May 22, 2013
Life’s Creative Recipe
Posted on Jul 17, 2012
By Deniz Erezyilmaz
At times Coen’s arguments for the seven underlying principles of life’s creative recipe may seem to be semantic, but the synthesis of these ideas builds progressively throughout the book and comes together near the end. The reader should labor through the detailed lesson on the physiology of learning to reach a beautiful treatment of the mechanistic basis of creativity. Here, Coen breaks down the process to reveal a double feedback loop in which variation and persistence are tempered by reinforcement and competition. Creativity, he asserts, is another transformation within the biological world.
Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life
By Enrico Coen
Princeton University Press, 322 pages
In contrast to the baseball metaphors of Stephen Jay Gould, or the classic rock lyrics of Sean Carroll, Coen’s metaphors and examples are taken almost entirely from the world of visual art. His previous book, “The Art of Genes,” likened embryonic development to the process of painting. In “Cells to Civilizations” the metaphors include the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux to the cubist paintings of Picasso. To illustrate the process of reinforcement in learning to recognize the proportions used by painters, he invokes a “Modigliani neuron.” To show that the world we perceive is limited by the mechanisms that have evolved to perceive it, Coen concludes the book with a lithograph by M.C. Escher, “showing a man looking at a picture of which he is part. Like Escher’s man we can never step out of our picture, but this does not mean that we cannot contemplate and try to understand the fascinating world of which we are an inseparable part.”
Deniz Erezyilmaz is a research assistant professor at Stony Brook University in New York. She is the author of several papers on evolutionary developmental biology, which have appeared in the journals Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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