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The Ideas of Biology

The Ideas of Biology

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The Ideas of Biology

306 pagine
5 ore
Sep 26, 2012


"The great achievement of this book," observed the distinguished science writer Gerald Wendt, "is that it presents the basic concepts of biology in concise, lucid, orderly form and thus gradually and understandably transforms the miracle of life into a succession of miraculously simple processes." John Tyler Bonner's series of concise essays explores the foundations of modern biology: the cell, genetics, development, and evolution. "Biologists are fortunate in having such a scientist and author interpret these facts, for Dr. Bonner's style of writing contributes greatly to the success of the work," noted Library Journal, adding, "The drawings which accompany the text are excellent." Since evolution provides the framework for life, the author makes it his central theme, with introductory material on the living machine itself and succeeding chapters on heredity, embryonic development, and ultimately, relations between organisms and their environment. Written as a supplement to classroom biology texts, this volume can be read independently.
Sep 26, 2012

Informazioni sull'autore

John Tyler Bonner is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University. His books include The Social Amoebae: The Biology of Cellular Slime Molds and Why Size Matters: From Bacteria to Blue Whales (both Princeton).

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The Ideas of Biology - John Tyler Bonner

To My Mother


Copyright © 1962, 1990, 2002 by John Tyler Bonner

All rights reserved under Pan American and International Copyright Conventions.

Published in the United Kingdom by David & Charles, Brunel House, Forde Close, Newton Abbot, Devon TQ12 4PU.

Bibliographical Note

This Dover edition, first published in 2002, is an unabridged republication of the work originally published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1962. A new preface by the author has been added to the Dover edition.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bonner, John Tyler.

The ideas of biology / by John Tyler Bonner.

p. cm.

Previously published: New York ; Harper & Brothers, 1962.

Includes bibliographical references.


1. Biology. I. Title.

QH307.2 .B65 2002



Manufactured in the United States of America

Dover Publications, Inc., 31 East 2nd Street, Mineola, N.Y. 11501

Table of Contents

Title Page


Copyright Page















I am very grateful to the following individuals for their help in reading some or all of the manuscript: B. M. Eberhart, L. I. Rebhun, and W. F. Zimmerman.

I should like to thank Drs. W. Beerman, Th. Dobzhansky and N. Tinbergen for permission to use their illustrations.

I should also like to express my gratitude to the following publishers for permission to use illustrations: Oxford University Press, Fig. 21; The Scientific American, Fig. 24; John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Figs. 11, 12.


Perhaps more than any other science, biology is a staggeringly large collection of facts. This poses a great problem in an elementary course of biology because the mere accumulation of these facts is a large task and leaves little time to see what they mean and how they fit together. It is not unheard of for students to fail utterly to see the point, the meaning of this refuse heap of information until the end of the course; or it may hit them in a flash during the final examination; or worse, they may never see it, and the unhinged facts may soon wash away from their minds.

The main purpose of textbooks is to present the facts in as simple and orderly a fashion as possible so that the student can learn them and keep them straight. The main purpose of this book is to assume this basic information and then to stand off as far as possible and see what it means. This is a book on the ideas rather than the facts of biology, although, of course, the ideas have the facts as their foundations. We want the facts, because with them we can see the ideas; but if there is just time for the facts it is like eating a cake without the icing. This book is not a textbook; it is all icing.

In other words the material given here is intended to go along with the biology text. It is written as supplementary reading, perhaps to be undertaken in the latter part of a first-year biology course. However, it is not so dependent upon a text that it cannot be read by the intelligent layman who wishes to discover some of the larger themes of biology today.

Turning now to the themes themselves, all biologists I think would agree that evolution is the largest and most encompassing of them all. Evolution has provided the framework for life in general, and therefore it will be the frame of this book. But before discussing this central theme it may be helpful to examine the lesser one of the living machine itself. Of course this machine, which is basically the cell, has come into being as a step in evolution; but it will be easier to understand the origin of life and later evolutionary developments if we first know something of the workings of the living system.

