Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Alice’s Analysis: Cells to Civilisations by Enrico Coen

Over the coming months, Nature’s Head of Press, Alice Henchley, will be reading and reviewing the books shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, at a rate of one every week.  The winner will be announced at a public event at the Royal Society on the 25th November 2013 during which shortlisted authors will discuss their books with host Dara O Briain.  Prior to the announcement,  we’re running a competition on Of Schemes and Memes to win a set of the shortlisted books – all you have to do is predict the winning book and enter our prize draw.

Cells Book jacketIt’s a pretty lofty ambition to explain how life goes from the simplest form to the most complex of societies, yet Coen works hard in Cells to Civilisations to get to the heart of the subject.  He kicks off by expounding on the principles that he believes can explain the complexity of life: population variation, persistence, reinforcement, competition, cooperation, combinatorial richness and recurrence. Unfortunately, it is here, I regret, that it becomes apparent that this is not my idea of a popular science book. The language is more like that of an undergraduate text and the analogies, which perpetuate throughout the book, seem often to be only tenuously linked to the theories that Coen is trying to describe.

However, as the book continues, I do find some chapters of real interest, and bearing somewhat closer resemblance to the other books on the Royal Society Winton Prize shortlist.  Chapter Six, for example, piques my interest as Coen describes how organisms deal with change.  This is a fascinating area and Coen chooses some great examples, including the extraordinary Mimosa pudica plant, whose leaves fold quickly together when you touch them, and the sea slug, a beast with particularly large and well-studied neurons that so fascinated Darwin.  Chapter Nine also attracts me, as it looks at the way we perceive and understand our world and uses the interesting example of an averaged portrait, made up of 179 portraits, including those by Rembrandt and Modigliani, to do this.  Unfortunately, these chapters, which explain the basics of neuroscience, do, to some extent, fall back to the kind of textbook prose that I was less enamoured with.

Coen is obviously a fan of art history and decided on a promising plan to find analogies between the arts and sciences.  The book is peppered with descriptions of artists’ techniques and practices. Some of these are charmingly described, such as the tale of Cézanne’s style of painting in the second chapter.  The illustrations, including some truly lovely plates of Carpaccio, Pollaiuolo, Renoir and Cézanne (clearly a favourite), along with the numerous diagrams and other illustrations, do really help the reader to understand and appreciate the points Coen is making and, in general I enjoyed these sojourns away from science.

As a theory to explain the complexity of life and as an entertaining read-for-enjoyment, I ultimately found this book to be slightly lacking.  However, as an undergraduate text to explain some interesting biological concepts, it’s an excellent choice.  One for the first-year biologists out there.


aliceAlice Henchley has been Head of Press at Nature since the start of 2013.  Prior to that she worked at the Royal Society and the Zoological Society of London, communicating everything from population policy to conservation of the world’s most extraordinary animals.



Comments are closed.