on 22 November 2001
Robin Baker, a former research biologist and writer, has produced a fascinating and very readable book about the science which is presented to us, the public, by the media, in ways which are over-simplified and perhaps misleading. The book itself is written with the lay reader in mind, but the academic basis is lightened by interesting explanations and delightful visual metaphors.
Topics covered include sunscreen lotions and skin cancer, depression and personality, cholesterol and heart attacks, and plenty more about us and our environment.There is a discussion about the influence of genes on behaviour, and how this affects concepts of free will and self-control.
I was especially interested in the depression chapter. I liked the breadth of vision, the acceptance of the problems and the thoughtful engagement with the issues - a progressive and non-judgmental emphasis. Dr Baker keeps depression within the context of real life -genetic inheritance, relationships, lifestyle, which is a constructive approach, given that an episode of depressive illness may last years.
The discussion on GM foods will educate many people on what genetic modification can and cannot do, and may lead to a more reasoned public debate.Whether it will change attitudes is, of course, another matter.
Similarly, the arguments about the environment are well presented and discussed. The only problem, for me, was that people`s subjective opinions seemed to be missing for a lot of the time. Of course, values and emotions are unscientific, but we do not base our likes or dislikes on scientific reasons - we may feel drawn to care for and protect animals, for example, because they have much in common with us.
Perhaps the book`s greatest appeal is in its rationality. The science is presented, and we are invited to look "behind the headlines", forget the emotive arguments, and think it out for ourselves.