Biologist Wolpert (Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief, 2007, etc.) attempts to explain cells—the basic structural and functional units of all forms of life—to general readers.
The author reviews cell replication and protein synthesis and describes the behavior of nerve, muscle, immune and other body cells. Unfortunately, there is not a single photo, diagram or schematic of a basic cell, nor of cell division (mitosis) and the more complex chromosome-halving reduction division that gives rise to sperms and eggs (meiosis). Wolpert begins historically with the 17th-century discoveries of cells by Robert Hooke and Anton van Leeuwenhoek, which laid the groundwork for the cell theories of Theodor Schwann and Rudolph Virchow two centuries later. Then it’s on to the nitty-gritty of what cells do: consume food, generate energy, make proteins, replicate (or not), grow old and die (or not, in the case of cancer and stem cells). Wolpert provides plenty of factoids: The body has some 200 different types of cells; there are three billion nucleotide pairs in the human genome; proteins run from 50 to 2,000 amino acids long; muscle cells do not replicate, but rather expand, absorbing more nuclei in the process. The dense procession of facts slows the narrative pace and may leave nonspecialist readers confused. The author devotes later chapters to what can go wrong with cells—infection, an overactive immune system, chronic diseases like cancer and the wear and tear of aging, which limits cell repair and replication. Wolpert stoutly defends science-based medicine, condemning alternative and complementary “energy” approaches, including acupuncture.
Despite a somewhat helpful glossary, lay readers would be better served by a generously illustrated textbook.