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How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells (review)
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How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells. By Lewis Wolpert. New York: Norton, 2009. Pp. 240. $24.95 (hardcover).

Lewis Wolpert's textbook Principles of Development, from 2001 with the most recent edition in 2006, has remained a standard, and his "French flag" model of developmental position "information" and effects has inspired much productive discussion. Wolpert is a leading developmental biologist focused on cells, and therefore a book like this should be welcome. Indeed, Wolpert's goal to reach a wide public audience with his insider look at the "secret life of cells" is worthy and even admirable. Wolpert makes clear that he wants to reach that broader public, through accessible books and television appearances and other available venues, because he wants people to understand how life works and to avoid the superstition and misinformation that often passes for scientific knowledge. This too is admirable.

Unfortunately, although this book is full of information about what is known right now in cell biology and the goal of broader outreach is laudable, the book misses important opportunities. It may well sell copies and reach readers, but it will not serve them as well as it might. First, there are no illustrations, and this is all the more disappointing because Wolpert's textbook was widely applauded in part for its brilliant use of excellent illustrations that made the complexities of cell biology accessible to undergraduates. Indeed, as reviews have made clear, researchers in other fields have turned to Wolpert's Principles for an introduction to the basics of cell and developmental biology. The use of illustrations there makes it so clear why their absence in this volume is such a disappointment. We are left with just narrative, and without our own knowledge to draw on, we end up having to take his word for what is happening, with no chance to judge or add understanding.

This brings us to the book's second missed opportunity. This is Wolpert's a historical perspective. He would be much better served to take seriously historical development in two ways: first the historical development of cells through evolution, and second the historical development of the science. Instead, Wolpert makes numerous assumptions without explaining that these are best guesses for now and almost surely will be proven wrong in the longer run, given the way science works through replacement and refinement rather than simple accumulation of knowledge bits. He has an excellent opportunity to give his readers an honest introduction into the complexities of how science works, yet even his chapter on "Discovery" suggests that scientists have been busily accumulating facts that are facts for all time. History shows that this is not true.

The book includes an introduction to "the miraculous cell," and chapters on discovery; how we live; how we function; how genes work; how our cells are replaced; how we become human; how we reproduce; how we move, think, and [End Page 317] feel; how we grow and why we age; how we survive; how cancer strikes; how diseases are caused; and the origins of life. This organization is less about the secret lives of cells than about us as humans. That's fine, and Wolpert makes his emphasis clear in his introduction. Evolution occurs, he acknowledges briefly, but it is cell theory that is "more important to biology than Darwin's theory of evolution." In fact, "The future of medicine lies in cell science," and "the single cell is the basis of all life" (p. 1). Wolpert is an enthusiastic fan of cells and their roles in life, stating that he "will attempt to unravel the mystery, power, and above all the sheer cleverness of our society of cells" (p. 7).

This is a worthy aim. Many of us since the late 19th century have been fans of cells and their central roles, and we definitely need a much wider understanding of them. But this understanding has grown gradually and in nonlinear ways. Wolpert's short 17-page chapter on discovery declares that it looks at "how science made plain the facts of life."Yet every one of these "facts" was highly contested in its...