Genetics is a complex subject and many of the metaphors writers use to explain it-- in particular those which draw facile comparisons between genetics and computing--are seriously misleading.
Enrico Coen's erudite code-to-carcass account of plant and animal development is set to change all that. Besotted with the way genes recreate forms over and over with unerring accuracy, we tend, Coen argues, to assume that the "blueprints" for these "copies" are entirely contained within the genes. Instead, Coen would have us imagine an organism's genetic code as the record of an artist's mood, immediately prior to starting a painting. Each organism, Coen argues, is like a painting--the unique product of creative genes, reacting constructively to the appearance of the "canvas" as it develops. What maintains fidelity from generation to generation is not the ability of genes to "copy" whole bodies, but their faithful recapitulation of artistic moods. Imagine Leonardo, gripped with recurrent amnesia, painting the Mona Lisa, over and over and over again. No painting that results is really a "copy" and neither is any organism.
At first glance, these artistic analogies appear dangerously anthropomorphic; so Coen has taken extreme care to define his terms and say what each analogy is meant to achieve. The result is not the easiest book--but who cares about that? Genetics is not the easiest subject and only Coen, to date, has captured its extraordinary beauty and complexity in terms the general reader can enjoy and--more important--trust. --Simon Ings
"It is arguable that the most important advance in biology in the past twenty years has been the revolution in our understanding of the mechanisms of development.... Developmental biology has been transformed from a field in which ingenious manipulative experiments generated speculations about unobservable underlying causes, such as gradients and prepatterns, to one in which we have a very detailed knowledge of what is actually going on at the molecular and cellular level. Enrico Coen has written a book that attempts, with considerable success, to convey the essence of this revolution to the lay reader. It will also be of great interest to those biologists...who have only a superficial knowledge of the subject."TREE
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