sentence, and reinforced throughout the book, the message is that the cell is the smallest unit of life. Not genes. Cells. While most textbooks fall into the philosophically untenable habit-of-mind that “genes use cells to make more genes” or “cells are places where genes perform the work of life”, Nusslein-Volhard constantly explains stuff within the proper way of thinking – “genes are tools that cells use to change, to do their job within the organism, and to make more cells”. The shift is subtle. She rarely states it this directly and openly, but if you are reading the book specifically looking for it (as I did), you notice that the word-choice and the way of explainig things is always within this mode of thought. She also, whenever that is appropriate, never forgets to mention important influences of the internal and/or external environment on cells and tfe developing organisms.

The book also makes a gradual progression over levels. After basic introductions to evolution, heredity and molecular biology, she starts with the cell and how it uses genes to change its own and neighboring cells’ properties. As the chapters move on, there is less and less talk of genes and more and more talk of cells, tissues organs and whole organisms, ending with the return to evolution in an excellent chapter on Body Plans.

Understanding that most of the readers will be anthropocentric, she then devotes a chapter to the development and reproduction in those lousy lab animal models – humans.

The final chapter on controversial aspects of developmental biology and its practice – covering stuff like cloning, stem-cell research etc., is as calm and even-tempered (almost dry) as the rest of the book. More importantly, the conclusions given there are derived directly from the science described in the rest of the book, with no Culture-Wars code-words that can trigger automatical resentment on the part of readers that are involved in Culture Wars on one side or the other. Again, it provides the neccessary background that can be useful for a class discussion. And its dry, science-y tone is exactly what is needed for such a discussion.

So, if you are a biologist and you want to refresh and update your knowledge of development really fast and easy – get this book, it is better than any other in this respect.

If you are not a biologist, but have a keen interest and some background, get the book but do not expect to breeze through it in two hours. Do not be deceived by the small size and pretty illustrations Dr.Volhart drew herself. Give yourself a week to read this book, then read it slowly and with full concentration. Read that way, it is worth its weight in gold.

And if you are more interested in the “evo” side of evo-devo and a more future-oriented book (Coming To Life summarizes current knowledge with no speculations about the future), read “Biased Embryos and Evolution” (see my review) – the two books nicely complement each other.

My question to Dr.Nusslein-Volhard: Is it possible to turn Developmental Systems Theory into a useful experimental program and, if so, will that provide discoveries and insights that are lacking within the current paradigm?


  1. #1 Nick Anthis
    August 21, 2006

    Hey, nice URL (…books_coming_to_life_by_christ). I didn’t know Jesus himself was back in the publishing business…. 😉

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    August 21, 2006

    OK, seriously, though… I like your point about Coming to Life being used in a college level class. In one of my introductory genetics classes, for example, Genome by Matt Ridley was part of the required reading, and I probably learned as much from it as anything else (and it was a lot more fun to read than a textbook). Coming to Life is a bit more academic, but incredibly informative. It would fill that role, in particular, really well. Also, I think it would be great for anyone who already has an interest in the subject, but could be a little tough otherwise.

  3. #3 The Ridger
    August 21, 2006

    Two questions, please. The first is embarrassing, but – how is Evo Devo pronounced? Like it looks (EEEvoh DEEEvoh)? or like some people (like me) pronounce the words it comes from (ehvuh dehvuh – surely not?) Or in between (ehvo dehvo)?

    And then, more seriously, is this something to read as well as Endless Forms Most Beautiful, in your opinion? Because some have said if you understood that one, this one has nothing new.


  4. #4 coturnix
    August 21, 2006

    So far, I have heard people say only EEEvoh DEEEvoh, though there are regional pronounciations in some other scientific terms.

    I have not read Caroll yet (I do have it) so I cannot compare.

  5. #5 iGollum
    August 21, 2006

    This book sounds very interesting to the molecular microbiologist that I am. However, I feel I have to question a couple of your points.

    You say you appreciated the fact that “the message is that the cell is the smallest unit of life. Not genes. Cells” and that this contrasts with textbooks that use the “philosophically untenable habit-of-mind that “genes use cells to make more genes””. I am curious to know what is your opinion on viruses and mobile DNA elements? Admittedly these are not alive from a strict point of view, yet they exhibit a certain independence of purpose (I use the word in a very broad sense, not deterministic) and function. I cannot help but see them as using cells as their stage, rather than being cogs in the wheels of the cell. I must say that I am especially not convinced by the argument of this view being “philosphically untenable”.

    Also the cells that are considered in evo-devo works are generally those of multicellular organisms, and therefore quite different in their life cycles from unicellular organisms such as bacteria. I would submit that evo-devo of multicellular eukaryotes does not carry the definitive word of what life ‘really’ is at the cellular/subcellular level. Perhaps it would be good to keep some sense of relativism when covering these matters. Personally I see the state of life as a continuum that extends from the purely chemical forms, all the way to complex cells, with many wonderful intermediates on the way.

    In any case it seems like a fascinating read and I will certainly acquire it in the near future; I know too little evo-devo biology to be really comfortable debating the finer points of the discipline with experts 🙂

  6. #6 RPM
    August 21, 2006

    EEEE-vo, DEEE-vo. Like the band name, Devo.

    I had a hard time figuring out how readable this book would be for a layperson because I couldn’t put myself in a layperson’s shoes. It’s good to see that a well educated layperson came to the same conclusion I did.

  7. #7 coturnix
    August 21, 2006

    Viruses are pretty dead. They don’t use the cells (except in our anthropocentric point of view) – they are shit that happens to cells when a piece of DNA or RNA gets in. Sure it evolved. Cyberorganisms evolve. Chemicals evolve. It does not make them alive or purposeful.

  8. #8 sya
    August 21, 2006

    Arg! Another book to put on my ever growing to-be-read pile. You got me hooked with your recommendation for biologists who need a refresher on devo–now I’ve got to read it to see if it lives up to the hype.

  9. #9 iGollum
    August 24, 2006

    I’m not arguing that viruses should be considered alive on the basis that they evolved. Of course the fact that something evolved does not mean it qualifies as a lifeform. I’m not even saying they should be considered alive! Rather that this point should remain open for discussion. In fact what I mean is that the lines can be blurry as they are so often in biology and one should be wary of clear distinctions imposed by human minds. Especially when philosophical considerations are invoked to justify them.

  10. #10 Edward F. Strasser
    June 17, 2007

    This item makes very effective use of a quote from me and a quote from someone else to frame his own comments. However, the quote from me was taken out of context and gives a very different impression from what I said. I did say that a person will need to know what a gene is, what a mutation is, and how genes lead to proteins. I also said that, for a reader with that minimum background, it is a very readable book. The above item makes it sound more difficult than I remember it being.

    I agree with the fellow who said that one doesn’t need a biology degree to read the book and, in fact, I am an example of that. The only college course in biology that I ever took was an introductory one in 1961-62. Most of what is in the book wasn’t known in that far-away time.

    I apologize for this post coming so late. I didn’t know this blog existed until a friend looked me up in Google and told me about it.

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