Genome: The Autobiography Of Species In 23 Chapters: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters Paperback – 16 Mar 2000
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Science writer Matt Ridley's Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters is an elegant reflection on the significance of being able, for the first time in history, to read our own genes. The book is loosely organised around the stories of one gene per chromosome, rather than the whole genome. This enables Ridley to take in most of the usual topics associated with genes--our relations with other species, the nature of intelligence, the origins of behaviour--and add some new ones. Ridley is a fine writer and explains his selection of genetic stories exceptionally well. This is especially helpful when he is dealing with the intricacies of evolutionary theory or the tangled webs of genes influencing biochemistry influencing behaviour, influencing biochemistry influencing genes. His libertarian-right politics (state intervention bad, individual choice good) cut through many traditional worries about screening, testing and eugenics. The generally even tone only deserts him in a rather bad- tempered discussion of BSE (which starts with the gene for the protein implicated in the disease) and public attitudes to beef-eating. Otherwise, he is almost always persuasive, always interesting. By the time they finish cataloguing all our DNA, there look like being as many books on the subject as there are human genes. This is one of the ones worth having. --John Turney --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
?Remarkable. . . . Hops from one human chromosome to the next in search of the most delightful stories.?--"New York Times Book Review ?A fascinating tour of the human genome. . . . If you want to catch a glimpse of the biotech century that is now dawning, and how it will make life better for us all, Genome is an excellent place to start.?--"Wall Street Journal ?A superb writer whose exquisite, often moving descriptions of life's designs remind me of the best work of the late Lewis Thomas. . . . He crafts some of the clearest explanations of complex biological processes that I have encountered. What's more, he captures their slippery beauty.?-- Susan Okie, "Washington Post Book World ?Ridley is a lucid, engaging and enthusiastic guide to the double-helical DNA that comprises our inheritable human essence.?-- "Los Angeles Times Book Review ?Ridley can explain with equal verve difficult moral issues, philosophical quandaries and technical biochemistry; he distinguishes facts from opinions well, and he's not shy about offering either. Among many recent books on genes, behavior and evolution, Ridley's is one of the most informative. It's also the most fun to read.?--"Publishers Weekly (starredreview) ?Superb popular science writing and cogent public affairs argumentation.?--"Booklist (starred review) ?An engrossing account of the genetic history of our species. . . . This book will be particularly relevant to lay readers, providing insight into how far we have come and where we are heading in the understanding of our genetic heritage.?--"Library Journal ?Ridley . . . deftly takes up the story of the genome in 23 chapters in clear entertaining prose. Eminently readable, compelling and important.?--"Kirkus Reviews ?A lucid and exhilarating romp through our 23 human chromosomes that lets us see how nature and nature combine to make us human.?--James Watson ?With riveting anecdotes, clever analogies and compelling writing, Matt Ridley makes the human genome come alive for us. I was left in awe at the wonder of the human body, and the scientists who unravel its mysteries.?--Abraham Verghese, author of " The Tennis Partner ?Clever, up-to-the-minute informative, and an altogether spellbinding read. Ridley does just what a first-rate journalist should do: get it right, make in interesting, then wisely put it all in perspective.? --SarahHardy, author of " Mother Nature ?"Genome is a tour de force: clear, witty, timely and informed by an intelligence that sees new knowledge as a blessing and not a curse. . . . A cracking read.?--"Times (of London) ?Matt Ridley's brilliant new book is eloquent and up-to-date. . . . A much needed breath of fresh air.?--"Daily Telegraph ?Compelling. . . . Spectacular. . . . This is one of those rare books in which the intellectual excitement continues to rise from what already seems an almost impossibly high plateau. . . . Not even the scientifically purblind will fail to perceive the momentous nature of the issues he raises.?--"Spectator ? A dazzling work of popular science, offering clarity and inspiration. . . . Witty erudition.?--"Guardian ?Erudition, intriguing sequences of anecdotes and . . . stylish prose. The combination has resulted in the best popular science book I have read this year, a worthy autobiography of mankind.?--"Observer ?An exciting voyage . . . very much up-to-date . . . Ridley includes just the right amount of history and personal anecdote to spice up science. He's a good storyteller.?-- "ScientificAmerican ?An extraordinarily nimble synthesist, Ridley leaps from chromosome to chromosome in a handy summation of our ever increasing understanding of the roles that genes play in disease, behavior, sexual differences, and even intelligence. More important, though, he addresses not only the ethical quandaries faced by contemporary scientists but the reductionist danger in equating inheritability with inevitability.?-- "The New Yorker ?Matt Ridley [writes] with a combination of biblical awe, scientific curiosity and wit about what many consider the greatest scientific breakthrough of the 20th century and the greatest technological challenge of the 21st: the discovery of the molecular basis of life and its many applications in medicine, law, and commerce.?-- "Dallas Morning News ?Thoroughly fascinating. . . . A sophisticated blending of science and public policy certain to educate, entertain, challenge and stimulate even the least technologically inclined reader.?--"Philadephia Inquirer ?Lively phrasing and vivid analogies . . . I gained an appreciation for the incredible complexity of human beings.?--"Minneapolis Star-Tribune ?With skillful writing and masterful knowledge of his subject matter, Ridley conveys a wealth of information about what we currentlyknow, or think we know, about the human genome?No well-educated person can afford to remain ignorant of this advancing science. GENOME provides a sound and engaging introduction.?--Austin American-StatesmanSee all Product description
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The chapter on Eugenics was perhaps my favourite talking about chromosome 21 and Down symdrome (found when a person has 3 copies of the chromosome compared to the usual 2). It also discussed the idea of sterilising mentally retarded people and criminals which went on in America and Germany, but interestingly not the UK although Winton Churchill was a big fan. Interestingly the chromosomes on the front cover are a photograph of the authors which I didn't realise until I read the note after finishing the book.
