How does a single-cell creature, such as an amoeba, lead such a sophisticated life? How does it hunt living prey, respond to lights, sounds, and smells, and display complex sequences of movements without the benefit of a nervous system?
Some books that deserved to be read multiple times. This is one of three books I first read a few months ago, and I just revisited them all to find that they are still as good as I remembered them. See also my reviews of Reinventing Gravity and In Search of Time.
How does a single-cell creature, such as an amoeba, lead such a sophisticated life? How does it hunt living prey, respond to lights, sounds, and smells, and display complex sequences of movements without the benefit of a nervous system? This book offers a startling and original answer. I re-read this tome a couple of weeks ago as I pen these words, yet I'm still pondering the things it taught me on a daily basis. I would strongly recommend this little scamp to anyone and everyone. This is a "must read"!!! (I know that multiple exclamation marks are the sign of a feeble brain, but I don't care!)
Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell is an incredibly thought-provoking book. The author, Dennis Bray, writes in a very clear, understandable, yet vivid style. Early in the book we are introduced to the amoeba. Even though this is only a single-celled creature, it can "crawl" around, hunt for food, and respond to external stimuli like lights and sounds and smells... all without muscles or a nervous system.
How can this be? Dennis walks us through the concepts of things like proteins and explains how – in the case of the amoeba – interactions between different proteins can be used to detect external stimuli, perform "computations" and "make" decisions, cause the amoeba to move in its "desired" direction, and so forth. Dennis also describes how these structures could have originated and evolved over time.
If the book had stopped at this point it would still have been worth ten times what I paid for it... but this is only the beginning. Dennis then moves on to describe how colonies of single-celled creatures (some with a nucleus like an amoeba, and some without a nucleus like bacteria) can perform "quorum sensing", which allows them to detect the presence of others of their kind and – more significantly – how many of them there are (few, many, very many...)
Then we move on to consider simple multi-celled creatures. Here we discover how the different cells forming the creature manage to communicate with each other. I had never really appreciated the complexities of all this before, but having been exposed to the first part of the book I was awed by the beauty of all this.
And we keep on working our way up through larger and larger organisms until we reach creatures such as ourselves. Intellectually, of course, I was already aware that my body is formed from trillions upon trillions of cells. But reading this book really makes you think about how amazing it is that these all work together in the way that they do.
I mean, there are several trillion cells forming my brain (at least 10 of them still work at full power). How to they all interact with each other. Don’t talk to me about nerve cells and synapses and suchlike. I used to be relatively confident that I had a good layman's grasp as to how all this stuff worked (in general terms at least). Having read this book, I realize that I know less than nothing.
In summary, this book literally "blew my mind". As I said, I re-read it several weeks ago as I pen these words, yet I'm still pondering the things it taught me on a daily basis. The bottom line is that this book is a "must read"; it will forever have pride of place on my bookshelves; and I would strongly recommend it to anyone and everyone.