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Jeffrey Coker "reinvents life" in new book on evolution

Reinventing Life: A Guide to Our Evolutionary Future asks readers to consider their impact on the way species change over time.


Life as we know it is in constant flux – in fact, as Jeffrey Coker explains in his first general interest book for wide audience, each of us is already a “mutant”– and the speed at which the human species is changing the planet poses both opportunities and challenges to be addressed, starting with an oft overlooked question: What should be our role in nature?

In Reinventing Life: A Guide to Our Evolutionary Future, published this spring by The Blue Helix, the Elon University associate professor of biology lays bare the choices humans face as their actions with each other and the environment shift the way life on Earth develops.

Coker uses hundreds of examples to demonstrate the ways species are already adjusting to human behavior. Insects and plants adapt to shifts in climate and the types of chemicals used in agriculture. Medical breakthroughs make possible the selection of traits in newborn babies. Advancements in technology blur the boundary between man and machine.

Consider Google’s recent announcement on augmented reality. As Coker might suggest, is there a difference between wearing glasses that are connected wirelessly to the Internet and having such abilities directly connected into the brain through a neural interface? And how will the human race evolve as such technology rewires the way the brain works? He ultimately leaves his readers with questions of whether evolutionary and genetic shifts should be left to random chance – or whether humans should harness control of their future through deliberate planning and scientific research.

“At its core, it’s a book to challenge people to think about how they can impact our future,” Coker said. “I’d like to think it breaks some new ground in challenging people to consider the idea of evolution stewardship and how what we’re doing is impacting the future of life.”

Associate Professor Jeffrey Coker (right), author of Reinventing Life: A Guide to Our Evolutionary Future, with students in the Elon University Forest.

Coker also implores readers to decide how much of the world’s natural ecosystems should be preserved; what the characteristics of future food should be; and should humans limit the genetic enhancement of physical traits and, if so, how, among other topics. He does so in clear, concise, easy-to-understand language that at times draws on metaphors from his family life and his experience teaching Elon students.

From the Amazonian jungles to future space colonization, Coker said his intent was to show readers how everything they do is interconnected. For instance, even our decisions about eating, shopping, and hygiene often serve as votes for one evolutionary outcome or another. And what would it mean to double the average human life span? Is that a good thing?

“When you consider these questions individually, they’re ‘gee whiz,’” Coker said in a recent interview. “When you put them together, you come up with very profound implications.”

Scientific colleagues offered praise for Coker’s work in endorsements for the book. Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and a pioneer in growing human organs in laboratories for transplant into the same patients whose cells provided the DNA for such possibilities, called the book a “must read” for “everyone who is interested in how they can impact and benefit from our world’s inevitable changes.”

“Jeffrey Coker has been able to finally accomplish what so many others have tried to describe,” Atala writes in a blurb published on the back cover of the book. “He shows us how our lives, biology and the environment are all interconnected, and we can influence our future in so many ways.”

Coker came to Elon in 2004 as an assistant professor of biology with a bachelor's degree from Davidson College, and a master's and doctorate from North Carolina State University. Since his arrival, he has been heavily involved in the General Studies Program, teaching the freshman year course The Global Experience and science courses for the general student population.

Last fall he assumed duties as director of Elon’s General Studies program. A respected teacher, Coker has been involved with several programs in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, including being named a CATL Scholar to pursue his innovative “Reinventing Life” class. He has also published widely on biology and education, and led educational initiatives for state and national scientific societies.

Eric Townsend,
4/18/2012 11:39 AM