Book Review

In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature by John Whitfield. Joseph Henry Press, Washington, DC, 2006; 278 pages, ISBN 0-309-09681-2, hardback, $27.95.

This is a fascinating introduction to ideas emerging from the search for general mathematical laws or patterns in how living things use energy. Discussion centers on the development of concepts and on prominent contributors in order to explore advances in understanding the regularities underlying such biological processes in animals and plants as metabolism, growth rates, life span, and patterns of diversity. An instance of one of the patterns discussed is that metabolism is related to body mass raised the the power of 3/4.  This relationship holds good over 26 orders of magnitude, from the mitochondria within the cell, to cells and animals of all sizes insects, amphibians, rodents, dogs, human beings, elephants, and whales when adjustments are made for such factors as warm- and cold-bloodedness.

The book also covers some of the controversies concerning the whole enterprise of looking for mathematical "laws" in biology similar to those in physics and chemistry, and the difficulties of generalizing from the tremendous amount of detail that biologists have collected and to which many are very much attached. The author divides biologists into "lumpers" and "splitters": those who are searching for underlying patterns and mathematical regularities behind the diversity of life, versus those who catalogue and explain the differences in specific organisms and environments. He feels that there is room in biology for both approaches, which can be complementary.  Well worth reading.  – Sarah Belle Dougherty (June 2009)