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Biochemical Evolution: the Pursuit of Perfection

This page describes the book Biochemical Evolution: The Pursuit of Perfection: by Athel Cornish-Bowden, to be published by Garland Science on 22 May 2016.

This page is also available in a Latvian translation by Evelína Koprziwová,
a Romanian translation by Irina Vasilescu,
and a Hindi translation by Natan Zed.

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Contents of this page

Publication details

Published by Garland Science, New York & London on 22 May 2016. It can be found on the publisher's web site, and it has a specific page with a price of £29.95.

274 + xviii pages, 111 figures, 4 tables, biographical notes on 39 people.

IBSN: 978-0-8153-4552-7

The price listed on the flyer produced by the commercial department of Garland Science in the UK is £29.95. The following information is available from Amazon:

This is a thoroughly revised and extended edition of The Pursuit of Perfection, published by Oxford University Press, 2004.

What the book is about: Preface

Don't tell my mother that I'm a biochemist; she thinks I'm a pianist in a brothel. This paraphrase of the title of a book by the publicist Jacques Séguéla illustrates, perhaps in rather an extreme way, some aspects of our subject. In the same vein I could perhaps entitle this editorial "I'm a biochemist, but I'm having treatment". What I want to say is that biochemistry.... It has become shameful, with an inferiority complex in comparison with its sister subjects, more cellular, and more appealing because they offer more global and integrated approaches.

Frédéric Dardel, 2010

Books about evolution, at all levels from the most popular to the most technical, are widely available, and some of them are excellent. They tend to be books about anatomy or behavior and to ignore biochemistry except insofar as it impinges on these other aspects, but our understanding of evolution has been transformed by biochemical information. All paleontologists agreed 50 years ago that human had no close relatives in the animal kingdom: the great apes were far more closely related to one another than any of them was to us, and they separated from the human line about 30 million years ago, about the same time as both apes and humans diverged from the monkeys. Nearly all paleontologists now agree that the separation between the African apes and humans is far more recent, after the separation of these species from other apes such as orangutans and gibbons, and long after the separation of the apes and monkeys. The reassessment has not been driven by abundant new fossils, or by a better understanding of anatomy or behavior, but by the deluge of biochemical data that began in the 1960s and has continued ever since.

In a sense this is a revised edition of {The Pursuit of Perfection: Aspects of Biochemical Evolution (Oxford University Press, 2004), but it contains a large amount of new text, and many more illustrations. The earlier book led to graduate courses in several universities: Patrice Soumillion invited me to the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium; afterwards Rafael Vicuña organized a similar course at the Universidad Católica de Chile, in Santiago, and Juan-Carlos Slebe organized one at the Universidad Austral de Chile, in Valdivia (this last enlivened by tear gas and bomb threats, as it occurred during a period of student unrest). These were not only interesting for me, but they also constituted an educational experience, as I learned much from interacting with the participants, in particular how some of the material could be presented more clearly.

Many of the ideas discussed here, especially on the relationships between evolution and biochemistry, were developed originally by Enrique Meléndez-Hevia, and in recent years he has analyzed two major problems that natural selection has failed to solve, those of collagen-related diseases, and of obesity in the human population. The first of these is ancient, with its roots in the appearance of the first animals, and the other recent (in evolutionary terms), derived from the spread of agriculture. Both are biochemical in character, and for both we need to understand why natural selection has not managed to solve them, and a new Chapter 11 deals with them.

As Franklin Harold remarks at the beginning of Chapter 14, biologists concentrate their efforts on the detailed mechanisms of life, largely ignoring the question of what life is. One can regard that as a serious omission, and in the closing paragraphs of the earlier book I touched on the question of self-organization. Reading it now I am embarrassed at how superficial the treatment was. Here, therefore, I develop this idea more seriously, trying to bring one of the least studied (though far from the least important) themes in modern biology to a broader audience.

At the beginning of the century the rise of creationism was just a speck on the horizon so far as much of the world was concerned—something for scientists in the USA to worry about, but with little effect on the teaching of biology elsewhere. We were already wrong about that then, but now t is obvious to everyone who does not keep their head in the sand that creationism has become a serious threat to biology teaching everywhere, and Chapter15 deals with this subject.

I have included brief biographical sketches of many of the people who have contributed to our understanding of biochemistry and evolution, some of them well known, like Gregor Mendel, others far less well known than they deserve to be, like Elizabeth Fulhame, Nettie Stevens and Marthe Gautier. (It is not by chance that these are all women: if they had been men they would be far better known than they are.)

The book ends with a quotation from the great evolutionary biologist George Gaylord Simpson, and I end this Preface with two other quotations, the first from the same article [G. G. Simpson (1961) "One hundred years without Darwin are enough" Teachers College Record 60, 617–626.

I was on the receiving end of high school education in one of the good public school systems (by the then standards) of the 1910s.... After a bit of a struggle, I achieved a sound routine knowledge of mathematics at the intermediate levels. As for science, that was limited to one course called "physics," which, as far s my memory goes, consisted of measuring things (lengths, weights, times, temperatures) and making the measurements agree with the book. I learned, and later had to unlearn in order to become a scientist myself, that science is simply measurement and the answers are in print.

Much of science education still, unfortunately, consists of measuring things, and much of biochemistry education, especially in metabolism, consists of memorizing things. In this book I take a different approach, that even some of the most unmemorable parts of biochemistry may follow a logic, and understanding the logic is helpful for remembering the facts. As for assuming that "the answers are in print", one of the proudest moments in my teaching life came when I was talking with someone who had attended my lectures on enzyme kinetics some 20 years earlier, and she told me that the most important thing she had learned from these lectures was that she should not believe everything she read in a textbook, but should approach it critically.

