Top positive review
39 people found this helpful
on 11 June 2003
The authors state in the introduction "We have tried to write for a general audience, intending that someone with zero biological knowledge should be able to understand the book's every word." Hmmmm, really? But to be fair, it would be unreasonable to expect a book subtitled "The Secret of Life" to be an easy read - and it isn't. But if ever there was a book worth sweating blood over to understand, this is it!
The science outlined in this book - which I will not attempt to precis! - is at times both mind-boggling and mind-blowing. But some of the stories of how the scientists involved made these remarkable discoveries are almost as fascinating as the discoveries themselves. There are clearly some towering intellects working in this field. And in view of the fact that genes are apparently implicated to some extent in all causes of mortality except accidents (P166), this is no bad thing.
From the literary point of view, this is an extremely well written book, characterised by wit, humour, compassion, enthusiasm, and - in some instances (eg on the subject of "genome profiteers") - a good deal of warranted vituperation. The book also seems in part to have been used as a vehicle for the settling of some old scores - always amusing to the disinterested reader!
But why no glossary? There is a bewildering mass of new terminology for the general reader to absorb - eg messenger RNA, transfer RNA, bacteriophages, restriction enzymes, repressor molecules, ribosomes, RNA polymerase, reverse transcriptase, etc - and although it's possible to keep reminding oneself of the meaning of these esoteric terms by use of the index, this is a bit of an imposition.
In addition to the main theme of the book there are chapters covering eugenics and the early theories of genetic inheritance, the biotechnology industry, GM foods, human evolution, DNA fingerprinting, the genetics of human diseases, the treatment and prevention of genetic disorders, and the nature versus nurture debate. There are many sociological, ethical and political questions raised here, and these issues get as much - if not more - attention than the hard science.
Mr Watson - whose book it clearly is - is obviously a man of strong opinions, and he is not afraid of expressing himself in a manner that is likely to cause hackles to rise in certain quarters.
For example, on the subject of GM food he writes: "Let me be utterly plain in stating my belief that it is nothing less than an absurdity to deprive ourselves of the benefits of GM foods by demonizing them; and, with the need for them so great in the developing world, it is nothing less than a crime to be governed by the irrational suppositions of Prince Charles and others" (P163). And regarding stem-cell therapy, we have: "Polls consistently show that the majority of Americans favour research using embryonic stem cells, and yet politicians continue to pander to the outspoken religious minority that is hampering efforts to develop this potentially valuable technology" (P348).
But pulling these quotes out of context is a little unfair, because all of his views are closely argued.
The main author makes several references to his atheism, and describes one of his former colleagues as a member of a rare species, being a devoutly religious scientist. It would certainly be possible to read - and understand - this book and still come away with a belief in some sort of a God. For example at the announcement of the first draft of the human genome, that devout Christian Bill Clinton declared "Today, we are learning the language in which God created life..." But the inference drawn in Chapter 8 that life probably originated as bacteria some 3.5 billion years ago, would seem to imply that if God exists, he must have a strong laissez-faire bias.
However, despite the book's firm support for Darwinian evolution, it's not all bad news for those choosing to believe in the Biblical account: In Chapter 9 it's explained that molecular studies have shown that Jews and Arabs are genetically virtually indistinguishable, which is consistent with the Biblical contention that both peoples are the children of Abraham (same father, different mothers).
It would be a great pity if this book suffered the same fate as Hawking's "A Brief History of Time": a book that everybody bought, but nobody read. Don't buy this book just to stick on your coffee-table to impress your friends. Read it...and then read it again!