You definately need a basic understanding of genetics to appreciate this book. The author does try to explain things without too much terminology, but it's pretty impossible in some places. I really enjoyed it and was surprised to find it is the first science book I have read voluntarily since graduating in 2004. It was a lot to take in and I will definately be reading it again in the future. I am really pleased I finally got around to reading it and although some of it is already out of date (it was published in 2000 and genetics has made so many advances in the last few years) I definately recommend it.
On page 276 he describes the idea that there is a living thing with no DNA as "about as welcome in biology as Luther's principles in Rome."
Or on page 241 talking about apoptosis, in which our cells are programmed to commit suicide: "the body is a totalitarian place."
He even asserts on page 174 that we cannot hope to understand the process of embryotic development without "the handrail of analogy."
My favorite is this from pages 247-248 where he is talking about gene therapy and an engineered retrovirus that doesn't work: "it lands at random...and often fails to get switched on; and the body's immune system, primed by the crack troops of infectious disease, does not miss a clumsy, home-made retrovirus."
Add a sharp wit and an infectious enthusiasm for understanding human behavior and one can see the reasons for his success as an interpreter of the biological sciences. In Genome, Ridley has found a structure and an approach that allows him to wax speculative and philosophical about matters of particular interest to him and to most people. The result is that the reader is treated to a lively mind at work trying to understand ourselves and this world we live in. He uses the 23 chapters, each emphasizing one aspect or our genetic makeup and each dedicated to one of our 23 pairs of chromosomes, to explore such matters as intelligence, instinct, the nature of disease, the effect of stress, the development of personality, memory, death and immortality, etc., and of course sex and--always an important question for Ridley--free will.
The chapter on stress includes two startling assertions: One, that low status in the pecking order (instead of high cholesterol), lowers our resistence to microbes in our systems, and is the prime mover in making some of us more susceptible to heart attacks (p. 155); and two, that aggression is not caused by high testosterone levels but the other way around (p. 157). On page 171 he makes a similar assertion, namely that serotonin levels (as found in monkeys) are the result of dominate behavior, not the other way around, as has always been thought. These are exciting ideas since they suggest that we can improve our condition through our behavior (akin to "method acting," I suppose). Ridley's arguments strike me as convincing, but see for yourself.
In Chapter 21, he gives us a brief history of eugenics, noting, by the way, that during its heyday the name "Eugene" became popular in England. He spares eugenics practitioners and true believers not at all. He rips them up in true (and uncharacteristic) PC style, and then gets to his point. He likes eugenics but not the way it was practiced with the state coercing the individual. Instead Ridley would like (quoting James Watson on page 299) "to see genetic decisions put in the hands of users" instead of governments. He calls this "genetic screening" and cites the virtual elimination of cystic fibrosis from the Jewish population in the United States as a positive employment of screening from the private sector.
In Chapter 22 he tackles free will, beginning with a joke about there being a gene for free will. Clearly Ridley is in favor of free will, but reading between the lines one see that he knows he is on shaky scientific ground. He quotes the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy on (David) "Hume's Fork: Either our actions are determined, in which case we are not responsible for them, or they are the result of random events, in which case we are not responsible for them." Ridley believes it is better to imagine the we are guided in our actions by our genes than by our conditioning. He sees nurture as being a more tyrannical dictator, if dictators we have, than our genes. This is not surprising since politically speaking Ridley hates the collective. He would love to have proof of the existence of free will since that is where his heart lies, but I hope that someday he will be comfortable with the understanding that whether we have free will or not (or whether "free will" is even a meaningful concept), one thing is clear: we have the ILLUSION of free will, and that illusion is all compelling. Also, as Ridley notes, society must treat its members as having the ability to make free choices or the whole system of law collapses.
Perhaps the most amazing feat of our genome is the one Ridley writes about in Chapter 12, that of "Self-Assembly." To me that is the really stupefying trick of our genes, to assemble themselves from the code. The twists and turns of such an enormously complex undertaking is, to me, as remote from our understanding and experience as the many dimensions of super string theory.
Other popular writers on science looking for the secret of Matt Ridley's success should note that he gives the reader value both in terms of knowledge and entertainment. He works hard at meaningful communication. He wants the reader above all to understand what he is saying.
Even though I sometimes disagree with him, I always learn something new and interesting from reading his books.
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