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The enormous recent success of molecular developmental biology has yielded a vast amount of new information on the details of development. So much so that we risk losing sight of the underlying principles that apply to all development. To cut through this thicket, John Tyler Bonner ponders a moment in evolution when development was at its most basic--the moment when signaling between cells began. Although multicellularity arose numerous times, most of those events happened many millions of years ago. Many of the details of development that we see today, even in simple organisms, accrued over a long evolutionary timeline, and the initial events are obscured. The relatively uncomplicated and easy-to-grow cellular slime molds offer a unique opportunity to analyze development at a primitive stage and perhaps gain insight into how early multicellular development might have started. Through slime molds, Bonner seeks a picture of the first elements of communication between cells. He asks what we have learned by looking at their developmental biology, including recent advances in our molecular understanding of the process. He then asks what is the most elementary way that polarity and pattern formation can be achieved. To find the answer, he uses models, including mathematical ones, to generate insights into how cell-to-cell cooperation might have originated. Students and scholars in the blossoming field of the evolution of development, as well as evolutionary biologists generally, will be interested in what Bonner has to say about the origins of multicellular development--and thus of the astounding biological complexity we now observe--and how best to study it.
On Development is, as John Tyler Bonner says, a book on ideas, the ideas at stake in the contest to unravel the mechanisms of life. This fluent discussion of developmental biology synthesizes decades of intensive progress in specialized areas of the science: from the dramatic deciphering of the genetic code to detailed analyses of animal behavior patterns. Placing these discoveries in an evolutionary context, Bonner explores the continuities and the transitoriness of individual lives and individual forms. He begins by discussing the ubiquity among organisms of developmental cycles and their universal properties, including senescence and death. He argues that the life cycle itself is an object of natural selection and shows how, in any species, it reflects the evolutionary tradeoff between energy requirements of the individual and reproductive efficiency of the species. Although nucleic acids are thought to be the ultimate and fundamental source of genetic regulation, Bonner points out that a massive amount of information required for normal development is not directly controlled by nuclear DNA during the life cycle. Each life cycle is governed by some immediate instructions from the genes and by many gene-initiated instructions that were given in previous life cycles and have accumulated in various parts of the fertilized egg. All of these instructions taken together govern the development of a new organism. Acknowledging the great value of reductionist theories in biology, Bonner constructs his synthetic view of development without resorting to vitalist concepts or to hand-waving explanations. He draws examples and evidence from more than half a century of biological research, from sources as diverse as Spemann and Spiegelman. Certain organisms, such as the cellular slime molds, upon which Bonner himself has conducted a number of original experiments, and the social insects provide crucial examples of dramatic evolutionary increments in biological complexity and offer insight into the control mechanisms that make such advances possible.
John Tyler Bonner makes a new attack on an old problem: the question of how progressive increase in the size and complexity of animals and plants has occurred. How is it, he inquires, that an egg turns into an elaborate adult? How is it that a bacterium, given many millions of years, could have evolved into an elephant? The author argues that we can understand this progression in terms of natural selection, but that in order to do so we must consider the role of development--or more precisely the role of life cycles--in evolutionary change. In a lively writing style that will be familiar to readers of his work The Evolution of Culture in Animals (Princeton, 1980), Bonner addresses a general audience interested in biology, as well as specialists in all areas of evolutionary biology. What is novel in the approach used here is the comparison of complexity inside the organism (especially cell differentiation) with the complexity outside (that is, within an ecological community). Matters of size at both these levels are closely related to complexity. The book shows how an understanding of the grand course of evolution can come from combining our knowledge of genetics, development, ecology, and even behavior.
Animals do have culture, maintains this delightfully illustrated and provocative book, which cites a number of fascinating instances of animal communication and learning. John Bonner traces the origins of culture back to the early biological evolution of animals and provides examples of five categories of behavior leading to nonhuman culture: physical dexterity, relations with other species, auditory communication within a species, geographic locations, and inventions or innovations. Defining culture as the transmission of information by behavioral rather than genetical means, he demonstrates the continuum between the traits we find in animals and those we often consider uniquely human.