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Simple introduction to cells, but lacking real insight
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.