Cells to Civilizations

Cells to Civilizations : The Principles of Change That Shape Life

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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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Product details

  • Hardback | 336 pages
  • 162 x 236 x 30mm | 739.35g
  • Princeton University Press
  • New Jersey, United States
  • English
  • 20 color illus. 81 halftones. 9 line illus.
  • 0691149674
  • 9780691149677
  • 366,916

Review quote

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 "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 "[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 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 "[Cells to Civilizations] was thought provoking, informative, and fun to read."--Choice "Clearly written ... intriguing, thought-provoking."--Library Journal "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 "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
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About Enrico Coen

Enrico Coen is a plant molecular geneticist based at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, United Kingdom. He is the author of The Art of Genes, a fellow of the Royal Society, and a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. His awards include the Linnean Gold Medal and the Royal Society Darwin Medal.
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Back cover copy

"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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Table of contents

INTRODUCTION: A RECIPE FOR CHANGE 1 History and Form 3 Life's Creative Recipe 8 CHAPTER ONE: LOOPS AND LOTTERIES 13 Principle of Population Variation 16 Principle of Persistence 20 Principle of Reinforcement 23 Principle of Competition 24 Combining Principles 29 CHAPTER TWO: FROM GENES TO ECOSYSTEMS 34 Principle of Cooperation 36 Principle of Combinatorial Richness 40 Wandering Clouds 44 Principle of Recurrence 48 The Origin of Species 52 Species and Ecosystems 57 A Recipe for Evolution 58 CHAPTER THREE: CONVERSATIONS OF AN EMBRYO 61 Turing's Principles 63 Patterning a Cell 68 Switching Genes On and Off 70 A Molecular Fight 73 Looking into Gradients 76 A Common Form 80 CHAPTER FOUR: COMPLETING THE PICTURE 84 An Embryonic Cocktail Party 85 A Cooperative Eff ort 87 Regulatory Riches 88 Building on the Past 90 The Expanding Canvas 93 Deformation 97 The Three-Dimensional Canvas 105 A Common Recipe 108 CHAPTER FIVE: HISTORY IN THE MAKING 111 Unicellular Beginnings 114 Moving up a Scale 115 Zooming and Growing 118 A Recipe within a Recipe 120 CHAPTER SIX: HUMBLE RESPONSES 122 Making Adjustments 124 Flora's Story 127 The Bite of Venus 132 The Sensible Sea Slug 135 Patterns in Time 140 Human Responses 143 Carving up the World 147 CHAPTER SEVEN: THE NEURAL SIBYL 150 The Prophetic Dog 152 Predictive Neurons 155 Learning from Discrepancies 157 Pavlov and Punishments 163 Core Principles 164 A Neural Journey 168 Staying on the Move 169 A Recipe for Learning 173 CHAPTER EIGHT: LEARNING THROUGH ACTION 175 Calibration 176 Jumping Eyes 178 Visual Shifts 181 Learning to Calibrate 184 Action-Learning Loops 187 Smooth Movements 188 An Active Journey 193 Learning with Others 197 CHAPTER NINE: SEEING AS 200 The Neural Eye 204 Multiple Eyes 208 Seeing through Models 211 Learning at Many Levels 213 Top-down and Bottom-up 216 Competing Interpretations 217 A Question of Style 220 Creative Acts 228 CHAPTER TEN: FRAMING RECIPES 232 Development of Learning 233 Basic Instincts 237 Flexibility versus Directness 242 CHAPTER ELEVEN: THE CRUCIBLE OF CULTURE 244 The Apprentice 245 Fruitful Populations 248 Lasting Change 250 Cultural Reinforcement 252 The Force of Competition 254 Cooperative Eff orts 255 A Cultural Mix 257 Propelled by the Past 260 A Cultural Recipe 263 CHAPTER TWELVE: THE GRAND CYCLE 266 Cultural Origins 267 Possible Worlds 270 Nature's Self-Portrait 275 Acknowledgments 281 Notes 283 References 299 Illustration Credits 307 Index 313
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Rating details

51 ratings
3.43 out of 5 stars
5 20% (10)
4 27% (14)
3 35% (18)
2 12% (6)
1 6% (3)
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