Thursday, February 11, 2016

Genome

 Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
© 1999 Matt Ridley
317 pages



  The human genome is a recipe book, divided into 23 chapters, but considerably larger than Matt Ridley’s Genome. Were it to scale, he writes, a genuine version of the genome in book form would be closer to the size of a stack of bibles.  Genome visits each of the human cell’s 23 chromosomes in turn to learn a little something about human nature. This is not An Ancestor’s Tale in miniature, as Ridley addresses the entire natural history of human kind in the first chapter.   Subsequent chapters cover subjects as diverse as the genetic basis for language and sex differentiation, and as ambitious as free will.  Health and disease occupy much of Ridley’s attention; after genetic disease is covered by itself,  these diseases  are used to illustrate other subjects.    One oft-used example is that of the prevalence of sickle-cell anemia among people of immediate African ancestry;   carrying one allele for it greatly reduces exposure to malaria, a scourge of the continent.  For the genes, losing a few carriers to sickle-cell anemia is a better bargain than losing a greater number to malaria. In evolution, as in economics, there are no solutions – only trade-offs.  Nothing is simple; many conditions like asthma are caused not by one gene flubbing, but by different genes in different populations. Genetics is a subject that can quickly get too detailed for lay readers to enjoy, but Ridley finds the right balance between narrative and specifics, and he has an sly wit.  In a chapter on the sinister history of eugenics, he notes that the Soviet Union never adopted a eugenics program; they were more interested in murdering clever people than limited ones.  The take-home lesson is the human body is not one thing with a becraniumed control tower;   even our flesh is dynamic,  our genes warring with one another and vying for control between themselves and the brain they forged and maintain.   Though it may lose something in being slightly dated, Genome is an eye-opening bit of popular science that offers plenty of insight into history, as well. There was a reprint in 2006 that may have more current information.

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4 comments:

  1. I hope my library has a copy! Your great review hooked me. And I have now become even more baffled about the complexity of life. Surely all of life cannot be a random accident in a chaotic universe. It gives me a headache thinking about all of these things. Yikes!

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  2. A random accident in a random universe even..... Fascinating isn't it? [grin]

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  3. Headaches? For headaches, I read physics. Genes can get awfully convoluted, though. I'd love to find a book on the subject of emergent order as manifest in both biology and economics, but that may be too esoteric even for Amazon...

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  4. I must admit I do find my self chuckling through books on Quantum Mechanics because it's just so crazy down at that level. If you think about it too much though I'm sure you'd go mad trying to make sense of it all. QM and Evolution are my 'go to' science subjects, as you may have noticed. More of both to come - indeed I have a book on Quantum Evolution which might interest you.

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