Book Review – Lewis Wolpert on aging

I first came across Lewis Wolpert via his textbook Principles of Development which, to my mind, struck the right balance between seriousness and humour. “Principles of Development” captured the sense of wonder Wolpert feels for his research area, developmental biology. Wolpert is now in his eighties and is Emeritus Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College London.

Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert

A book on aging might seem an odd choice for a graduate student. This is not the first popular science book by Wolpert I have read. Aside from the aforementioned textbook, How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Life of Cells is an introduction to cellular biology for a lay audience. I read Malignant Sadness: An Anatomy of Depression and found Wolpert’s analytical perspective on the illness reassuring. When I saw You’re Looking Very Well: The Surprising Nature of Getting Old mentioned in your favourite weekly science journal beginning with N, I was interested to read what Wolpert had to say about a topic familiar to me through my volunteering exploits.

You're Looking Very Well: The Surprising Nature of Getting Old

Wolpert's latest book

Unsurprisingly giving his age, Wolpert draws on his own experiences in his writing, but this book is far from a memoir. Getting old is approached from diverse perspectives, including religion, fiction, drama, myth and legend. More conventionally, sociological, cultural and even commercial issues are addressed.

Naturally in a book on aging, issues of health and wellbeing are considered at length. Wolpert explores what is known about the biology and genetics of aging and its related diseases. Evolution has a surprising role to play in the aging process, as is discussed. What can be done to address the health and care needs of the elderly as the proportion of the population that is old continues to increase is discussed, but no easy conclusions can be drawn. In common with Heather’s comment on an earlier blog post, Wolpert hopes for a societal shift as life expectancy continues to increase.

“You’re looking…” is written with the characteristic clarity that drew me to Wolpert’s writing when I studied using his textbook. The simplicity of the sentences, even when explaining more complicated topics, could be a useful model for many would-be science writers. This is an easy-to-read book – I read it whilst on my Easter break – but the nature of its subject matter means that it is thought-provoking. That the text is occasionally repetitive – Wolpert stresses that “we are essentially a society of cells” more than once – gives the probably unintentional but nonetheless endearing impression of the book being a story told by a forgetful elderly acquaintance.

Wolpert seems to have found peace in his own advancing years. He confesses that

Most of my time is spent writing books, like this one. I do it lying on my bed with the computer on my lap.

which does sound to me like a retirement to look forward to!

In common with “Malignant Sadness”, Wolpert’s matter-of-fact approach to his subject matter in this book makes the intimidating concept something interesting. Whilst the book is thought-provoking, I finished it feeling more comforted than terrified about what the future could hold for an aging society.

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9 Responses to Book Review – Lewis Wolpert on aging

  1. Heather says:

    Yay! I love Lewis Wolpert’s writing. Gosh, I learned about his work on limb buds during a year studying in England, twenty-one years ago. More than half a lifetime ago, I will hasten to add. Got me hooked definitively on developmental biology, and then I went to work with Nicole Le Douarin, who is a good friend of his.

    This is a must-read for me, thanks to your review.

    I’m wondering if Eva would let you cross-post on The Node or one of us should just ensure a shout-out?

  2. Erika Cule says:

    Thanks Heather. Wolpert does contrast the subject of this book with his work on the developing embryo. I don’t think this book is of direct relevance to developmental biologists but they might be interested to read what one of the key players in their field thinks about this topic and his own life now.

  3. cromercrox says:

    Thanks for this, Erika – another book for the things-to-read pile. Sigh …

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    I will definitely have to order “Malignant Sadness”, as the topic of depression has always fascinated me. I guess if my life had gone in a different direction, I would have been doing molecular psychiatric research rather than endocytic trafficking.

    I’m glad that “You’re looking very well” is somewhat comforting, but I’m not sure a certified hypochondriac such as myself could handle it. Better to stay in my own comfort zone. Depression…

    • Erika Cule says:

      Malignant Sadness is worth a read – it is unusual to find the information collated therein in one place – a mixture of current clinical understanding and personal experience. There is plentiful discussion of disease in “You’re looking very well” – perhaps best avoided by a hypochondriac!

  5. Frank says:

    Erika – thanks for this. I saw a review of the book by Will Self in everyone´s favourite newspaper beginniing with G – but was put off by Self´s sometimes irritating style. You have confirmed it is a book I should get hold of.

  6. Yep, sounds an interesting read – though like Steve C, as both a committed hypochondriac and a man in his 40s (not for very much longer in my case…), I’m not sure I should actually read it..!

    I just mentioned the book to my father, who (like Wolpert) turned eighty within this last year. My dad actually knows Lewis Wolpert, since they were contemporaries as graduate students at King’s College London in the early mid 50s. Another King’s graduate student of the time was Peter Higgs of the Higgs Boson.

  7. I learned that work on limb buds many years ago too – it’s in Keeton’s Biological Science, which was my ever present companion in 1980. Many years later I interviewed Prof Wolpert for a local magazine, when he was visiting as the Sir Douglas Robb lecturer in 1993. Or 94. Thereabouts.

    Wolpert’s writing is as fresh and immediate and funny as his lectures, which are really very entertaining as well as fascinating. His books contain all kinds of information you don’t expect to find there.

    One of the most interesting things for me in Malignant Sadness was the difference in the way symptoms of mental malaise were manifested in one culture to another. Fascinating.

    Excellent blog site by the way – please come have a look at blog site Public Address (not mine, I’m just a reader) in New Zealand. Hope this link works.

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