The second comes from a speech made in 1911 by Francis Darwin, the third son of Charles Darwin, at the opening of the Darwin Laboratories at Shrewsbury School:

When science began to flourish at Cambridge in the 'seventies, and the University was asked to supply money for buildings, an eminent person objected and said, "What do they want with their laboratories? — why can't they believe their teachers, who are in most cases clergymen of the Church of England?" This person had no conception of what the word "knowledge" means as understood in science.

Another characteristic of science is that it makes us able to predict.

In the course of the book I will describe several examples to illustrate these points, especially the last one. The idea that links them all is that biochemistry and evolutionary biology are closely linked. Not only is a biochemical perspective necessary for understanding many of the advances in our knowledge of evolution during the past 50 years, but an evolutionary perspective allows us to rationalize many details of biochemistry that would otherwise be mysterious [A. Cornish-Bowden, J. Peretó and M. L. Cárdenas (2014) "Biochemistry and evolutionary biology: two disciplines that need each other" Journal of Biosciences 39, 1–15.]

I am very grateful to Joe Felsenstein, Enrique Meléndez-Hevia, Ron Milo, Vidya Nanjundiah and Jeffrey Wong for their useful comments, and I am particularly grateful to Vidya for his Foreword. Special thanks are due to Marilú Cárdenas, who went through the entire book with me in detail, and made many very valuable suggestions. I also thank the Director of the CNRS unit Bioénergétique et Ingénierie des Protéines, Marie-Thérèse Giudici-Orticoni, and all of her research group, for making the environment in which the book was written pleasant and welcoming.


  1. Some basic biochemistry — elementary terminology and information needed for the rest of the book
  2. The nuts and bolts of evolution — basic information about evolution from a biochemical point of view
  3. Adaptation and accidents — distinguishing adaptations from other kinds of evolutionary change
  4. Metabolism and cells — the role of metabolism in cellular chemistry
  5. The games cells play — optimization of cell metabolism analysed from the point of view of combinatorial games
  6. The perfect molecule — the carbohydrate storage polymer glycogen has a structure that is optimal for its function
  7. Fear of phantoms — a phoney example of biochemical adaptation
  8. Living on a knife edge — systems of interacting enzymes have no need of evolutionary adaptation to arrive at stable steady states
  9. Brown eyes and blue — dominance and recessivity are most easily explained in biochemical terms
  10. An economy that works — regulatory mechanisms ensure that biochemical systems obey the fundamental economic laws of supply and demand far better than any real economy does
  11. Failures of natural selection — why arthritis, an ancient problem, and obesity, a new one, remain unsolved
  12. A small corner of the universe — proposing an extraterrestrial origin of life introduces many more difficulties than it removes
  13. Aspects of cancer — understanding cancer in terms of the principles of metabolic regulation
  14. The meaning of life — theories of the living state
  15. The age of endarkenment — creationism, an increasing threat to biology education

What's new in this edition?

The new book has many more pages, larger than those in the original.

The increased length is due to numerous improvements, as follows:

  1. There are three new chapters.
  2. There are about three times as many illustrations.
  3. Biographical notes on nearly 40 contributors to the subject are included.
  4. There are many more literature references.
  5. To avoid the need for page flipping, references and other notes are given as footnotes.

 Sample page

Sample chapter [ Download PDF ]

The sample chapter [ Download PDF ] is from the copy submitted to the publisher, and does not reflect any changes made during production. The chapter selected as a sample is one of the three that were not in the first edition.


At present the list is short enough to form part of this page, but in the future it may become necessary to create a separate page. I shall be grateful to be informed of any errors readers find, and these will be acknowledged. At present the only important errors to have been noted are those on pages 77 and 78.

xvii Footnote 5 The page numbers in the reference should be 13–27 Minor
1 Footnote 3 The name of the magazine should be Visionary Artistry Magazine Trivial
44–45 Page break black- and backed gull should not be split across the two pages Obvious
60 Line 6 one of the two codons normally used for cysteine should be one of the three codons normally acting as stop codons Minor
77–78 Across page break Delete In doing so, you have ... suicideImportant for understanding
78 Line 6 Insert You are also forbidden to leave fewer than three prisoners at the same time in the same block. at the end of the paragraph after rules. Important for understanding
99 Line 16 The word at the end of the line should be is Obvious
117 Footnote 11 Johnson should be Johnston Trivial
154 Footnote 14 The year of the reference should be 2000 Minor
155–156 Page break the last chapter should be Chapter 13 Minor
182 Table The caption is missing. It should read Table 11.1   Characteristics of Organisms Minor
243 Legend to Figure 14.11, line 11 as as should be as Obvious
269 Entry for Johnson, Ian Johnson should be Johnston Trivial


At present I only know of one review in a published journal:

Another may be found at

5 starsA must read for all AP, IB, and NGSS biology teachers and anyone else who just loves insightful science writing

by Erin McKay

A must read for all AP, IB, and NGSS biology teachers and anyone else who just loves insightful science writing. The book moves past traditional stories of evolution told through fossils and focuses on the molecular level. Don't worry if you have a limited background in science, or your biology and chemistry are a little rusty - Cornish-Bowden provides the relevant background in the first chapter, so you can enjoy the rest of the book.