The Cartoon Guide to Biology

Image of The Cartoon Guide to Biology
Release Date: 
July 30, 2019
William Morrow Paperbacks
Reviewed by: 

“. . . a hilarious romp through chemistry and biology. . . . A fun way to learn the science of life.”

The Cartoon Guide to Biology is a hilarious romp through chemistry and biology. Full of quirky, offbeat cartoons and illustrations. Encounters with comical cowboys on horses, rhinoceroses, pigs, elephants and squiggly lines and circles, and a place where molecules speak to one another. Topics covered are the cell, photosynthesis, the genome, reproduction, evolution, the circulatory system, digestive system, the brain, and the World Wide Web of life.

"For many centuries, this was biology: search, collect, kill, cut, compare, classify. Biologists took on the world from the outside in." (Cartoon of a doctor pulling out the intestines of a patient and background music.) "Despite many ideas, no scientist could find 'the secret of life' as it was optimistically called." So, biology had to settle for a description of life instead of a definition. "Where is the unifying principle? What makes something alive? Who knew?"

Metabolism is when molecules come into the cell, break up and reassemble in new ways. "Just as your body breaks down food when you eat it, a cell breaks down newly arrived large molecules into bits . . ." The authors give detailed descriptions of the parts of the cell, names of smaller cells, and methods of studying them. Electron microscopes and radical advances in chemistry helped biologists discover the secrets of life. "Human bodies power their metabolism by burning glucose, which means combining glucose with oxygen." Here there is a cartoon of a person's face, sucking a lollipop.

Concepts such as eukaryotes, endocytosis, and exocytosis would be difficult to understand without those funny shapes and characters. Exocytosis enlarges the cell membrane while endocytosis removes part of the membrane, making it smaller. A caricature of a man running shows how blood carries oxygen and sugar to the hungry cells.

The chapter on energy illustrates what heat, sound and gas have in common. "Technically, energy equals work, and work is a force acting over a distance. A cartoon of a rhinoceros pushing a railcar down a track shows how he expends mechanical energy. A mouse trap has potential energy when the stay is nudged and the victim gets mangled. "The only animals harmed in this book were the authors!" The chapter continues to define catabolic, anabolic, exergonic, and endergonic reactions.

How do cells breathe? To humans with noses, respiration means breathing. To a biologist it refers to a particular way of releasing chemical energy from food. On the other hand, bacteria living in animals' guts can breathe without air. "I eat to get the energy. I need to find something to eat." "And they say life has no meaning." (Cartoon of two behemoths speaking to one another.) This chapter becomes complicated when the chemical table is illustrated with letters and numbers and the sentences become difficult to absorb. "The proton flow is called chemiosmosis and this ATP production is called oxidative synthesis or oxidative phosphorylation."

The chapter on communication begins with quirky characters talking to one another: "Excuse me. Move it. Get off. No, that way . . . Danger. Sorry." If a typical cell deploys millions of molecules all at once, why don't they get in each other's way? The authors give examples of how they communicate with one another, while each does its specific job.

Neurons are the nerve cells. They are the body's wiring system, sending and receiving electric impulses through its axons and dendrites. "Some neurons merely relay the signal to another neuron by emitting neurotransmitters." When a farmer hears howling in the woods, the sound vibrates the ear drum, neural impulses go to the brain, which interprets the howling as a danger signal. The adrenal glands respond by releasing epinephrine, muscles tense, blood vessels in the fingers constrict—all adding up to a flight or fight response. So this is a full-body reaction to a little vibration in the ear. This is illustrated by a woman with a pitchfork, ready to attack.

Animals communicate by sight, sound, touch, and smell. Even lowly ants are capable of organizing large-scale social projects. There is a good description of how ants get food and bring it back to the nest, using only their sense of smell. Even plants communicate. Some plants release airborne chemicals when pests attack.  "In this chapter, we've seen life communicating at many levels . . . within a complex system of individuals . . . within an individual . . . between individuals . . . between the outside world and an individual. Ultimately, every example has the same molecular basis . . ."

"Meet the Genome." The answer to how a cell makes protein revolutionized biology in the second half of the 20th century. A protein is a chain of hundreds or thousands of units that function in specific sequences. The cell stores a master list of all its protein sequences. "This list, embodied in hugely long molecules of DNA, is called the cell's Genome. A gene sequence encodes the amino acid sequence of a protein." It's like a recording tape or digital storage device. Due to genetic variations, people have different hair, skin or eye color. "Genes control an organism's features . . . and are inherited by the next generation." (Cartoon of woman with a large bob of hair, stating: "Genes and peroxide.")

"A human body develops from a single cell, which somehow orchestrates an intricate, precise symphony of genetic expression to generate all our different cell types in their complex special arrangement." Tissues arrange themselves into organs. (Quirky woman playing the organ, saying:  "You said it's a symphony.")

The authors explain the reasons for global climate change and the necessity to address it. Today, citizens of many countries are demanding that their governments address this important issue.

In the future, biologists will be at the heart of all ecosystem management. But will humanity work together to make and maintain a viable biosphere? "Who knows what's still out there, waiting to be found? Or where it will lead? Or who will find it? It just might be you."

A fun way to learn the science of life. However, it would help if the reader had some background in chemistry and biology. Although each page has too many cartoons and concepts, the reader will find them easier to grasp if he/she reads this book in segments, rather than in one sitting. The quirky cartoons and anthropomorphism not only produce a laugh but do make these complex concepts a little easier to grasp.