Book Review—“LIFE UNFOLDING: How the human body creates itself” by Jamie A. Davies
Jamie A. Davies has done an excellent job in explaining some of the mysteries of how a human life forms and develops through the gestation period and even beyond birth. An unfolding journey that begins as a single cell dividing itself over and over, with each layer of replication adding enough complexity and difference to define and guide the following stages. Cells, through variances in location to one another, the strength of signalling proteins and mechanical forces, and the influences of the environment around it, adapt and change via switching off/on particular genes to become the varying diverse biological components of a living being – all without having to have some kind of “blue-print” of “fore-knowledge” of the final structure that they are forming. As Davies puts it, at the end of an early stage in an embryo’s development,
“It has pulled itself up by its own bootstraps, first using simple geometrical tricks to create differences where there were none, and then using these new differences between cell types as a source of information to create yet more differences, more information, and more organisation. All of this was accomplished by relatively simple mechanisms that obey simple, local rules” (p.64, Hardback edition)
How a body builds itself, as explained by Davies in the introduction and throughout, is not analogous to how we construct a car or a bridge. There is no foreman or workers following a design. The body builds itself via the “simple” responses of individual cells to their environment with no comprehension of the “grand scheme of things” beyond their decisions.
This may seem illogical to us, “how can cells, that know nothing of the final picture, go on to form such a complex working biological marvel?” Davies does a good and persuasive job of putting his case across, using his own experience in the field of cellular and anatomical development, and by citing years of research that has (and continues) to explore this exiting field.
Seeing how cells “pull off” this amazing feat doesn’t in anyway diminish the wonder of “the miracle of birth” – in many ways, after reading this, that wonder has intensified. How life holds itself together, how this community of an organism that I call my body maintains and extends itself is extraordinary. This is the kind of book that once you’ve read a chapter, you’ll find yourself wondering at the movements of your hand and contemplating your ability to see those movements. Life really is fascinating.
That doesn’t mean that this is an easy book to read. Davies has does a fine job in simplifying all this, and there are many areas that haven’t been touched on and developmental journeys that been side-tracked for the sake of brevity. But bodies are not simple things, and to grapple with things that are complex will require the reader being prepared to stretch their thinking. For those who are familiar with this area, then this book will provide a good condensed view of the basic principles (and providing further works/research papers to explore). For those new to all of this – and I still think of myself in this boat – then you might find yourself getting a little bit lost with new terminology, membrane names and protein labels (although Sonic Hedgehog is pretty easy to remember). So for the newbies in this field, be prepared to take your time, and be willing to sometimes read back before reading forward.
Overall, I found this book a fascinating, compelling and well written treatment of how we come to be.
It’s not the only book I’ve read on this topic, and I certainly wouldn’t say it’s the only book you need to read. So, if you’re interested, I’d also recommend the following works: The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey, The Music of Life by Denis Noble, and, for a more philosophical treatment of human biological and evolutionary development, Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis.
Tristan Sherwin is the Author of Love: Expressed – Available now.