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The Gene Is Us
on 21 October 2009
In the middle of this book Steve Jones provides a short recapitulation explaining the fundamentals of cells, genes and heredity. It's needed; for despite Jones's erudition this is a book which fails to convey the basic ideas of hereditary in a satisfactory manner for those who lack a scientific education. The two redeeming features of the book are its recognition that genetics is inextricably mixed up with politics and that, in practical terms, genetics has "done a lot less than people think to improve health." As Jones observes "Not for nothing has it been said that the four letters of the genetic code have become H,Y,P and E.
This is not a new phenomenon. Francis Galton, who conied the phrase "nature versus nurture" and the word "eugenics", perhaps more than anyone provided the philosophical framework for a future society cleansed of supposed racial impurities and the impetus to Hitler's anti-Semitic policies. Once Gregor Mendel's theory of inheritance had been rediscovered in the early twentieth century it soon attracted cranks with the alleged discovery of genes to explain such things as bad temper and love of the sea. The harshest critics of Richard Dawkins (who is not mentioned by name in Jones's book) suggest he's the latest in the line of such cranks.
The biggest political conflict occurred in the inter-war period when Stalin insisted that, in accordance with Marxist theory, environment not biology was the main factor in inheritance. This created a form of intellectual schizophrenia for geneticists, many of whom were Marxists, who accepted Lysenkoism while continuing scientific work which denied it. The publication of the double helix model of DNA by Watson and Crick was not restrained by such considerations. Ironically, Watson was criticised late in life for his alleged racialist views and commitment to genetic engineering, while Crick suggested that life on earth was formed through directed panspermia from intelligent creatures elsewhere in the Universe. What of life itself? Crick did at least have the honesty to admit it was a miracle.
Genetic modifications of food has done little to solve the world wide problem of starvation and has stirred up a lot of opposition in the process. Not unreasonably Jones asks, "Why people are worried about the remote risk that GM food might be dangerous to eat when they are quite happy to eat cheesburgers that definitely are, mystifies scientists" but answers his own thought by stating "science is less important than what consumers are willing to accept". If the complexity of this "introduction" is anything to go by it's no wonder.
Similarly Jones asks that as twins are clones of each other, "why should an artificial version cause such horror?" Similarly with stem cell research. Jones suggests that "an army of identical Saddam Husseins verges on the silly and others of replicating a loved child who died young also seem unlikely". What Jones fails to appreciate is that "unlikely" is not the same as "impossible" and humans, as a whole, tend to prefer nature to be assisted not directed in its reproductive role. The strong of line of cranks associated with genetics - and related ideas such as sociobiology - may be the reason.
Jones concedes that "in the end the most surprising result of the new genetics may be how little we know about ourselves". Unfortunately, this book's attempt to provide an introduction to the subject, shows how little the general public knows about genetics. I'm convinced the story could have been told in far more simple manner and with much better illustrations than those provided by Borin Van Loon. All told, very disappointing. Three stars for effort only.