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on 19 May 2017
Excellent very clear and interesting narrative. Difficult concepts well explained.
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on 1 June 2017
Very good book, loved the chapter structure and nice facts!
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on 27 April 2017
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on 28 May 2017
Great book
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on 15 February 2000
If you are at all worried about where the genetic engineering revolution is taking us then this book is indispensible reading. Matt Ridley takes you through a journey of human history, psychy and disease in easily understanderble chapters, explaining what genes do without any of the recent media hype. The preface is possibly the best summary of the processes DNA goes through and its structure I have ever read...all biology A-level and degree students should be forced to read this books opening, and once they have done that they won't be able to put the rest down.
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on 7 October 2007
A popular science book subtitled "The autobiography of a species in 23 chapters". It goes through the 23 pairs of chromosomes of the human body (including the sex chromosomes X and Y) and discusses one or two of the genes found on each. Topics covered include Life (where human DNA came from and its discovery by Watson and Crick), Intelligence, Disease (although he frequently reminds us that genes do not cause disease), Stress, Memory and Death (programmed cell death called "apoptosis" and it's relation to cancer).

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.
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Matt Ridley proves here once again that he is a terrific writer. He has the easy style of a confident journalist and the wide knowledge of an accomplished scholar. He is learned without being stuffy. He proves too that he is a master of analogy and metaphor, understanding that we learn through comparison. I have the sense that he spent a fair amount of his free time looking for apt comparisons to illuminate the ideas of genetics for the general reader. Some examples:
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.
Some highlights:
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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on 4 February 2003
This is a very good popular science book on a fascinating subject. It's enjoyable and easy to read. It presents a wealth of information and I particularly like the frequent shifts from overview to detail and back. I agree with almost all of the positive comments so far. I also have some particular criticisms of the book which others may find interesting (or boring beyond belief!):-
Like any popular science book, the author takes a certain stance. I found it disconcerting that in writing for a lay audience Matt Ridley avoids making the fact that he has a particular viewpoint clear. There are places in the text where he cites published scientific work followed by a sweeping generalisation/over-extrapolation summarising the cited work. This summary is Matt Ridley's opinion. A lay audience may be unaware that the summary is the author's opinion and be fooled into thinking that it is scientifically established fact.
In terms of sweeping (and erroneous) statements, here's a great example (p92): "Freudian theory fell the moment lithium first cured a manic depressive, where twenty years of psychoanalysis failed." (You can almost hear the author snorting derisively at the end of the sentence). Lithium doesn't "cure" manic depression. It controls some of the effects in some (not all) sufferers. About 40% of users have side effects. Treatment is often lifelong. Prolonged use can cause renal or thyroid failure. It can interact badly with other common drugs. No evidence/reference is given of the "failure of psychoanalysis". (Considering it's postulated "fall" its use seems pretty widespread 50 years on.) In terms of evidence, I think this is one of the main failings of the book. There are countless occasions in the book, where the author appears to be presenting scientific findings yet references are not given. The lack of references, combined with the interspersing of some debateable personal opinions, makes me question some of the material in the book.
In particular, I found the author's stance on nature/nurture which crops up throughout the book positively schizophrenic. At many times in the book, the author presents the "common sense" view that "it's a mix of both" and he uses available information to support this. However, it seems to me that there is a continuous undercurrent thoughout the book as if the author doesn't really believe the stance he's presenting and that he thinks that nature is much more significant - this opinion seems to reveal itself in summarising statements such as.... "The brain is created by genes." (Yes this is true of the 'structure' but a brain without 'contents' is useless). Also (p218).... "Held up as a proof of socially constructed gender roles, [John Money] proved the exact opposite: that nature does play a role in gender" (The "exact opposite" is not proved - in fact there is no "proof" of anything here - a single case study is merely being used by the author to support his view.)
It's also worth noting that the bulk of his nature/nurture argument (chapter 6) seems to be derived from Thomas Bouchard's work on twins. This work has been subject to significant scientific criticism e.g.:- Most of the twins volunteered for a study, which was publicised as one looking at similarities in twins. There is thus potential for huge recruitment bias in his sample. Bouchard has received grants of over a million dollars from the Pioneer Fund of New York which has it's own agenda. Also, and rather strangely, Bouchard will not allow independent assessment or inspection of his raw data.
I thought in the main the book was witty and intelligent, however I found myself getting increasingly bored and irritated by the authors crusade against social scientists. The repeated tirades and jibes seemed unnecessarily provocative, petty, and irrelevant to the subject (and also at times, quite inaccurate). I actually felt that they detracted from the overall quality of the book.

So overall, an enjoyable, interesting, and informative book, however the more I became aware of the authors tendency to dress his own political agenda up as scientific fact, the more I began to question the perhaps misleading perspective on the subject that the book may be giving.
(By the way - In terms of making clear my own personal bias - my background and interests are hard science, engineering and evolutionary theory. I go 50/50 on nature/nurture, and psychoanalysis makes sense to me in terms of neural network theory)
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on 1 January 2006
This is an excellent book about the genome. It is simple to read even if you only have basic background knowledge of the subject - as the preface explains all the background science you need to know prior to reading the book. However, even if you have a background of science, it is not dumbed down enough to make it dull, as most popular science books are - I found that it contains many interesting facts about the genome that I hadn't known prior to reading it. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in science.
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VINE VOICEon 16 October 2003
This is the first book by Matt Ridley that I've read; it encourages me to read his other works.
The approach is quite effective - each chromosome gets 10-15 pages, so its quite easy to read each story and be able to put it down, but in practice you want to get on and read about the next instalment.
I bought another copy for a visiting American Professor of Medicine who hadn't heard of it - but I wouldn't give her mine!
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