Coming to Life – a big and small book

By Razib Khan | August 27, 2006 1:05 pm

OK, so I finally read Coming to Life by Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. Unfortunately, I am having a hard time finding something original to say. To recap, Janet, Shellee, Bora (hey, check out Bora’s link, books_coming_to_life_by_christ.php!), RPM, The Poreless One and PZ hit this book hard. The reviews are damn thorough, and you have a wide disciplinary perspective, from neuroscience to developmental biology to evolutionary genetics to physiology to biochemistry, and over into philosophy. How’s that for multidimensional?
So where does that leave me? Since I am so late already I figured I would post something, and when a brilliant thought pops into my head I can riff off of it in a follow up entry. But right now I’ll offer some quick impressions. I think this paragraph from PZ captures my own thoughts pretty well:

It wasn’t what I expected at all, but I think readers here will be appreciative: it’s a primer in developmental biology, written for the layperson! Especially given a few of the responses to my last article, where the jargon seems to have lost some people, this is going to be an invaluable resource.

This is not like Endless Forms Most Beautiful, a conversational introduction to evo-devo from Sean Carroll. Rather, in fewer than 150 pages Nüsslein-Volhard crams nearly the whole gamut of biology, with all the vectors converging upon her own area of expertise in developmental genetics. Some books have a lot of fat, asides and anecdotes to “spice” up the science, and proportionately there is very little of that here. Rather, you are taken on a light speed tour through the biological sciences, going from “fundamental” low level fields of study like cell biology, molecular genetics and Mendelian genetics, eventually toward more thematic chapters which focus on the characteristics of particular taxa. The chapters are subdivided into sections with headings, so that there is a “bullet” point effect. For example, on a chapter on Mendelian genetics you are introduced to basics like the Law of Independent Assortment, the Law of Segregation, in addition to accompanying charts. There is an almost “textbook” feel to it. You find out that Gregor Mendel was a Bohemian monk, but that’s about it, no diversion into the economic and social conditions which led many young men into the clerical profession despite their lack of religious sentiment, at that time in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is all about “the facts please,” but with an eye to the eventual disciplinary denouement. On occassion you might be bewildered by the proliferation of definitions, concepts and terms, which literally swarm across the page, but Nüsslein-Volhard includes copious visual illustrations to put flesh upon the mental skeletons. Myself, I am always a bit daunted by the sheer volume of necessary terminology needed with developmental biology, so I can only imagine what it must be like for someone who has never browsed Development (when I read developmental biology oriented papers I keep multiple tabs open because I know I’m going to have to look terms up constantly). Nüsslein-Volhard’s narrative does have a progressive tendency though, insofar as the “scientific basics” oriented toward a methodogical and theoretical framework shift toward more narrow content based chapters (e.g., a chapter on our own species), and finally to a concluding section which explores explicitly the intersection between science and public policy.
If you are a person who has a biological background, I think you’ll learn a lot (or, more likely, relearn a lot). The author manages to cover an incredible amount of ground in 150 pages. If you are a lay person, don’t expect to be coddled, but understand that resources in the form of charts are there to aid conceptualization. At 150 pages it is totally feasible to do a quick read through, and then hit it again, without spending too much of your marginal time. I liked it that Nüsslein-Volhard also focused on methods, and the realities of experimental constraint, in shaping the development of science. For example, how embryology was predominantly focused on aquatic organisms because of their copious, clear and large eggs. Or how genetics tended to gravitate toward the easy to breed, characterize and raise (e.g., fruit flies). Though this book is short on history of science in any elaborate form, the implicit skeleton exists and can be inferred from the scientific content alone.
The biggest drawback in Nüsslein-Volhard presentation is that she trades style for substance. This is not a small pocketbook that you can take out and curl up with on the lawn while daydreaming, because it never lets up, it is an incessant mental assault. The terminology, the concepts, are not balanced by the expansive biographical sketches which seem to be the normal modus for scientific writing. Find a chair, sit, and focus. But just like a marathon, completion is well worth it.

  • Nick Anthis

    True, but a lot more accessible than a textbook, I think.
    By the way, what’s up with all of this “poreless” business? Do I sense a man-crush at play here? Hmmm… possibly, possibly….

  • razib

    better than being called devil-boy.

  • Nick Anthis

    Hell, I’ll take it.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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