Appreciating similarities between human creative acts and other living processes gives us a richer perspective on all life and a more honest view of our place within it.” Enrico Coen
Enrico Coen is a plant biologist. His engaging and pioneering book, Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change that shape Life (2012), is the first unified account of how life transforms itself – from the production of bacteria to the emergence of complex civilizations. Synthesizing the growth of living systems and creative processes, he reveals that the four great life transformations–evolution, development, learning, and human culture–while typically understood separately, actually all revolve around shared core principles and manifest the same fundamental recipe
Enrico Coen begins by suggesting that there are only seven organising principles sufficient to explain much, if not all, of biology – whether we are dealing with genetics, development, evolution, learning and brain function, populations or culture.
These principles are based on variation, persistence, reinforcement, competition, cooperation, combinatorial richness and recurrence. Further principles also emerge from combining these seven, the most important being the interaction between reinforcement and competition, which generates positive and negative feedback loops.
Coen regards our genetic, evolutionary, developmental and cultural potential as clouds governed by these principles that move relentlessly on a never-ending path determined by the complexities of our environment.
Framed initially within a genetic and evolutionary context , he skilfully extends these seven principles to show how cell patterns arise from what initially appears to be an amorphous blob of cytoplasm to the generation of the multidimensional embryo, to the development of the nervous system responding to stimuli, and how through repeated exposures to stimuli can modulate the firing of nerve cells, leading to the process of learning. Learning, evolution and development are all connected through these now-familiar principles.
“Creative acts do not require any special new ingredients or principles, only further levels of cooperation, combinatorial interaction, and recurrence.”
Then, with a masterful use of analogies and metaphors he eases the reader through neural patterns to the final section on culture. Using the context of Leonardo da Vinci’s Florence, he describes the advances of art and technology using these same principles, embedding cultural change as a consequence of our neuronal intelligence that is itself a product of our genetic, developmental and evolutionary history.
Blending provocative discussion with the latest scientific research, a story rich with genes, embryos, neurons, and fascinating discoveries, Coen examines the development of the zebra, the adaptations of seaweed, the cave paintings of Lascaux, the formulations of Alan Turing, and explores how dogs make predictions, how weeds tell the time of day, and how our brains distinguish a Modigliani from a Rembrandt.
Professor Enrico Coen is a British plant biologist and Project Leader at the Coen Lab, John Innes Centre, Norwich, England. He won the 2004 Darwin Medal, with Rosemary Carpenter.
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