REVIEW: How Life Works by Philip Ball

Biology is an incredibly conservative profession. As the famous saying goes, “Science proceeds one funeral at a time.” The situation the author is dealing with is: the public has been fed a tragically over simplified version of science. Accurate information needs to replace long-standing misconceptions.

Philip Ball’s “How Life Works” sets a new standard for biology.

However, if you are too overt in stating this, the wrath of the old guard will be visited upon you. The emperor is wearing a thong… but please don’t embarrass him.

The bestselling book “Selfish Gene” convinced an entire generation that biology is really quite simple and evolution is simple. Everything is controlled by genes which are randomly mutated; it is really the genes which are selected, not organisms; so the purpose of every organism is to simply proliferate its own genes.

This is incredibly easy to explain and seemed like a revelation to a lot of people. But it was just brain candy. The model got cause and effect entirely backwards. For 40+ years now it has been very very difficult to get those who are enamored with this idea to realize the degree to which they have misunderstood the whole thing.

The truth: genes are merely tools of the cell, which the cell edits and modifies it as it wishes. The organism is not a lumbering robotic repository of its genes; nothing could be further from the truth. Many vital functions of organisms (such as body plans) are not even coded in the genes at all.

The organism is not passive. It is an agent with its own goals.

What Philip Ball has managed to do in this book is to say all of this, mostly plain English, and say it diplomatically. A recent review Nature Magazine by Denis Noble (who defeated Richard Dawkins in a debate in 2022) welcomed it, saying it’s long overdue.

Some reader reviews complain that you need a background in biology to readily understand the book. That is inevitable. It’s simply not possible to describe how biology actually works with any accuracy, without pulling the reader into an impossibly complex world of interacting and interlocking systems.

It is a terrible mistake to think that such systems are the aimless haphazard result of natural selection, when every educated biologist knows that processes for developing, controlling, modifying, and adapting organisms to their environment are staggeringly complex.

The very last section of the book leaves it to the reader to decide whether evolutionary theory needs a major overhaul, or if it can simply be modified by adding new mechanisms and systems to the old model. It does a good job of laying out the problems with the old theory, without coming down on either side.

I’d like to offer my two cents on this question, as it has direct medical implications. The Cancer and Evolution Working Group began studying cancer as a real time evolutionary phenomenon in 2020, and the Polyploid Giant Cell Conference took place at MD Anderson Cancer Center in February 2024.

A growing number of scientists believe the birth of many cancers, and the genesis of the very first cancer cell, often occurs when a stressed kidney cell [for example] performs a symbiotic merger with an immune cell. This is high speed evolutionary Symbiogenesis exactly as described by Lynn Margulis, in which one cell joins another in a merger acquisition.

This is why we have mitochondria and chloroplasts. It turns out to be also virtually identical to embryonic development with sperm and egg. In other words a cancer tumor is a dark evil twin of conception and birth, all based on high speed real time evolution, and goes through all of the same steps. Papers by Jinsong Liu, Azra Raza and Kenneth Pienta describe this in detail.

Symbiotic merger acquisitions are not lucky accidents that occur once every billion years. They are an intentional survival strategy happen every single day! This is how people get cancer.

This turns out to be such an accurate model that abortifacient drugs can be used to arrest tumor development. There is currently much experimentation right now to develop anti-cancer drugs based on that premise.

A number of researchers hypothesize this is a major mechanism of cancer development. If this turns out to be correct, then the notion that evolution is random, accidental, gradual, has no goals, and is entirely a product of natural selection… has been preventing us from effectively treating cancer for half a century. Not only that, the “natural selection” narrative has been visited upon patients in the form of slash, poison and burn chemotherapy. Everyone knows it barely works at all.

Cancer cells use their evolutionary toolkits to evade treatment as the disease moves from Stage 3 to Stage 4 and kills the patient. Cancer cells can outsmart any physician, and develop resistance as a direct response to stresses in the environment.

So the truth is, evolution is purposeful, highly systematic, occurs at incredibly high speed. Outliers like Shapiro, Jablonka, Margulis, Waddington and McClintock have insisted this is the case for 80 years. For decades they were ridiculed. Only in the last 10 years or so has the rest of the world begun to pay attention.

“How Life Works” also introduces readers to the work of a new generation, people like Michael Levin who are making radical discoveries around embryonic development and limb regeneration. All this is based on the hypothesis that cells and tissues are smart. They develop their evolutionary goals in real time.

The book really does deliver on its subtitle “A user’s guide to the new biology.” If you invest some work to get through it, you will be richly rewarded with a far more accurate picture of biology and medicine than so many books that came before.

Download The First 3 Chapters of Evolution 2.0 For Free, Here – https://evo2.org/evolution/

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