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Review: How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells by Lewis Wolpert

A tribute to cellular life by acclaimed biologist Lewis Wolpert contains much, yet comes up short, writes Dyani Lewis.

Are we greater than the sum of our parts? If we consider the sophistication and diversity of cells that comprise the human body, the answer may well be ‘No’. “For their size they are the most complex objects in the universe,” writes renowned biologist Lewis Wolpert, who takes us on a journey through the diversity of cellular form in his latest book, “How we live and why we die: the secret lives of cells”.

All living things are made of cells. From the enormous blue whales swimming the oceans to the tallest trees in the forest; from humans to the smallest bacteria colonising our gut – all life is made of cells. But scientist haven’t always known this, and arriving at theory of life, according to Wolpert, was “even more important to biology than Darwin’s theory of evolution.” It’s a bold statement to make, in this, the 200th anniversary year of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On the origin of species”. In Wolpert’s book, we are given an idea of the importance of understanding the complexity of cells, and Wolpert’s awe and admiration for cellular life is evident throughout his book.

Cells can be very similar to one another. The nerve cells in our brains and the skin cells in on our feet all contain a nucleus, which is home to our DNA, a cell membrane, which carefully controls what gets in and out of the cell, and the energy-making factories known as mitochondria. Yet nerve cells and skin cells perform vastly different functions and have vastly different forms in order to carry out their specialised roles. By contrasting the similarity of inner cellular workings with the diversity of cellular form and function, Wolpert seeks to amaze us with the very subject that has intrigued him for more than half a century.

The task of describing this complexity is an admirable one. What makes us tick? Why do we get sick? How does our body defend itself? These are interesting questions and you don’t need to be a biologist to be curious about the answers. Wolpert enlightens us about everyday things that can be explained by cell biology – why is it hard to maintain weight loss? – as well as revealing things about our bodies we may never have thought of: “We have ten times as many bacterial cells in our body as we have normal body cells”.

Unfortunately, for the most part, we are not afforded a front row ticket to a show-and-tell of cellular marvels, being kept at arm’s length by lack of adequate explanations. The book is mostly descriptive in nature, yet it contains no images to guide us in our understanding of the topic. This is why its success hangs on the descriptions of the cellular phenomena that Wolpert portrays. Unfortunately, the images that Wolpert evokes of what a cell looks like, how a cell works and how different cells are specialised for their function are vague. He fails to make use of terms people may already know, such as mutation, to explain concepts. Yet far from assuming no knowledge, he assumes a vast amount of knowledge, casually using terms without introduction on numerous occasions. Admittedly, he introduces most terms eventually, but not always when and where the information would be most pertinent. The consequence is that the book falls between the gaps – not detailed enough to keep someone with a basic knowledge of cells entertained, yet not explicit enough in its explanations to maintain the interest of a reader with no knowledge of cell biology.

Wolpert’s experience is in embryonic development and how cells use chemical signals to tell each other where they are and what they each must become as the embryo grows. It is therefore no surprise that the most engaging parts of the book are on this very subject – when he writes about this familiar territory, his expression is fluent and holds interest. This is the exception, however, with the writing in most parts of the book confusing and imprecise. In some cases, the over-simplification of ideas verges on being incorrect. An example among many, is that “development of the human egg is initiated by the sperm fertilising it”. An egg does not develop once it is fertilised, an embryo does, and it is not difficult to be more precise about such facts.

The book is neatly divided into chapters with titles such as “How genes work”, “How we reproduce” and “How diseases are caused”. Aside from the titles, however, there is little that connects the sections of the book with each other. Indeed, within chapters, I was often left also wondering what the message was, why I was being told certain things, and what I was supposed to have learned from the chapter as a whole. Statements orienting the reader – in time and space and topic – are sorely needed. The text often seems to meander through a range of topics– and while most of these topics are, it must be said, fascinating – one is often left unsure of the ‘story’ of the text.

In this respect, Wolpert’s depth of knowledge is perhaps his undoing. I had the impression that he wanted to explain everything all at once, instead of gradually layering concepts and information so that an increasingly detailed image emerges. The details should enthral, but the way in which they have been organised leads more to bamboozlement than amazement. Wolpert also perhaps tries to explain all the exceptions to a particular rule as he thinks of them, which means the reader is always having newly acquired information undermined by caveats. It would be far better for Wolpert to hold off on these details until a firm foundation of knowledge has been established, then the caveats would serve as additional interesting tidbits rather than unpleasant seeds in the pie.

In the book’s introduction, Wolpert expresses a desire to inform people about cell biology because of the multitude of areas where cell biology has entered the public arena. For example, most people are aware of stem cells, genetic screening and cloning, and many of these are ethically thorny subjects. On this front, however, Wolpert’s attempt to inform so that we may be better informed to make an ethical judgement falls far short of the mark. If Wolpert wishes to contribute something to the debate on ethical issues such as the use of human embryonic stem cells, he should give the subject its due consideration, which he fails to do in this book. Instead of outlining his arguments in a logical manner, Wolpert often dismissively states his opinion, and in one instance even challenges people to come up with arguments – for the reward of a bottle of champagne – contrary to his own. This adds nothing to the debate and does little for the public’s image of scientists either.

Wolpert clearly has a great love for cell biology and a strong desire to share this with the public. Unfortunately, the clumsy manner in which Wolpert tackles the wonders of cells in “How we live and why we die” does both himself and the science he so adores a disservice.

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