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3.9 out of 5 stars21
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 28 December 2009
Wolperts 'How We Live and Why We Die' provides a decent introduction to cell theory and the basic workings of cells. It covers topics such as how proteins are made, how gene expression is controlled, the process of embryogenesis, how cells fight invaders, the origin of cancer, and more.

I am extremely passionate about these topics (I actively work in one of the fields), but Wolpert fails, in my opinion, to give anything but the most basic textbook discussions: mRNA goes to the ribosome and this is the machine that makes proteins; this cell moves over here and that one over there during gastrulation etc. He fails to portray the sense of wonder and amazement that I often feel when reading journals and other books about these issues. In fact his chapter on development (where he made his name) is the most disappointing and superficial.

I understand that he is aiming this book towards people with less training in the concepts than me, but that is not the point. I have no formal education past A-level in physics but Brian Greene's books have allowed me to glimpse the workings of the Universe according to modern theoretical physics. If he can do that, I would hope someone like Wolpert could write a book which instills similar sense of wonder about life and cells. This is not that book.

If you are a real beginner to cell biology i.e. if you have no idea what a gene is, or that proteins are made from amino acids, or that cells have membranes, then this might be a decent read to give you a very simple overview of molecular biology. But don't expect to overwhelmed with wonder. Don't expect to be finishing chapters feeling enlightened with a smile on your face.

As a detailed example, I take the chapter on embryogenesis, how we develop into humans from a single cell - the fertilised egg. Wolpert mentions his own French flag model of positional information, but he only touches on the amazing process of regeneration - how certain animals can re-grow limbs and how they know exaclty how big to make them (the best evidence for positional information). Rather than discuss the amazing process that development is, how an embryo can build itself whilst also keeping itself alive - had to absorb nutrients before we had a gut, had to exchange gas before we had lungs, had to build our central nervous system before we knew how to think. All of this development just happens. Rather than give us these sorts of insights, instead Wolpert offers us a garbled and confusing description of gastrulation - though very important, probably not the process someone who is being introduced to development really wants to know about.

Overall, a decent and fairly short introduction to some of the basic ideas of cell biology. Probably good for absolute beginners. But don't expect to be amazed by (1) average writing, or (2) the way he describes the biology.
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on 11 July 2010
The task to open up the mind-boggling world of cells and their intricacies to the intelligent layman is a challenging one. Wolpert fails big time because he has not one, yes not one, illustration in all the book. How obtuse must you be when as an author and educator you flagrantly disregard "the thousand words one picture" adage?
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on 9 July 2009
I saw this book reviewed by Robin McKie in the Guardian Weekly - reprinted from The Observer. I am not a graduate scientist, just fascinated by Life. Wolpert is easy to read and precise in his detail. He does not talk down to the reader, and uses the scientific names when appropriate, but sprinkles his descriptions of these subtle and invisible processes with easily understood metaphor.
I only had one quibble: he often writes of the hundreds of thousands of different protiens as "engines" taking their fuel from ATP. For me this was one metaphor too far, and remains a mystery.
The book has a useful glossary and index, and opens with an interesting account of the progress of research over the centuries.
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on 23 September 2010
In terms of content, this is an excellent book, but it is badly let down by its lack of drawings or illustrations. A few key drawings or illustrations would improve the book enormously.
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on 26 February 2013
This book has good breadth and covers a lot of material relating to cell biology. However, I found it a little dry and prosaic: I would reiterate what other reviewers have said about it being uninspiring - Wolpert has in my view failed to 'capture' the miraculous nature of his subject topic. All in all I would much rather read a cell biology textbook as it would have a greater level of detail, more useful diagrams/ illustrations and could be more easily navigated.
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on 6 June 2009
This interesting presentation of ideas, by Lewis Wolpert, has helped me with my understanding of this aspect of Life.
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on 29 October 2009
Biology and it's workings are things of wonderment and wide ranging explanations can be almost overwrought with technicalities. Lewis Wolpert's exposition is exemplary insofar as it is terse, but not to the point of disregarding key ideas. Einstein said that you should make things simple to understand, but not simpler than they are. The underlying processes of how cells know where they are with relation to each other during embryological development is, for example, spelt out clearly and beautifully. There are no ludicrous (and misleading) metaphors, and the text is nicely paced and not over dense. This is one of the finest pieces of explanatory writing that I've come across, as perfect as an introductory text as it is a quick refresher for people like me who get off on the nasty details of science and need to be refocused on the 'big-picture'.

May I also recommend Evolution and Healing by Randolph Nesse and George Willams as a follow-up text? Please feel free to comment with any recommendations you may have.
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on 27 February 2016
After reading all the other reviews I hesitated for some time about buying it. I certainly agree with the main criticism of lack of illustrations, which for this particular subject was a serious omission. I learnt a bit but Davies "Life Unfolding," was far better.
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on 1 September 2015
Decent beginners biology book. GCSE biology/science background with a bit of extra research is necessary. I do not like how it was written - weird writing style. There are far superior popular science books.
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on 16 March 2010
I bought this book hoping for some insights into cellular biology, and how our bodies form, grow old and die. How disappointing it was to find such a sloppily written effort as this.

The first couple of chapters are a very dry procession of facts, racing through a grounding in cells and their construction with an almost autistic lack of descriptive colour or flair, illuminating asides or perceptive discourse. The book drops rapidly downhill from there. The writing is of a very poor quality, and the editor of this book ought to be ashamed. Early on we are told "there are about two metres of DNA molecules in our cells". For a newcomer to the subject, this is ambiguous - does he mean two metres of DNA in total across all our cells? Or two metres of DNA in every cell? A moment's thought would have lead the author to write "there are about two metres of DNA molecules in each of our cells", removing ambiguity and increasing the wonder inherent in this fact.

Wolpert also constantly gets confused with verb-subject agreement. For instance, on page 36 we have "...adding back the phosphate group when food like sugars are broken down". When food are broken down? Or, on page 112, "At an early stage of development the structure of the embryos of human males and females are indistinguishable". The structure are indistinguishable? Very poor indeed.

There are also some annoying repetitions, which once again any editor with a brain should have caught. On page 177, we have "Cancer has its origin when a single cell suffers an alteration in its genetic constitution". On THE NEXT PAGE, "With cancer, cell multiplication gets out of control due to an abnormality that arises in just a single cell". Turn the page and read "Almost all the cancers have their origin in a single abnormal cell". ALRIGHT, WE GET IT! It starts with a single cell!

Other confusions occur in the text. For example, on page 37 we are told that "for each molecule of glucose that is broken down, two molecules of ATP are made", then on the very next page "About 30 molecules of ATP are produced for every molecule of glucose broken down". Eh? Is it two, or thirty? It's only upon rooting around the rest of the text that you guess that the first sentence refers to the production by cells themselves, the second refers to mitochondria...I think.

This short book is full of woeful stuff like this, and the overall effect is of a book dashed off to spec, rushed to complete an agreement with a publisher. Probably for the same reason, i.e. that the book is sloppy and rushed, there are absolutely no diagrams in the text. When the writing is of such poor descriptive quality, a number of well-chosen illustrations would have assisted immensely to the understanding of the concepts in the book, some of which are not simple to understand, as well as adding a much-needed splash of visual and mental interest to what is a very dry writing style.

There are some good discussions of the splendid, astonishing world of our cells, but after having presented a mind-blowing, awe-inspiring concept, Wolpert is too often content just to jump onto another subject, with very little further discussion on subjects that clearly inspire and amaze him.

A very poor book.
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