What would Charles Darwin have made of today's startling new biology, with all it's jumping genes, cloned sheep and gene therapy? He'd need a formidable guide to bring him up to speed, someone who could unroll the achievements of the past 100 years, from Mendelian genetics to developmental genetics, while all the time questioning whether the discoveries agree or disagree with Darwin's own contribution - the theory of natural selection.
Three years ago, I left a career in research molecular biology to set up an Internet company - this book, the first science book I have read since, reminded me of the only thing I miss about those days - the pleasures of discussing real biology with the cognoscenti.
The premise of "Dear Mr. Darwin" is this: miraculously, after sending a letter to Darwin's grave in Westminster Abbey, Gabby Dover receives a reply. It is filled with Darwin's understandable curiosity - just what has been going on in biology since "The Origin of Species"? So, Dover writes back and a dialogue begins. Darwin's side of the correspondence reflects at times the views of the eager and insightful student, at others those of the devil's advocate, all the while reminding us of his own original ideas and how he came to develop them. Intriguingly, Dover slowly and patiently convinces Darwin that evolution by natural selection is not the only show in town.
For anyone wishing to learn about the Modern Biology, this is as painless a start as you could wish, introducing explanations for many of the fundamental processes of the genetics of the genetics and behaviour into the conversation with all the informality of a dinner party. Where diagrams are needed, Dover supplies his own hand-drawn sketches, scribbled onto the letters he writes to Darwin. Reading "Dear Mr. Darwin" is as close as many people will get to a stimulating afternoon in a pub with a professor of genetics.
Where "Dear Mr. Darwin" will really intrigue, however, is amongst all those who has been following the debate on evolution of human nature among behavioural geneticists and evolutionary psychologists. Now we have another set of views thrown into the ring - and this time, from someone who actually understands first-hand how genes work, someone who has made the study of the evolution of genetics his life's work.
Dover's book will delight all those who believe that human beings exist for more than to allow their genes to reproduce. These are the reasoned arguments of someone who can hold the complexities of the detailed processes of the genes in his head whilst also revisiting and updating Darwin's viewpoint. Read this book and you'll understand why it is that genes aren't selfish, and why the idea that the gene is the unit of evolutionary selection is a simplistic fallacy. As Dover says "genes are born to cooperate giving life to unique individuals who are free to control their own destiny." No cheap genetic determinism here.
What makes "Dear Mr. Darwin" rather unusual for such an erudite volume, is the insight it gives the reader into the personality of the author. The letter-writing format lends itself to small intrusions from the real world, for example, the victory of Manchester United over Bayern Munich in the European Champions Cup. A lifelong United fan, Dover is overwhelmed with joy and sees a metaphor for evolution in that event, dashing off a letter to Darwin to share his impressions.
Prepare to be amused by the ascerbic wit with which Dover's opponents in the evolution debate are derided, with lovely examples of each process of biology that Dover undertakes to explain. Prepare to be told in the most delightful possible way that however neat an idea it is that our genes control us, it ain't necessarily so.