As soon as the mechanics of evolution are clear then we shall see that the prime element is a controlled method of producing stable variations in offspring. This is the study of heredity or genetics, and it will be possible to show that genetics and evolution operate hand in glove in the course of biological progress.

One of the consequences of increased size and complexity of animals and plants during the course of evolution is that there is an embryonic development, a steady unfolding of the fertilized egg to produce the intricate, functioning adult. On the one hand we can see the relation of development to genetics and evolution, and on the other we can examine what we know and understand of the process of development itself. This inquiry will also emphasize what we do not know, for biology is a science in which there remain many important unsolved problems.

Another consequence of the increase in size and complexity of organisms during evolution is that over and above elaborate systems of communication and control between cells, as in developing organisms, this communication can also be extended beyond the organism to produce colonial organisms and even social organisms, such as the social insects, the ants, and the bees. Furthermore, there may be associations between members of different species, sometimes where one gains and the other loses, as in parasitism, and others in which both species appear to gain as in symbiosis. Lastly organisms are in constant communication with their whole environment; this results in the balance of nature where the activities of the entire community of animals and plants interlock and are interdependent. In fact it is in this ecological setting that we catch the evolutionary mechanism in operation. The whole of life is in a sense a unit, for changes in any part affect all other parts.

Finally it is of interest to apply some of these ideas of biology to man and to consider his development, his genetics, and his evolution. It is even possible and, moreover, important to consider his ecology, his changing role on the face of the earth, and the consequences to his environment, to the other animals and plants that surround him, and to his own future.


This book began around 1960 when I was asked by a publisher to write a high school textbook in biology. At that time—although the situation soon changed—there was a great need for a modern text, especially one that did not shy away from the great importance of evolution and Darwinism. I agreed, signed a contract, and began to write. I sent the opening chapter to the editor, who immediately sent it back, saying it was too difficult and I used too many fancy words. I kept rewriting it, and it kept coming back with the same complaint. The final straw came when he informed me it still was not right because he had asked the file clerk and the janitor in his office to read it and they could not understand it at all! That did it, and with a great sense of relief I tore up the contract; now I could write my book and not his. For some years I had been teaching basic biology to university freshmen and sophomores and now I was free to paint my own picture of what I thought was important in biology.

On re-reading the book forty years later I do not think my views have changed very much. The grand themes are the same; the difference is that we have had many successes pursuing those themes. I am happy to report there are no major errors in the book in the light of what we know now; in fact, in a number of places I used words such as presumed or highly speculative; today those hedge words could be eliminated. Let me now briefly summarize, chapter by chapter, how we have filled in many blanks concerning the subjects I discussed in the original book. In doing so I will also bring the contents of my last chapter up-to-date: further reading that would be relevant and useful today.

1. The Cell. Because my book was written on the threshold of the triumphs of molecular biology, the progress made since in our understanding of the workings of the cell has been no less than phenomenal. We now know how and where proteins are made within the cell, many of the details of how a cell achieves its shape and how it divides, how it sends signals to its different parts, how it signals other cells, and the details of many other cell processes. The magnitude of these advances is apparent in many books, all of them crammed with vast amounts of information. Let me recommend two that reflect the advances of the last forty years: B. Alberts et al., Essential Cell Biology (Garland, 1997) and J. Gerhard and M. Kirchner, Cells, Embryos, and Evolution (Blackwell, 1997). Both books go well beyond the workings of the individual cell, and deal with the function of cells in multicellular organisms, matters pertinent to many of the later chapters in my book. The reader should be warned that neither of these books is easy reading, but there is no better way of appreciating the extent of modern accomplishments in cell biology.

