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Cells to Civilizations

Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life

Enrico Coen
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Cells to Civilizations
    Book Description:

    Cells to Civilizationsis the first unified account of how life transforms itself--from the production of bacteria to the emergence of complex civilizations. What are the connections between evolving microbes, an egg that develops into an infant, and a child who learns to walk and talk? Award-winning scientist Enrico Coen synthesizes the growth of living systems and creative processes, and he reveals that the four great life transformations--evolution, development, learning, and human culture--while typically understood separately, actually all revolve around shared core principles and manifest the same fundamental recipe. Coen blends provocative discussion, the latest scientific research, and colorful examples to demonstrate the links between these critical stages in the history of life.

    Coen tells a story rich with genes, embryos, neurons, and fascinating discoveries. He examines the development of the zebra, the adaptations of seaweed, the cave paintings of Lascaux, and the formulations of Alan Turing. He explores how dogs make predictions, how weeds tell the time of day, and how our brains distinguish a Modigliani from a Rembrandt. Locating commonalities in important findings, Coen gives readers a deeper understanding of key transformations and provides a bold portrait for how science both frames and is framed by human culture.

    A compelling investigation into the relationships between our biological past and cultural progress,Cells to Civilizationspresents a remarkable story of living change.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4165-3
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Developmental & Cell Biology, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-x)
  3. INTRODUCTION A Recipe for Change
    (pp. 1-12)

    Life has remarkable transforming powers. Through billions of years of evolution, elementary forms are transformed into the complex creatures of today. Over nine months a nondescript egg turns itself into a human being. During a few years a flailing baby becomes a walking, talking, and reasoning adult. And over ten thousand years, human societies are transformed from small tribal communities into the complex cities and civilizations of today.

    It is tempting to think that this transformative property of life depends on a single underlying mechanism. Yet when we look, we see four very different mechanisms at play. All the creatures...

  4. ONE Loops and Lotteries
    (pp. 13-33)

    The apples we eat today are not exactly the same as those found in the wild. All cultivated apple trees are thought to have descended from natural populations ofMalus pumilain the Tian Shan region of Central Asia. These wild apple trees produce fruits that are eaten by large mammals, such as bears, that disperse the seed through their feces. Through many generations of human cultivation and selection, wild apple trees have been transformed to produce fruit more suited to our taste and dinner tables. Darwin proposed that an analogous process of descent with modification was responsible for the...

  5. TWO From Genes to Ecosystems
    (pp. 34-60)

    According to the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, having a portrait painted by Cézanne was a long and drawn-out experience. As the painting reached completion, Vollard made the mistake of commenting on two areas where it seemed unfinished:

    For someone who has not seen him paint, it is difficult to imagine the extent to which, some days, his progress was slow and painful. In my portrait, there are two little spots on the hand where the canvas was not covered. I pointed them out to Cézanne. He replied: “…I may be able to find the right color with which to fill...

  6. THREE Conversations of an Embryo
    (pp. 61-83)

    A postman knocks at your door and hands you an envelope containing an invitation. It reads: “We have the pleasure of inviting you to attend a tea party in honor of Alan Turing.” You have a friend staying with you who prides himself on his general knowledge, so you show him the invitation. “Ah yes, Turing. I think he was one of the guys who invented the computer. He also helped to break the secret code used by Germany during the Second World War—the Enigma code I think it was called. He committed suicide when quite young in the...

  7. FOUR Completing the Picture
    (pp. 84-110)

    Some of cézanne’s paintings seem unfinished. InThe Garden at Les Lauves(fig. 24, plate 4), Cézanne stopped after sketching in a few areas with color. Why he left the painting this way is unclear—perhaps he reached a point where he could go no further, or maybe he was just happy to leave it as it was. Whatever the reason, the painting reveals how he built up texture and pattern. He seems to have started with a preliminary color sketch that he then built upon by applying further patches of color. Each stroke of color depended on the colors...

