Coming to Life

Books from Nobel laureates in molecular biology have a tradition of being surprising. James Watson(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) was catty, gossipy, and amusingly egotistical; Francis Crick(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) went haring off in all kinds of interesting directions, like a true polymath; and Kary Mullis(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) was just plain nuts. When I heard that Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was coming out with a book, my interest and curiousity were definitely piqued. The work by Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus has shaped my entire discipline, so I was eagerly anticipating what her new book, Coming to Life: How Genes Drive Development(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) would have to say.

It wasn’t what I expected at all, but I think readers here will be appreciative: it’s a primer in developmental biology, written for the layperson! Especially given a few of the responses to my last article, where the jargon seems to have lost some people, this is going to be an invaluable resource.

I am not privy to Nüsslein-Volhard’s thoughts, but I imagine that at least some of the motivation for this book had to come from having to constantly explain basic terms and concepts that developmental biologists take for granted to the public. What she has laid out here is an introduction to the vocabulary of the molecular geneticist and developmental biologist and practitioner of the arcane arts of evo-devo; it’s the kind of thing we all wish everyone knew, so that we would be able to have a conversation with more than just the people we see at Society for Developmental Biology meetings.

The book is slim at 145 pages, but covers all of basic genetics and development. In order to do this, the prose is exceptionally spare and no-nonsense, and the emphasis is always on explaining things simply and clearly, with no digressions and no unnecessary detail. For instance, recombination gets two paragraphs; the Hedgehog/Wingless genes, one paragraph and a diagram; Hox genes get a whole page. Jargon is avoided, unless it has been first introduced and explained. You should be able to finish this book and then be able to sound convincingly like a developmental biologist in a conversation, I think; it’s a kind of Berlitz course in the discipline.

It’s a fast read, too, and I don’t think I’m saying that because I already knew everything it had to say. The emphasis in all of the explanations is clarity, so despite its comprehensive nature and breakneck pace, it won’t make you stop and try to puzzle out what she’s talking about—it’s all plainly laid out for you.

This is not a very chatty book, though, and the author’s personality and personal life are not center stage at all. If you get any impression of Nüsslein-Volhard from the book, it’s one of being a bit aloof, highly pragmatic, and meticulous…which, from my few meetings with her, might not be that far off in describing her personality, at least as it appears to casual acquaintances. The most striking example of the impersonal style is in the final chapter on “Current Topics,” where she outlines some of the pending controversies in developmental biology, such as stem cells, cloning, gene therapy, and abortion. Even here, she is very cautious about stating her opinions too strongly, and my initial reaction on reading it was to wonder what her point was. It’s all of a piece, though: her goal is not to impose her opinions on the reader, but rather, to lay down the basic framework for a conversation. She is telling you what you need to understand in order to have an informed, competent opinion on these hot-button topics, not what opinion you must have.

You also won’t find much new detail into her Nobel-prize winning work—it’s scattered throughout the book, but she seems to scrupulously avoid saying “I did this.” (I suppose it would get repetitive, since there is a lot of work in here that has her name on it!) Maybe that will be another book, someday.

The book I would compare this to is Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Both are primers in the subject of evo-devo, but Nüsslein-Volhard’s has even fewer expectations of prior knowledge by the reader—it really does start with the minimal basics of evolution and genetics, and assumes nothing more than that the reader is intelligent and curious. Seriously, you don’t need a biology degree to read it!

Even if you do have a degree in developmental biology, though, there’s another reason to read it: Coming to Life(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) is a first-rate example of how to communicate complex scientific concepts to the general public.


  1. #1 The Gay Species
    July 20, 2006

    I left college before E. O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology,” and while evolution was reigning orthodoxy, what was taught was sketchy. Despite a keen interest in biology, and particularly Darwinism, I soon discovered that “popular” books, while definitely absorbing and provocative, began raising more questions as they answered others. Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Ullica Segerstrale, E. O. Wilson, etc. are great populizers of Darwinism, but I finally decided to read Ernst Mayr’s “What Evolution Is.” It settled some ambiguities, which was the ostensible purpose in reading it. But it did something more important. Its relentless use of exacting evolutionary and genetic language (fortunately with an ample glossary) not only clarified evolution, it revealed why evolution requires us to think very differently. Darwinism is not merely the concepts, however important they are, the Modern Synthesis and after undermines some “traditional” language and concepts, but more importantly, ways of thinking — and dramatically.

    Those who have recently been steeped in this language and thought are probably unaware that those of us from an earlier generation did not have biology presented to us in this way. Natural selection, struggle for survival (survival of the fittest), speciation, dominant/recessive genes, DNA/RNA, and the like we had. But thinking in terms of “populations” and “ancestry” rather than “essences” and the scala naturae is radical. The genome other than the “double helix” was entirely untaught, except to majors. Exons, introns, genes, sequencing, claudication, saltationism, allopatric, pair bonding, dichopatric, peripatric, sympatric, sexual selection, are an entire architecture most latecomers know little to nothing about.

    The point is that the popular books serve a useful purpose, but they cannot substitute for the technical. Yet, even after dozens of the popular, the technical (but not detailed) was still challenging, albeit rewarding. I don’t know how to bridge this gap other than immersion, but it is important that biologists recognize their conceptual scheme and the lay conceptual scheme may have overlaps, but they often are not correspondent.

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