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on 27 April 2017
Okay for education
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VINE VOICEon 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.
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VINE VOICEon 29 July 2008
I'm generally a fan of these 'Introducing' comic strip style guides, but I wouldn't rate this as one of their best efforts, despite it being authored by a geneticist who already has penned some of the most popular science guides on the subject - Steve Jones of UCL.

The approach of the book is to explain a technically very difficult subject through means of a colourfully sketched outline of its history. For the first few pages, when dealing with the background to Darwin's dangerous idea, this works well. Then we get to Mendel and his peas and things get a little more complicated and before you know it you have gone from looking at funny cartoon pics of Darwin and his simean ancestors, to the very complicated mechanics of RNA and protein synthesis, all in the space of a few pages. Genetics is probably not the easiest of subjects to simplify for the beginner, but perhaps the comic strip style doesn't really help here.

For the more humanities minded general reader (for whom the introducing series is intended, I guess) the book becomes far more digestible again towards the end, when Professor Jones leaves the technical intricacies behind him and discusses some of the growing number of ethical issues that abound since the birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep. Here, as in other parts of the book, I found the left-leaning bias of the author slightly irksome, a tendency that unfortunately does infect many of the titles in this otherwise admirable series.

To sum up, excellent for the history and background to the subject, but as far as the mechanics go, you will probably need to read one or two other introductions with it.
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This 2005 edition may exhibit an updated text. My own copy of the book is a 2001 reprint of the original text from 1993, and one thing that struck me as I read it was that over those 8 years there appeared to have been no changes made. Not only is genetics a very modern science, its profile has risen spectacularly within the scientific community over a period of not many years, so I expect there must have been a fair amount of updating to do. Nevertheless this is explicitly a book for beginners, the approach taken is chronological in recounting the successive discoveries, the author is a leading and eminent expert who presumably would not have countenanced reprints of any statements he wished to retract, so I have to suppose that the text as I have it remains valid as far as it goes. We beginners have to begin at the beginning, this is the beginning, reviews here are almost non-existent, and it may be helpful in that case if I give my fellow neophytes some idea of what to expect, even if I am not fully up to date.

Professor Steve Jones of University College London is well known, at least in Britain, from television. Everyone has heard of DNA these days even if they do not know what those letters stand for (see my caption above). We have clearly opened another Pandora's box by dabbling in this matter, and in my edition Jones concludes by touching on the ethical and political issues that our new discoveries raise. Whatever additions or amendments he may have added in retrospect, his remarks reflect his mindset, which is level-headed and humane, and his media appearances have not suggested to me that he has espoused any significantly new views in these respects.

The main narrative is historical, in the simple chronological sense. Jones really starts with Mendel and his experiments on peas, having given Darwin only a cursory mention before that. Other major figures are given what I take to be their due mention, the main actors are, expectedly, Crick and Watson the discoverers of the double helix, and subsequent research is also noted in my edition up to `the 1990's'. The picture I gained was much what I would have thought - advances in research have shown the matter to be enormously more complex than even Crick and Watson, let alone Mendel, envisaged. However the basic models that these pioneers created seem to have stood the test of time and look likely to continue to. The tedious debate over creationism is mercifully ignored, although the author readily admits that the phenomenon of being alive, whereby living tissue creates new tissue, remains a mystery, at least so far. Science can now trace the processes at work in detail, but what these processes ultimately are seems unidentified.

The original text is credited to not just Steve Jones but also to the illustrator Borin Van Loon [sic]. Every page from start to finish, or at least until we reach Jones's `footnote', is larded with illustrative matter, mostly cartoons. Whether some readers may find this style patronising I don't know, but if so I for one was quite happy to be patronised. For all the clarity of Jones's exposition the main text can't avoid being slightly heavy going here and there, and I found that the illustrations lightened my own going very successfully. It all seems very simple to start with, but here and there new terms creep in without prior explanation, although they are usually clarified before too long. The style is basically that of a good lecturer with a sense of how to keep the audience's attention without diluting or over-simplifying the message.

Jones comments wryly that while for scientists the four letters of the genetic `alphabet' are G C T A, now that the subject has got well and truly into the public and tabloid domain H Y P E might sometimes seem to characterise the discussion better. Genetics explains much, and it opens up enormous possibilities in real life, whether these be seen as promises or as threats. In the text as I have it, he hedges his bets and does not over-commit himself to either side of the argument. However he permits himself some down-to-earth observations to the effect that whether or not genetically modified crops may be in some way dangerous, there is no `whether' about it when the food in question is cheeseburgers; and whatever may be said about human cloning the phenomenon is not new but as old as the first ever pair of identical twins.

As an introduction I found this book admirable. We all have, it seems to me, a responsibility to inform ourselves as best we can about subjects as important as this is. When the matter is set out for us as clearly as it is here it is something approaching irresponsible not to take the opportunity we are given, and worse than irresponsible to promote points of view from a basis of culpable ignorance.
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on 16 November 2001
the Author explains the basics of genetics via cartoons. This is an amusing book and very useful as an introduction. It is however very superficial and therefore only really for newcomers to genetics or those who want an easy read with some humour.
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on 23 September 2000
Introducing Genetics by Steve Jones and Borin Van Loon.
Genetics is an area of science that seems to be advancing at a breathtaking rate. Every week there seems to be some new disease which genetics has found the cause of, or some new procedure - such as genetically modifying crops - which generates hysteria in the popular press.
Introducing Genetics provides the reader with a good grounding in this increasingly important discipline of science. By separating fact from myth, this informative book shows the reader how this science has evolved, from its earliest routes in the writings of such renowned scientists as Charles Darwin, to the groundbreaking work on heredity that was conducted by Gregor Mendel.
This book also explains how the revolutionary work of twentieth century scientists, such as James Watson and Francis Crick (amongst others) has led to the opening of a Pandora's box of possibilities, that has the potential to affect all of mankind.
Subjects discussed in this concise and fully illustrated introductory text, include topics as varied as Eugenics, Genetic Engineering, and the genetic testing of unborn babies for inherited diseases. All of which allow the reader to develop a good overall understanding of this increasingly relevant area of science.
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on 9 January 2012
This graphic guide is a funny way to review the history and previous knowledge of genetics. It may not be a good start for those who, wishing to know more about the subject, don't know anything about it.
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on 18 April 2015
Not a serious book on genetics for those with any understanding at all of the subject. Like many museums, the content seems to be suitable for children.
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on 10 September 2014
A good basic introduction. The illustrations are easier to see in the printed version than in the kindle version.
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