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Book Review: How We Live and Why We Die

25 November 2013
Appeared in BioNews 732

How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells

By Professor Lewis Wolpert

Published by Oxford University Press

ISBN-10: 0571239129, ISBN-13: 978-0571239122

Buy this book from from Amazon UK

'How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells' by Professor Lewis Wolpert

Four key genes. That is all that needs to be switched on for a cell to 'have the characteristics of an embryonic stem cell'. This is just one of the astonishing facts we learn on our journey into the 'secret lives of cells'. In just 200 pages, Professor Lewis Wolpert addresses the whole of cell biology: from the discovery of cells, through how stem cells self-replicate, to how cells may have evolved in the first place.

How We Live and Why We Die glides through current knowledge at a pace and depth that is widely accessible. Wolpert uses Rube Goldberg cartoons, clever analogies, and even Shakespeare to describe ideas such as cell signalling, the Human Genome Project, and cell division. Fact-filled, fluid and full of imagery, Wolpert argues that the study of life is only possible with the study of cells. By the end of this book, any reader will be left staggered by the overwhelming complexity of cells and their central importance to everything from reproduction and growth to disease and death.

After a brief introduction to cells, we visit the key discoveries of cell biology and then delve in to how cells replicate, grow and go about their work. Wolpert discusses the central dogma of molecular biology before examining reproduction. Wolpert ends his book by looking at ageing (a section I particularly enjoyed), disease, and the origins of the first cell. Throughout, Wolpert points out significant historical events in cell biology, and his anecdotes show how key science discoveries can rely on luck.

The lack of diagrams and photographs, however, is a big let down. Despite Wolpert's elegant and descriptive imagery, some events and complex concepts need illustrations. He describes gastrulation – an event during development where cells that will form inner structures like the gut and muscles move beneath cells that will form the skin – as 'amazing to watch on film'. Wolpert describes this event with a clever analogy, but I wanted to actually 'see' it. Equally, his description of DNA's structure is thorough, but difficult to visualise unless you have seen diagrams: sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.

The author clearly has no patience for those who do not base their views in science. Wolpert casually dismisses the ethical and religious objections to using embryonic stem cells in research. The Roman Catholic Church is criticised for giving a fertilised egg the same status as an adult as 'no scientific reason has been given for this view'. In a particularly provocative statement, Wolpert suggests that such moral objectors would soon change their mind if they needed to 'have their nerve cells or blood-forming cells replaced'.

Nevertheless, the book accomplishes its goal: to set out the 'sheer cleverness of our society of cells'. It may not sway everyone to Wolpert's opinion that cell theory is 'even more important to biology than Darwin's theory of evolution', however.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in cell biology or developmental biology. Although dry in places, How We Live and Why We Die is an excellent summary of the secret world of the cell. Those experienced in cell biology may find some of the book light on detail, but the thought-provoking questions posed more than make up for it. One in particular has stuck in my mind. 'How many of those who believe the fertilised egg to be human would choose to save a hundred fertilised eggs [...] in a burning building, rather than a single baby?'

Buy How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells from Amazon UK.

1 February 2021 - by Dr George Janes 
Professor Lewis Wolpert, a highly accomplished developmental biologist, science communicator and humanist, sadly died on 28 January 2021...
18 November 2013 - by Rhys Baker 
In this book on the placenta, the shortest-lived human organ, we find out about the fascinating immunological paradox of pregnancy as well as the effects of maternal, paternal, and even retroviral genes in the functioning of the placenta...
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Fertility and Reproduction is extremely up-to-date on current issues, discussing saviour sibling treatment, eugenics as well as mitochondrial replacement, all of which have been extremely topical in bioethics...
15 April 2013 - by Marco Narajos 
In the UK, around one in six couples has difficulty conceiving, and it is this desire to have children that drove two awe-inspiring men – Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe – to work together to perfect a technique known as IVF...
22 May 2000 - by BioNews 
The winner of this year's Aventis Prize for Science Books - formerly the Rhone-Poulenc Prize - is to be announced at the Science Museum, London on 23 May. The short list of six books includes 'Genome' by Matt Ridley: a guide to the Human Genome Project in 23 chapters (one for each...
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