2. Evolution. The subject of evolution pervades every chapter of this book, but here I will confine my remarks solely to the topics mentioned in this particular chapter. One of the most significant advances has been the use of molecular DNA analysis to determine the genetic relatedness of different organisms, making it possible to draw more accurate trees of life or phylogenies of all organisms. For instance, we can now determine by DNA analysis how closely chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and human beings are related to one another; we can determine their family tree—who descended from whom—and even begin to get some inkling of when, in the ancient past, each group separated from the ancestral line. In fact, scientists are using exactly such a procedure to analyze the Darwin finches of the Galapagos Islands discussed in this chapter. We can now see in detail which mainland finch was ancestral, and the sequence of how the finches branched into separate species on the islands. Moreover, there have been some interesting surprises that have changed long-held views. For instance, we now know that fungi and plants are not closely allied as had always been presumed; in fact they are quite separate and if anything fungi are closer to animals. Therefore I ask my readers to be tolerant when I refer to fungi as plants in the book.

The best place to find an up-to-date and comprehensive picture of modern evolution studies would be in one of the numerous excellent textbooks available, such as S. Freeman and J. C. Herron, Evolutionary Analysis, 2nd ed. (Prentice Hall, 2001).

3. Genetics. Because of the molecular revolution, genetics has changed more than any other part of biology. While the facts and ideas presented in my chapter still hold true, we now have vast added knowledge centering around the DNA structure of genes: how genes code for proteins, how genes are turned on and off, how they and their products interact in complex ways, and many other new and interesting facts about genetic activity. In the field of genetics, the event that has produced the greatest recent public acclaim is the sequencing of the entire human genome, and it is indeed an enormous accomplishment. However, it is only a step, and even though it is a large one, there are even larger ones ahead if we are to understand fully the role of genes in making an organism. Most biologists are aware that genes, vitally important as they are, are not everything, and this is especially evident in the discussion of development in the next chapter. Sequencing a whole genome is a little like discovering a dictionary in which only a handful of the words are defined and explained; filling the innumerable blanks is a Herculean task. Molecular genetics is covered in great detail in the Alberts et al. book (Essential Cell Biology) mentioned above.

4. Development. Enormous strides have been made in our understanding of development and again progress has come by means of molecular biology. It has been possible to identify a great number of genes that control specific developmental steps and follow the roles of the proteins they produce in those steps. Many laboratories are pursuing these studies at the moment, producing great quantities of information. To give one example, we now know many of the substances involved in Spemann’s induction, discussed in this chapter. Another recent event of importance is the coupling of development with evolution; for instance, certain genes responsible for laying down the body axis from head to tail are found in practically all animals, from insects and other invertebrates to mammals such as ourselves. However, I want to emphasize that all this progress has not changed any of the principles and ideas laid down in this chapter—the foundation has not changed; simply many new stories have been added to it. To discover the new and how it connects with the old, see the text by S. F. Gilbert, Developmental Biology, 6th ed. (Sinauer, 2000).

5. Simple to Complex. The great advance in this subject in the last forty years has come from the flowering of sociobiology. In the 1960s William Hamilton asked why some animals perform altruistic acts for others at their own peril; and he came up with the idea that if the animals were closely related, and therefore shared many genes, helping an otherwise doomed individual made it possible for those genes to be preserved and passed on to future generations by close relatives. This was an important new idea providing an additional reason for the natural selection of social behavior in animals. Hamilton’s theory stimulated a great amount of very interesting work on animal societies that continues to this day. There has also been major progress in our understanding of community ecologies, largely through the use of mathematical models that simplify the great complexity of such ecologies. For reading, the text mentioned above on evolution (Freeman and Herron, Evolutionary Analysis, 2nd ed.) would be useful here too. I also recommend R. Gadagkar’s Survival Strategies: Cooperation and Conflict in Animal Societies (Harvard, 1997).

