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Academic & Professional Books  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

The Biology of Death How Dying Shapes Cells, Organisms, & Populations

Popular Science
By: Gary C Howard(Author)
291 pages
The Biology of Death
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  • The Biology of Death ISBN: 9780190687724 Hardback Jan 2022 In stock
Price: £26.49
About this book Customer reviews Related titles

About this book

How does death help us understand the living? Death is more than the last event of life; it is interwoven into our growth, development, protection against disease, and more. It influences the direction of entire species via the cycle of a lifespan, and it involves asking many fascinating questions. How do we differentiate between life and death, though? How do we know when a person, animal, or cell is really dead? How much grey area is there in the science? Why do we age? Can we do anything about it?

Scientifically, there's much we can learn about a living thing from its cells. In all living things, cells seem to carry "death" gene programs. Some living organisms have created systems to use these to their own advantage. Humans, for example, use the death of specific cells to hone our immune system and to give us fingernails and hair. Perhaps the most dramatic use occurs during the metamorphosis of insects and frogs. Even single-celled organisms use "quorum sensing" to eliminate some cells to ensure the overall survival of their colony in harsh environments. Thus, there is more to death than just dying.

This latest book from science writer Gary C. Howard ties together the many ways that death helps us understand life. He synthesizes the involvement and relation of cells, tissues, organisms, and populations, explaining what happens at the end of life. Between discussions about popular topics such as the ethics of extending life and cell regeneration, Howard also answers fascinating questions about life and death. The resulting book examines how the end of life is determined and what we can learn from this process.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A panoramic overview of many topics but marred by errors and omissions.
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 1 Feb 2024 Written for Hardback

    The author of The Biology of Death is a bit of an enigma. From the biography provided by the publisher and the website of the Rotary Club of Castro Valley, where he is (or was?) president, here is what I could puzzle together. Howard obtained a BA in zoology and an MA and PhD degree in biology, did two postdocs, spent 11 years at two small biotech companies, and then 22 years until his retirement as a science writer at Gladstone Institutes. That last one is a non-profit biomedical research organization I had never heard of, except that (oh really?) Jennifer Doudna, co-discoverer of the gene-editing technology CRISPR, is one of their senior investigators. The tagline for Howard's book is "Death is more than dying" and in 16 short chapters, he provides a panoramic overview of the many facets of the biology of death.

    To give you some examples, Howard mentions the borderline of life and death, the struggle we have with defining life, and some of the organisms that populate the grey zone between life and non-life. He mentions major causes of death today (with an honourable mention of the mosquito), and what killed us in the past (including a list of some major pandemics). He mentions symptoms of ageing and some major theories as to why we age. He mentions the gruesome details of death and decomposition, and how we lay the dead to rest then and now (a topic that has given rise to more than one engrossing memoir by undertakers). There is a brief mention of forensic entomology, though not forensic botany. He mentions programmed cell death and the different ways cells die, including apoptosis, autophagy, and necrosis. He mentions death at its grandest, i.e. mass extinctions, and some of the ideas about how we came to be the last ape standing. He mentions research on ageing and the bioethical quandaries thrown up by the quest to live longer. And, finally, he mentions promising new technologies that could help stave off age-related diseases, as well as new and emerging threats that could undo it all (including antibiotic resistance and climate change). A panoramic overview indeed.

    You will notice my frequent use of the word "mentions". Howard's approach is to provide you with facts, facts, and then some more facts. Here are the 12 major causes of death in the USA today. Next topic. Here are nine physiological manifestations of ageing. Next topic. Here are eight processes in human development that are shaped (quite literally) by programmed cell death. Next topic. There is little in the way of synthesis here and those looking for an engaging narrative might want to consider e.g. Bernd Heinrich's Life Everlasting and Jules Howard's Death on Earth. For such a fascinating topic, the writing is rather, well, lifeless and The Biology of Death faces stiff competition from many other titles.

    Now, do not get me wrong, there are some interesting nuggets in here. The fear of premature burial was so great in the 18th century that one inventor was granted a patent for a warning device that could be fitted in coffins. I was amazed to read the long list of different forms of programmed cell death that I had never heard of, even though I spent an internship studying apoptosis in plants. And I was intrigued by the idea that the many hominid species evolving after Homo erectus might be a single chronospecies that through continuous evolution transitioned into H. sapiens, meaning that many of the names you are familiar with are little more than a taxonomic mirage. Frustratingly, he omits the reference where he got this idea from.

    However, the book is marred by a series of mistakes that suggest the manuscript could have done with more feedback and revision. Relatively innocent are the occasional sentences that have extraneous words or typos in them, such as consistently writing of hunter-gathers instead of hunter-gatherers, or writing that the Triassic ended 18 million years ago, suggesting a digit was missed out (though two sentences earlier he correctly pegs the end-Triassic at 201 million years ago). Page 50 incongruously shows an image of a dividing E. coli cell that is neither referenced nor relevant to the paragraph discussing what we fear (e.g. flying) and what actually kills us (obesity, heart disease, etc.). Another example is discussing the World Health Organisation's global mortality estimate for 2016 and providing a table with leading causes of death that instead shows data for the USA in 2017. These errors are infrequent but noticeable enough to suggest that the text would have benefited from more careful proofreading.

    More worrisome, though, are some notable errors and omissions. When listing theories for how life started, he mentions Darwin's warm little pond, panspermia, and the famous Urey–Miller experiments, but makes no mention of hydrothermal vents, which is another leading theory in the field of abiogenesis. He mentions a study claiming to have revived bacteria recovered from 250 million-year-old salt deposits. However, as discussed in Remnants of Ancient Life, this study was challenged on several grounds and it seems likely these bacteria instead resulted from later intrusion of water. He confidently asserts that the dinosaurs were already in decline before the asteroid hit. This is far from a consensus view. As discussed by Steve Brusatte in The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, work by his and other groups shows that, though a few groups were in decline in North America, most other groups in most other places were doing just fine. A real howler is his casual mention that during the Jurassic "the dinosaurs flourished on the land and even moved into the sea and air" (p. 196). Errr, no. Other than contributing to the general misunderstanding that pterosaurs and ancient marine reptiles were dinosaurs (they are not), they certainly did not evolve from dinosaurs. These are just some of the topics I happen to be familiar with, but it left me feeling uncertain about how trustworthy the rest is. My impression is that his presentation of the biomedical and biochemical details of death is reasonably accurate and balanced, but that other topics would have benefited from more background research. Input and feedback from specialists in their respective fields could have much improved his manuscript.

    Overall then, though this book is an earnest attempt at providing a wide-ranging overview of the biology of death that succeeds in showing that there is more to death than dying, it suffers from its lacklustre writing style and a range of errors and omissions.
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Popular Science
By: Gary C Howard(Author)
291 pages
Media reviews

"This is an expansive, nearly encyclopedic, review of the end of life, ranging from the life and death of cells to mass extinctions of species. Death is necessary for life to continue, and Gary C. Howard discusses all major categories of organisms, from bacteria, fungi, and plants to human beings. By reading Howard's book, readers will discover aspects of life they never before appreciated."
– John Mayfield, Professor Emeritus, Genetics, Development, and Cell Biology, Iowa State University

"This remarkably interesting book explores a series of fascinating questions about life and death. Why do we age and what can we do about it? Gary C. Howard approaches these questions and, most amazingly, discusses how living organisms have evolved to use selective death to their advantage. Biology uses selective cell death to refine our immune system, to give us fingers, to allow fruit to drop from trees and tadpoles to become frogs."
– Eric Verdin, CEO and President, The Buck Institute for Research on Aging

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