How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells, by Lewis Wolpert
As Ian Dury once put it: there ain’t half been some clever bastards. Having read How We Live And Why We Die, I think it is fair to say Lewis Wolpert must be one of these lucky bleeders.
Wolpert is Emiritus Professor of Biology at the University of London, was Chair of the Committee For The Public Understanding of Science, has published several books about the nature of belief and clinical depression among others and is a frequent Radio 4 guest on matters biological. And he can write. All of which ensures How We Live And Why We Die is another worthwhile addition to the already groaning popular science shelves.
This time out it is cells, the basis of all life on Earth. We live because one cell, the embryo, divided itself, we get ill because cells mutate or cease to function properly, we die because cells wear out once they have done their job passing genes to the next generation. This is a Ronseal book – it really does explain the chemical processes that determine how we live and why we die and like most things in the natural world, the truth is more dazzlingly, mind-blowingly beautiful than anything made up by man to contrive a sense of wonder.
If the science within How We Live And Why We Die is on occasion complicated, it is because cells themselves – and we each have billions of them at the last count – are a complicated subject. No matter, Wolpert’s lightness of touch with a metaphor smooths the path to understanding. So much so this book is an (almost) effortless delight
What sets Wolpert apart from his fellow science popularisers is his writing ability that sits comfortably alongside his clear-eyed rationalism. Richard Dawkins has perhaps been lost to the noise of the ire he faces which means people have largely forgotten the sense of wonder he was able to convey before he took on all religion head on. Wolpert’s own cells might not allow him enough time to really to pick up the cudgels for very long but in How We Live And Why We Die, he’s had a bloody good go.
If someone reads this fascinating book and still believes the body is driven by qi, energy, auras and the rest, they are probably an idiot.