  8. FIVE History in the Making
    (pp. 111-121)

    Bashford Dean had two passions in life. One was studying the development and evolution of fish, through which he became professor of vertebrate zoology at Columbia University in 1904, at the age of thirty-seven. The other passion was a fascination with arms and armor. This was inspired in early childhood, when he saw a beautiful European helmet in the house of a family friend. He was so taken with the helmet that he immediately studied it inside and out for a long time while sitting on his friend’s porch. His interest in armor increased over the years, and in 1906...

  9. SIX Humble Responses
    (pp. 122-149)

    One of the most curious paintings of the Renaissance is a careful depiction of a weedy patch of ground by Albrecht Dürer (fig. 39). Dürer extracts design and harmony from an apparently random collection of weeds and grasses that we would normally not think twice to look at. By choosing such a mundane subject he is able to convey his artistry in a pure form, uncontaminated by conventional distractions. In a similar way, scientists often choose to study humble subjects when trying to get at the essence of a problem. Studying relatively simple systems avoids unnecessary complications and distractions, and...

  10. SEVEN The Neural Sibyl
    (pp. 150-174)

    Among the most striking paintings by Michelangelo are the five sibyls on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (fig. 52). Sibyls were divinely inspired women of antiquity who had the legendary power of being able to see into the future. In Michelangelo’s depictions you see the sibyls holding special books in which prophecies were written. Sibyls were consulted much as fortune-tellers are today, to determine what lay ahead. We place a high value on being able to predict the future because if we know what is going to happen, we can prepare ourselves and adjust our actions accordingly.

    Predictions about...

  11. EIGHT Learning through Action
    (pp. 175-199)

    We have seen that like evolution and development, learning is a manifestation of life’s creative recipe. My account of learning could stop at this point since we have covered the fundamental principles involved. However, to end here would leave many questions hanging. How are the principles we have covered connected with processes like memory, movement, attention, recognition, language, creativity, and consciousness? Each of these cognitive topics has been the subject of intense investigation, but unfortunately we still don’t know many of the neural details of how learning is incorporated within them. Even so, the principles we have encountered can provide...

  12. NINE Seeing As
    (pp. 200-231)

    Ten years after Cézanne painted his portrait of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard (plate 1), Pablo Picasso produced his own version of the same subject (fig. 62, plate 2). Painted in the Cubist style, Picasso’s portrait is very different from Cézanne’s. While Cézanne portrays his subject as a solid form with blocks of color, Picasso uses angular elements and a more abstract approach. By exploring different ways of seeing the subject, each artist captures distinct aspects, highlighting particular relationships in his own way.

    Appreciating relationships from fresh perspectives is not only a feature of art; it lies at the heart...

  13. TEN Framing Recipes
    (pp. 232-243)

    The story of sinbad the sailor begins on a narrow and busy street in Baghdad. One day, when a porter was walking along the street carrying a heavy load on his head, he decided to sit down to take a rest outside one of the houses. The porter heard singing and smelled delicious food coming from the house and its garden, making him exclaim how unfair it was that some people had so much pleasure for so little effort, while he suffered carrying heavy loads for small rewards. Hardly had he finished saying this, when a servant came out of...

  14. ELEVEN The Crucible of Culture
    (pp. 244-265)

    Societies of today are very different from those of ten thousand years ago. This is not because of major differences in biological makeup—if you had been born then, you would probably fit in perfectly well. Rather, it is because of dramatic changes in our culture and outlook. If you could travel back in time as an adult to meet your ancestors living ten thousand years ago you would encounter innumerable cultural contrasts. Your ancestors would immediately be struck by the strange clothes you wear, from your shoes to the shirt that is tailored to your body. If you attempted...

  15. TWELVE The Grand Cycle
    (pp. 266-280)

    Humans are great storytellers. It is through stories that we often communicate our knowledge and understanding. We like our stories to have distinct structures, with clear beginnings and ends, and we usually like things to happen for particular reasons that we can lay out in sequence. These considerations also apply when it comes to the story of ourselves. In tracing the story of humanity we naturally ask when it began, and what makes humans unique. We often seek answers in terms of defining qualities like language, imitation, the ability to plan ahead, the human soul, or creativity. Yet throughout this...

  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 281-282)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 283-298)
  18. References
    (pp. 299-306)
  19. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 307-312)
  20. Index
    (pp. 313-322)