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Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life [Hardcover]

Enrico Coen

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Book Description

27 May 2012

Cells to Civilizations is 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 Civilizations presents a remarkable story of living change.

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Shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

"This attempt at a grand theoretical synthesis within biology explores the transformative powers and creative forces that have brought about the living world from the first cells to the latest developments in cultural and technological evolution. . . . [Coen's] eloquently written book offers a programmatic synthesis and an empirically grounded proposal for a theory of biology. . . . Cells to Civilizations will stimulate many productive discussions about the origins and development of life in all its complexities."--Manfred D. Laubichler, Science

"Clearly written . . . intriguing, thought-provoking . . ."--Library Journal

"In Cells to Civilization, [Coen] couples his knowledge of genetics with metaphor and art, likening the unfurling of mutant snapdragon flowers to an artist's brushstrokes on an expanding canvas. . . . The book is packed with fascinating facts. . . . [H]uman cultures and minds are among the most complex information systems in nature, and Coen does a good job of reminding us of their roots in evolution."--John Hawks, New Scientist

"The ideas [in Cells to Civilizations] are subtle, possibly significant, and slightly unsettling. What more could a reader wish for?"--Robert Schaefer, New York Journal of Books

"What are the connections between evolving microbes, an egg that develops into an infant, a child who learns to walk, and the rise of Ancient Rome? For many years, scientists have generally thought these great transformations--evolution, development, learning, and cultural change--occurred through different mechanisms. But geneticist Enrico Coen, in his pioneering new book Cells to Civilization, reveals that these transformations revolve around shared core principles and manifest the same fundamental recipe. Coen blends provocative discussion, the latest scientific research, and colourful examples to demonstrate the links between these critical stages in the history of life."--Chemicals & Chemistry

"Coen's book is ambitious and stimulating. . . . Cells to Civilizations is good material for conversation and a worthwhile read."--Deniz Erezyilmaz, truthdig.com

"[Coen's] prose is every bit as good as Richard Dawkins' or Steve Jones', and his rich illustrations, particularly the way he uses classical and modern art to make his points, refreshes the text and keeps one's focus on the arguments. His clever ideas and engaging and creative writing style suggest that he would make a fascinating dinner companion. I loved this book and will put it on the general reading list for our biology undergraduates. I suspect it will also find resonance with the interested layman."--Charalambos P. Kyriacou, Times Higher Education

"[Cells to Civilizations] was thought provoking, informative, and fun to read."--Choice

"Do not be daunted by the scope of the book, which is written for a wide audience, although it contains enough science for biologists and anthropologists to ponder and argue with Coen. For the rest, it is an easy read, particularly as the biology it contains is peppered with vignettes drawn from painting and art history, which act as a guide for the more dry science that forms the meat of the argument."--Alfonso Martinez Arias, Development Journal

"Cells to Civilizations is a very approachable and thought-provoking reading for everyone involved in education and science."--Monika Biro, American Biology Teacher

"Cells to Civilizations is an intelligent and entertaining book by a distinguished biologist."--Robert C. Richardson, BioScience

From the Inside Flap

"Cells to Civilizations explores the extraordinary transformations that are the basis of life. Simple cells evolve into complex animals. Single cells develop into a human being. Newborns learn how to behave in society. Societies create cultural institutions. Coen shows that a small number of principles applies to all these transformations. This book provided me with a real feeling for the unity of life. It gave me a glimpse of that mysterious and awesome circle through which evolution generates not only life, but also self-understanding."--Chris Frith, emeritus professor, University College London

"This is a charming, clever, and thought-provoking book. With examples and metaphors, the book advances the idea that the same basic principles operate in evolution, development, learning, and culture."--Stephen C. Stearns, Yale University

"This attractive book presents a unified account of the emergence of living organisms and seeks common principles across different levels--from the cell to human culture. The clarity of writing and the use of analogies and works of art to illustrate points will make it valuable to both general readers and specialists. The breadth of this book is unmatched."--Michael Corballis, University of Auckland

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The profundity of emergence 21 Sep 2012
By W. Cheung - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The main recurring theme of the book is the "double feedback loop", viz. a system that bears mechanisms which simultaneously but separately reinforce and inhibit certain configurations. Obviously this will lead to comparatively stable entities. These entities will transform and evolve, based on those reinforcing and inhibiting factors, but their transformation will depend on the context as well, i.e. their surroundings and environment. Such transformations can be viewed as journeys within an abstract space, and these journeys take place both in space and time.

The first half of the book is particularly exciting. It describes the nature of developmental biology at the molecular level with clarity and without oversimpification. Reading it, one does feel that one understands how an embryo can become a fully developed organism. The second half of the book is on the process of learning and ultimately culture and civilizations.

A interesting feature is the constant usage of art, paintings to be precise, to illustrate its themes. It appears that the author quite admires Cézanne, but works of other artists like Stubbs, Modigliani, Rembrandt, Picasso, and Dürer are used to liven up the text as well.
5.0 out of 5 stars Should be Class in College :) like an "Evolution" or "Development of Culture" class 16 Aug 2014
By dnguyen437 - Published on Amazon.com
This should be a class in College. In fact this should replace or assist/be a side/addendum class to Human Bio and all Biology courses.
3 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Shades of Powell 7 Jan 2013
By Alan R. Beals - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A grand scheme indeed, but I couldn't figure out how it could be applied in the real world. It falls somewhere between a revolutionary solution to all problems and complete madness. But that's what they said about Powell's contributions to theoretical anthropology. Coen seems never to have heard of anthropology by the way.
2 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very good book for students of biology 26 Nov 2012
By Yang Dong - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Coen present the best metaphor of the evolution and transformation from cells to organisms, and some illuminative concerning evolution ideas come from the general principles of evolution of forms itself.
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