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Published on Jun 12, 2012
Professor Enrico Coen talking about his new book, 'Cells to Civilizations' which explains the principles of change that shape life
Professor Enrico Coen of the John Innes Centre is the author of a new book that describes the unified principles behind the transformations that define life. What are the connections between evolving microbes, an egg that develops into an infant, a child who learns to walk and talk, 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 Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life, 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. The book is an excellent example of the Systems Biology approach, as it treats seemingly very different biological processes as integrated systems that operate according to general underlying principles. Professor Coen's research group at the John Innes Centre uses these approaches to understand leaf and flower shape. They are examining how development produces these forms and how these forms have arisen through evolution. The book looks at these transformations and how they, along with learning and cultural change, share many similar principles. With over 100 illustrations, 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. One consequence of his unifying argument is that even our own creativity as humans, which we tend to see as completely special and unique, can be seen as related to other biological processes, like the way the neurons interact in the brain or the way cells interact in a developing embryo.