Review of Coming to Life

Like a bunch of my ScienceBlogs SiBlings, I read Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard's book, Coming to Life: How Genes Drive Development. As I am not a trained biologist of any stripe (and haven't been enrolled in a biology course since the 1980s), I'll give you my impressions of the book from the point of view of a curious non-expert.

Nüsslein-Volhard describes the aim of the book as follows:

I have written this book for all those who are curious and who would like to understand the processes of life a little better without having to deal with highly specialized knowledge. It is for those who encounter biology in their professional life: medical professionals, chemists, and physicists. I hope my readership will also include those who might have many questions regarding genes and embryos owing to current bio-political debates, such as philosophers, lawyers, politicians, and theologians. Finally, while this work is by no means a course textbook, I believe that it may help teachers and students to fill the gaps and find connections between various disciplines.

My intention is to give a brief and concise overview without getting mired in the details. ... The text assumes a basic knowledge of biochemistry and presents the concepts of cell biology rather briefly. We are noy dealing with the attributes and characteristics of molecules so much as with their role in the development and preservation of complex shapes and forms. (p. xii)

In other words, this isn't a book that will teach you all about development if you know nothing about biology. Nor, for that matter, is it a book you'll want to plow through in a single sitting. Rather, it's a book that would probably be a very handy reference for those who bump into biological discourses without actually being biologists. Reading through Nüsslein-Volhard's description of a particular piece of the process of development could leave you with a better feel for what the heck the biologists are talking about.

One reason this isn't an up-all-night book is the format. There are ten chapters (running less than 150 pages before you even get to the appendix), each chapter is broken into sections of around 3 to 6 pages, and many of those sections are further divided into short subsections. These are "small bites" for ingesting scientific information, but the non-biologist will not always grasp what all the small bites in a chapter are supposed to add up to, which sometimes makes it hard to keep plowing forward.

I'll confess that this observation may have as much to do with my training in the history and philosophy of science as it does with my ignorance of developmental biology. I've grown accustomed to books having an argument they are trying to make. Nüsslein-Volhard isn't making an argument so much as communicating the state of our knowledge about a set of biological processes. Thus, it's hard to fault her for not having some underlying thesis which every chapter, section, and subsection does clear work to support.

And even without a "one long argument" structure, this book does convey important information to the curious reader. One of the themes I found striking was just how much is required beyond the "blueprint" provided by the genes to make a functioning organism -- yet, at the same time, that additional developmental stuff relies on fairly simple things, like concentration gradients that influence which genes are turned on or off in which part of the developing organism. As well, Nüsslein-Volhard's discussion of why certain organisms became the model organisms with which scientists have studied genetics and development gives useful insight to the practical issues that constrain scientific research.

The reader who is more of a visual learner will be entranced by the numerous illustrations (in grayscale and "redscale", if that's the proper way to identify it) throughout the book. Much more than photographs would be, these drawings have pedagogic aims -- they are meant to provide clear illustrations of particular processes or concepts, and they are very successful in doing so. The fact that Nüsslein-Volhard drew these diagrams herself means their fit with the text is exquisite.

The last chapter, which weighs in at all of 13 pages, addresses "Current Topics" around genes and embryos. As you might guess, I would have been interested in more discussion of these topics. However, given that the connection between this chapter and the nine that precede it already feels tenuous, perhaps the whole discussion really belongs in a different book altogether.

Nüsslein-Volhard asserts (as most scientists do) that the proper treatment of embryos is a matter of ethics rather than science, and that different countries seem inclined to draw different lines as far as what is permissable and what is forbidden. Of course, as a scientist she also hopes for conditions that will not hamper scientific reseatch unduly. However, what an undue impediment to research might be will depend on the interests one is trying to balance against unfettered research.

What is notable in the ethical debates about science, however, is the distinctive views of scientist that seem to find currency with non-scientists. Nüsslein-Volhard writes:

It is remarkable that in this debate, or rather in the representation of this debate by the media, there is little or no distinction between what is real, what is plausible, and what is utterly utopian. Sometimes the impression is conveyed that science could not only accomplish anything we desire, but would actually test the limits of the possible without any ethical considerations. This attitude is not new. There is a long tradition on both sides: blind belief in scientific progress and its flip side, the utter distrust in science.

While the scientists may, in some cases, long to pursue what is possible without dealing with protesters or regulatory paperwork, they also recognize just how brutally difficult it would be -- at least, given our present state of knowledge and technical sophistication -- to embark on such ventures are the reproductive cloning of humans, the formulation of "designer babies", or successful gene therapy. On the one hand, learning that what is theoretically possible is far beyond what is practicable may serve as a sop to the folks with grave worries about the morality of cloning ourselves or choosing pleasing characteristics for our prospective offspring. On the other, this knowledge may make it harder for researchers to secure funding for their research on the basis of its promise to cure all manner of human ills in the not-too-distant future.

I enjoyed this book a lot, and expect to keep it nearby as I read the literature in the history and philosophy of biology (especially now that the propsects for a philosophy of experimental biology are being taken seriously). But, I don't think I'd recommend it as a beach book.

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