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Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life.

Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life. By Enrico Coen. 2012. Princeton University Press. (Cloth: ISBN 9780691149677; ebook: ISBN 9781400841653). 322 pp. Cloth. $29.95.

I would not have thought it possible to meaningfully connect bacterial evolution, the developmental differences between various zebra species, and Cezanne's work in the same book. However, in his new book, Cells to Civilizations, Enrico Coen has managed to do just that.

After a long and stressful school year, I was really looking forward to a relaxing summer with some light summer reading. However, when I saw the title of this book, it raised many questions in my mind and I decided to give the book a try. Although it was far from easy summer reading, this was worth the time I spent with it. The writing is clear and logical, the author's ideas thought-provoking and engaging. The examples that are used throughout the book to illustrate very complex ideas are really comprehensible and engaging.

Coen is a plant molecular geneticist based at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, United Kingdom. He is a fellow at the British Royal Society and a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. His interests clearly include a fascination with and deep knowledge of art, judging by his book.

In Cells to Civilizations, Coen explains how evolution, development, learning, and human culture all change through a common recipe that is based on seven key principles. These are the principles of variation, persistence, reinforcement, competition, combinatorial richness, cooperation, and recurrence. These seven principles work together to form, as Coen calls it, "life's creative recipe," which is the "recipe that lies at the root of how life transforms itself." He also points out that there are the same type of interconnected feedback loops of reinforcement and competition that, in one form or another, fuel and move evolution, development, learning, and human culture ahead. These interconnected feedback loops can influence molecular processes as well as learning by living organisms and human culture.

I believe the strongest part of the book is the section on evolution. For me, a biology teacher, the first and second chapter really hit home. I was familiar with the topics and enjoyed learning about the explanation of evolution in the frame of the seven principles and the interconnected feedback loops. There are certainly some interesting ideas in the evolution section that we can take back to the classroom. In particular, Coen's approach to statistical analysis and population variation underscore the need for students of higher-level biology to apply statistics to understand biology better. The section on competition also gives us a great explanation on genetic drift. Both chapters 1 and 2 give us fresh views on natural selection.

My least favorite chapters were 8 and 9, which focus on how the development of learning follows the same seven principles as evolution and development. The example of the "neural eyes" of John and Mary was very confusing, and too detailed for the points that Coen wants to make. The section titled "A Question of Style" did not give me much useful information on how learning is connected to the main principles presented so clearly and logically earlier in the book. However, Chapter 11 on the "cultural recipe" again followed the logic of the previous chapters and was again educational and readable.

I am usually suspicious of papers that claim overarching scientific theories that are supposed to connect very distant ideas. Many of these kinds of papers force common principles on areas where none exist. However, I believe that Coen's idea of "life's creative recipe" certainly raises new questions and may yield to new scientific discoveries. Scientists could use the seven principles and the double feedback loop to guide their research and discoveries. Cells to Civilizations is a very approachable and thought-provoking reading for everyone involved in education and science.


Monika Biro

High School Science Teacher

Aurora Schools, Ohio 44202

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Author:Biro, Monika
Publication:The American Biology Teacher
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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