Book Review

Alejandra Manjarrez

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

Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press (May 27, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0691149674
ISBN-13: 978-0691149677
Price: 24.00 EUR (hardcover), 17.00 EUR (ebook)

A Recipe for Life’s Transformations

Are there general principles that unify life at different levels? The British plant biologist, Enrico Coen, argues that there are. He proposes the idea of a “creative recipe” that lies beneath important transformative processes.

How many things had to happen in the history of life to experience Earth as it appears to us now? As far as palaeontology can tell, 3 billion years ago the only living beings were unicellular, whilst the earliest form of multicellular life, Gabonionta, appeared on stage 2.1 billion years ago. Whether or not these estimates are more or less correct, it is always difficult to grasp how the landscape has changed so abruptly since then. Today, unicellular beings still play an undeniable role, but our planet’s diversity of life goes beyond that, and bigger and different forms have populated the Earth. However, the changes are not limited to living beings. Wherever you are reading this you will probably find cars, restaurants, buildings, theatres and political and social systems influencing enormously the relationships among humans sharing a territory.

Photo: NASA

Similarities between culture and nature

How did we move from one point to the other? And, does the transformation in shape and size of living beings have any point of comparison to, for example, the architectural change between the housing of 3,000 years ago and today? Enrico Coen, author of Cells to Civilizations and a plant developmental scientist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England, suggests there might indeed be similarities as he attempts to define some common principles that are shared among four fundamental processes of life: evolution, development, learning and cultural change.

He starts the journey by proposing a series of principles that can explain the process of evolution, to later use the same recipe for understanding the other three transformations. The list is composed of seven ingredients: population variation, persistence, reinforcement, competition, cooperation, combinatorial richness and recurrence. Each of them is explained in the context of the transformation discussed, always illustrated by analogies with artwork, computational models or simple things like fruit.

Enrico Coen Photo: John Innes Centre

Seven principles to rule them all?

Take, for instance, the principle of competition, which basically describes the idea that a group of elements face the problematic scenario of limited resources, and each member of the group will have to fight in order to access them. In evolutionary terms, we are quite familiar with that: individuals sharing certain space have to compete for resources and partners. But then moving to other grounds, Coen assures us that competition is also fundamental for development (fights at the molecular level, for binding molecules which are always finite), learning (neurons inhibiting each other’s firing), and cultural change (competition between humans for achievement, such as in art or science).

The portrait he gives for the first two processes, evolution and development, seems well-established, as are the arguments in defence of the ‘recipe’ idea, partly because some of these principles have been widely explored in the past by other scientists (e.g. cooperation and competition in evolutionary theory).

The arguments for the other two, however, are less strong. Regarding the transformation of ‘learning’, this is mainly due to the knowledge gaps that we have about the neural basis of many processes. And, in the case of culture, it’s probably associated with the fact that he tackles a complex topic without diving into it as far as he did with the other three.

A thought-provoking book

The comparison of levels as different as cells and cultures is not new. In the 1970s, for example, the British evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, proposed the concept of ‘meme’ as a cultural analogue to a gene, where meme is an idea or behaviour that is transmitted among a group of people, just as a gene spreads in a population. But if not novel, Coen’s goal is more general: he is looking for principles defining the essence of life at many levels. Did he succeed?

I am sceptical about the idea of taking these principles as an absolute recipe for life, and Coen himself recognises that they are only one way of organising the concept that he has of life transformations. While some arguments are strong, others will need more scientific evidence and discussion. But what is true is that Coen’s ideas strongly resonate after reading Cells to Civilizations. I believe that this kind of book is always worth recommending.

Letzte Änderungen: 16.09.2014