Since the beginnings of conscious thought, human beings have looked with wonder at the world around them. Perhaps the most significant part of the development of consciousness was self-awareness, and with it came the profoundest of biological questions: “Where did I come from?”
The Coiled Spring starts with the most fundamental of premises in modern developmental biology: All cells contain the same genetic information. He then logically progresses to ask, if this is so, why all cells in the body are not the same. The rest of the book (and indeed embryogenesis) answers this question.
In addition to highlighting the common basis for embryogenesis in flies and vertebrates, the book explores our understanding of parallel problems in plant development. Unlike flies and vertebrates, plants achieved multicellularity independently from animals. They therefore evolved embryogenic processes on their own.
As the second great experiment in multicellular development, plants can be compared and contrasted with animal development to teach us the universal aspects of forming an organism and to provide examples of alternative solutions to achieving that end.
Bier establishes in the first pages a very successful style of drawing the reader in with an important idea, then describing the experimental evidence and the logic that led to that concept. The reader thus gets an appreciation for the way in which this particular science is advanced, along with an understanding of the way in which an embryo forms.
In addition, the book includes boxes in which the contributions of some of the pioneers of the field are highlighted. These go beyond biographical data and descriptions of their work and focus on their personalities and motivations. These are only a small subset of the people who have had a major impact on the field, but including them gives the reader a personalized view of the field and of how science is done.
Finally, the book concludes with a chapter considering the ethical as well as the scientific implications of modern embryological research. With this chapter, Bier provides a glimpse of where we are going and what challenges lie ahead for the future as the embryological question, “Where did I come from?” is finally answered.