6. Man. For starters, this chapter would have a different title today, maybe Humankind; that is not an advance in biology, but rather in our perception of ourselves. As far as our progress is concerned, it has not been so much the opening of new fields of human studies, but rather a refinement of the knowledge of what part of our activities is controlled by our genes, and what part environment plays in influencing our behavior. In addition, we know a great deal more about our ancestry from many great successes in finding fossil remains of early humans, while new insights from molecular genealogies and linguistic studies of the distribution of different peoples around the globe have provided insights about how populations have changed and shifted. The various branches of anthropology remain vibrant and important endeavors. There are many modern books that could be recommended, but I will suggest a particular favorite of mine: A. Jolly’s Lucy’s Legacy (Harvard, 1999).



We think of a cell as being a small unit that makes up a plant or an animal. Small is a rather vague way of putting it, and it would be more precise to say that a cell has a diameter of roughly 8 to 15 microns (a micron is 1/1000th of a millimeter). Perhaps it would be more helpful to put it still another way. A cell is so small that a human being is made up of over a million-million (10¹²) of them. This means that if a man is enlarged to the size of an average living room then a cell in his body would roughly be the size of a pinhead.

One of the astounding facts of life is that the cells of all animals and plants (with the exception of bacteria) from the smallest amoeba to the largest elephant and from the minute algae in the sea to the giant redwood are all roughly the same in construction. They all have a roundish nucleus surrounded by cytoplasm. Within the nucleus they all possess chromosomes that bear the genes, the factors of inheritance; and within the cytoplasm they all have similar particles, such as mitochondria. For the most part their cytoplasm is bordered by a thin cell membrane, although there are certain interesting organisms or parts of organisms that lack this membrane and have nuclei all wandering about in one large mass of cytoplasm. This is true, for instance, in early stages of development of a number of plants and animals. But these exceptions, as will be shown presently, have little meaning when one considers the cell not as a unit of structure but as a unit of function.

If the structure of all cells is basically similar, it is not surprising to find that their function or functions are similar as well. Their most important function is that of energy turnover; they take in fuel and convert the energy from the fuel into all the living activities, for example, cell movement. Each cell is a minute motor, or, to phrase it in a more conventional manner, each cell is a unit of metabolism. Another function, that they perform with the energy derived from the metabolism is to reproduce, to duplicate parts. This is the basis of growth and reproduction in which the living substance can, in essence, make more of itself. A third function is one of responsiveness, or irritability, as it is sometimes called. This means that a cell can respond to stimuli, and in this way it can react to its environment and to other cells that may surround it. It is a combination of awareness and coordination that is really a characteristic of any motor, any energy machine; the wheels of a car respond to a push on the steering wheel, and the engine puffs in response to a steep hill.

Now that the outline of what can be said about a cell is spread before us, let us examine the matter in more detail. What we want to know is how this motor works, how it is put together, and what makes it run.

Although a cell is a motor, it clearly does not have wheels and gears inside like a wrist watch. Instead it can more properly be described as a chemical machine in somewhat the way a battery is a chemical machine (although the differences are great). Therefore, presumably, if one knew something of the chemical constituents of a cell, one might learn something important about its operation.

At first this seems to be a rather discouraging approach, because with a few quick calculations one can soon see that even though a cell is small it contains a very large number of chemical molecules, for molecules are themselves so small. In fact an average size cell contains about 200 million-million (2 × 10¹⁴) molecules. This means that if one enlarged the pinhead that was the cell to the size of a reasonably large room, then each molecule within the cell would be about the size of a pinpoint. This staggering thought so severely taxes the imagination that any idea of seeing how this bag full of millions of molecules can work seems out of the question; there are too many parts to the machine to ever make any sense of it.

Furthermore, it is not very helpful to analyze the problem at a lower level. Molecules, from the smallest, such as hydrogen, to the largest proteins are made up of protons, electrons, and neutrons. These particles, with all the others inside the atomic nucleus, are ubiquitous. This means that living organisms are not alone in being made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons; this is true of all matter. A table, a glass of water, a layer of dust, or the slate of a tombstone are nothing more than masses of these three basic particles. This answers nothing and only emphasizes what

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