Coming to Life

One of the nice things about being a big shot science blogger is that publishers frequently send you free books to review. In fact, lately they’ve been arriving a lot faster than I can read them.

One book that turned up recently in my mailbox was Coming to Life: How Genes Drive Development, by Nobel Laureate Christianne Nusslein-Volhard. My friends, this is one fantastic book.

The book’s main purpose is to explain what is currently known about the processes by which a fertilized egg develops, under the direction of the genes, into an organism. Nusslein-Volhard’s writing is reminiscent of Isaac Asimov, which is the highest praise I can give to any science writer. Every sentence is chock-ful of information. There are no wasted words.

Also impressive are the book’s illustrations. They are hand-drawn by the author, but they are clearer and easier to follow than the more elaborate diagrams that I have seen in textbooks.

The book opens with three chapters about the history of biology. Especially interesting, both here and in the later chapters, are her descriptions not just of the facts of development themselves, but also of the key experiments that brought these facts to light.

And I especially liked the conclusion to her summary of basic evolutionary theory:

The important conclusion of this theory is that the characteristics of living beings are subject to the laws of evolution. All currently existing beings originated from forms that have survived during the process of evolution. They are not the result of the unfathmoable design of a Creator, but have developed as a result of biological mechanisms that have been tested and improved upon. Evolution is accidental. Its driving force is the process of selection rather than the goal-oriented adaptation that might result from characteristics favored throughout an individual’s lifetime. Charles Darwin’s theory has been consistently supported by modern biological research, and evolution as an explanation of the origin of new species can no longer be objectively or intellectually disputed. (p. 6)

From here the book goes into a lengthy discussion of modern thinking about development. Be warned: This is not bedtime reading. I found I could only read a few pages at a time before having to take a break. But it makes a nice companion piece to Sean Carroll’s book Endless Forms Most Beautiful, which is more approachable, but not as informative.

My one small criticism of the book concerns its final chapter. Here Nusslein-Volhard discusses various ethical issues related to embryological research, such as cloning and stem-cells. She gives very good descriptions of the relevant science, but I wish she would have been a bit clearer about what sound public policy would look like on these issues.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a thorough introduction to what is known about development, I can certainly recommend this book.


  1. #1 David D.G.
    September 13, 2006

    “Nusslein-Volhard’s writing is reminiscent of Isaac Asimov, which is the highest praise I can give to any science writer.”

    As a longtime fan of Asimov’s writing, I agree that this is high praise indeed! That alone is a strong incentive for me to look for this book. Thanks for the mini-review!

    ~David D.G.

  2. #2 John Farrell
    September 13, 2006

    Man–this sounds like a good read. (The last free review copy I got was of Gene Wolfe’s newest novel, Soldier of Sidon…)

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 14, 2006


    I’ve always liiked Asimov’s fiction, but I find his non-fiction even better. I especially liked his series of essays for Fantasy and Science Fiction. No less an authority than Stephen Jay Gould once described him as one of the best science popularizers in the business.


    Does this mean we’re friends again? 🙂

  4. #4 John Farrell
    September 14, 2006

    Jason, of course! 🙂

    Seriously, I hope none of my comments previously have been rude. And I’ve enjoyed thinking (alot) about what you’ve said.

    In fact, I quite think it would be worth doing a book about someday…a. if I can first get my current one off the ground. and b. if I live long enough….there just ain’t time enougn in the day to read everything you want to….

  5. #5 John Farrell
    September 14, 2006

    Addendum: one of the first science books my mother got me when I was a kid was Asimov’s “Please Explain.” A great book.

    You might enjoy this story, Jason and David: at the 1989 Worldcon (dating myself) I was surprised to find Asimov and his wife sitting outside one of the ballrooms, with one or two well-wishers coming up to say hello. I asked him if he’d autograph my con program (which I still have) and as he signed it, I said, “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but I like your non-fiction alot more than your fiction.” Without missing a beat, he looked around quickly and whispered, “To tell you the truth, so do I.”

  6. #6 David D.G.
    September 14, 2006

    John, that’s a great anecdote! Thanks for sharing that.

    ~David D.G.

  7. #7 Fred
    September 14, 2006

    John, back in ’79 at a Star Trek convention in NYC (for the first Star Trek movie) I surprised Asimov by having him sign my “Asimov’s Guide To Shakespeare” when everyone else was having him sign the usual stuff. He looked rather happy.


  8. #8 John Farrell
    September 14, 2006

    He was a man of wide interests, Fred, indeed. And talk about a machine–in terms of the number of books he wrote! For all that, his modesty and humor I found (and still find) inspiring.

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