The Master Builder

How the New Science of the Cell Is Rewriting the Story of Life


By Dr. Alfonso Martinez Arias, Ph.D.

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$41.00 CAD



  1. Hardcover $32.00 $41.00 CAD
  2. ebook $19.99 $25.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around August 1, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

"An ingenious argument" (Kirkus) for a "novel thesis" (Publishers Weekly) that cells, not DNA, hold the key to understanding life’s past and present   

What defines who we are? For decades, the answer has seemed obvious: our genes, the “blueprint of life.” In The Master Builder, biologist Alfonso Martinez Arias argues we’ve been missing the bigger picture. It’s not our genes that define who we are, but our cells. While genes are important, nothing in our DNA explains why the heart is on the left side of the body, how many fingers we have, or even how our cells manage to reproduce. Drawing on new research from his own lab and others, Martinez Arias reveals that we are composed of a thrillingly intricate, constantly moving symphony of cells. Both their long lineage—stretching back to the very first cell—and their intricate interactions within our bodies today make us who we are.  

Engaging and ambitious, The Master Builder will transform your understanding of our past, present, and future—as individuals and as a species. 

  • “[A] revolutionary book on cell biology"
  • “Provocative… timely and needed. Highlights of the book include the many fascinating historical and evolutionary perspectives presented and Martinez Arias’s discussion of key experiments.” 
    Science Magazine
  • "Martinez Arias’s novel thesis invigorates, and the lucid scientific discussions will hold readers’ attention even through involved examinations of how cells respond to specific proteins. This is the perfect complement to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Song of the Cell."
    Publishers Weekly (Starred)
  • The Master Builder is a great read and an exciting introduction to developmental biology.
    Mark Terry, The American Biology Teacher
  • “An ingenious argument… A rich, detailed exploration of the vitality of cells.”
  • “In The Master Builder, Alfonso Martinez Arias makes a timely, important and compelling case for why an understanding of living organisms must start with the cell. He offers a vision of life that shows it to be much more interesting and ingenious than any simplistic notion of genetic blueprints can provide.”
    Philip Ball, author of Critical Mass and The Book of Minds
  • “The essence of science is that we never stop asking, do we see clearly, or have we fooled ourselves into certainty? In The Master Builder, we follow that question into the cell, where DNA is said to rule. What Alfonso Martinez Arias has found is much more interesting: cells themselves, which we inherited from a long line of ancestors stretching back to the earliest life, are at least as integral to creating who we are as the genes each carries. This book makes a new and stunning argument, not so much that we should put DNA in its place, but that we can see the grandeur of life as it truly is.”
    Azra Raza, author of The First Cell
  • “What came first, the chicken or the egg? In The Master Builder, Alfonso Martinez Arias poses a different question: what drives biology, genes or cells? His surprising answer shines new light on the fascinating riddle of development and offers a majestic cell's-eye view of life itself.”
    Lee Billings, author of Five Billion Years of Solitude
  • "DNA is often claimed to be 'the master molecule,' determining everything about us. DNA is now… in our cultural DNA. But in this masterful account, geneticist and developmental biologist Alfonso Martinez Arias shows that, on its own, DNA is powerless, inert. It needs a cell to work its wonders, and that cell is always interacting with the environment. This cell’s-eye view of life is powerful and striking, helping to reveal why DNA is not the ultimate determinant of ourselves. Identical twins are not identical down to their fingerprints – fingerprints, handedness and many other characteristics are not genetically determined. This clearly explained, beautiful book will change how you think about DNA, about how you came to be, and about life itself."
    Matthew Cobb, author of As Gods

On Sale
Aug 1, 2023
Page Count
352 pages
Basic Books

Dr. Alfonso Martinez Arias, Ph.D.

About the Author

Alfonso Martinez Arias is ICREA Research Professor in the department of systems bioengineering of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. The recipient of numerous awards, he is coauthor of the biology textbook Principles of Development, which was awarded the Royal Society of Biology book prize. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.  

Learn more about this author