The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters (Book Review)

Sean B. Carroll is coming out with a new book called The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters.

This is the molecular biologist Sean Carroll, as distinct from the physicist (who wrote this).

Homeostasis is one of the basic principles of biology. The term can be applied broadly to mean that certain numbers are maintained within a certain range. This could refer to energy flowing through a system, numbers of specific cellular products like enzymes, numbers of individual organisms in an ecological system, etc. It is not so much that numbers don’t change. Change in numbers is often central to a physiological process. But the change is either demanded by a system of regulating numbers, or is a perturbation in a system that is responded to by regulation. Regulation is one of those key concepts that can be applied across pretty much all systems, and provides a powerful point of view from which to understand what is happening in any living system.

Carroll is a molecular biologist, so much of his training and work is about regulation: identifying it, characterizing it, figuring it out. What Carroll has done in this book is to apply this point of view broadly to biological systems, looking at things inside cells and things inside major ecosystems. The title of the book comes from his own experience visiting the Serengeti as a safari-going tourist, in combination with the fact that this particular ecosystem is one of the best studied in the world. Many different scientists studying everything from grass to microbes to lions to antelopes have spent countless hours observing, characterizing, and trying to explain the dynamics of the Serengeti. As Carroll points out, this is true of a number of different ecosystems, and he could well have named his book, “The Lake Erie Rules,” but that would not have been as cool of a name.

So Carroll has done, then, something that is very dangerous and often does not go well. He’s taken insight derived from his expertise in small scale, mostly sub-cellular, biological systems, and using the touchstone of regulation, applied this insight to help observe, describe, and understand biological systems generally, with a strong focus on ecology. When a scientist steps out of their normal realm to do such a thing, we often get something better ignored, because, in fact, it is not easy or, in some cases, appropriate to make this leap. In this case, however, it worked beautifully. Carroll’s book is fantastic, a success story in going form the specific to the general.

It helps that Carroll is a gifted writer, captivating and thoughtful, and highly respectful of the reader.

Carroll brings in the history of thought and research in the relevant areas of physiology, ecology etc. His messages are framed in the larger context of the Earth’s overall health and important environmental issues. He links the subject matter to key central themes in biological theory (such as natural selection and evolution). And this is all done very well.

You’ve seen the synthetic overviews of life and evolution framed in chaos theory, complexity theory, even quantum physics. This is better.

This is a book to give to your favorite biology teacher (high school or college), and that teacher will take from it examples, connections, lessons, ways of telling, that will enrich their teaching immeasurably.

I don’t think the book is available yet, but you can pre-order it.

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