Am höchsten bewertete kritische Rezension
23 Chapters in Search of a Unifying Theme
am 29. April 2000
There is a Monty Python sketch in which a learned speaker, addressing an Edwardian Educational Society, stands up to the podium, pauses, and in a deeply self-important voice proclaims the topic for the evening - "India!". But before she can continue the curtain falls and the audience erupts in relieved applause.
It's difficult to believe that the discoveries of the human genome will ever be met with similar bemusement and ennui. Regardless, Matt Ridley is at the beginning, and not the end, of the period of discovery and here, for the amazement of you, ladies, gentlemen and distinguished guests, he has brought back wonders, too amazing to behold. One each from the 23 islands that make up the Archipelago of the Human Genome.
And such wonders they are. The human genome is starting to look more like a bitchy soap opera than a linear code for creating proteins: genes and chromosomes that cooperate and then attack each other; genes that jump species and make genetically modified organisms look like an old trick; genes whose mutation affects the usual suspects: beauty, brains and brawn. Finally, the very starting blocks of life, HOX genes, the homonculus of the gene world - a topographical sketch of ourselves embedded at the typographical heart of the genetic code. (Ridley asks why there is no engineering design priciple which uses the gradual building up of the whole from a simple model which unpacks itself. Has he has never heard of the ubiquitous principle of "bootstrapping" in computer programming?)
So much for the new found discoveries - marvels to delight us and many more to come. Ridley's previous books on the adaptive basis of sexual and cooperative behaviour were superb syntheses of much of what was then (and still is) at the forefront of adaptive behavioural research. Sadly, here the material is left to fend for itself and any attempt at synthesis was lost at conception. Each chromosome is presented, in one of 23 chapters, as demonstrating an exemplar of a particular genetic function, or (more often) dysfunction. While it has resonances of Darwin's islands it reads more like Swift's. There is no claim that this is anything other than a narrative device but as a literary conceit it is still-born. Genetic function does not follow genomal form and Ridley himself admits he had misgivings about organising the chapters along chromosomal lines - but was encouraged to do so by his publisher. Next time he should follow his instincts.
I hope Ridley writes many more books about the genome - the voyage has just begun and, perhaps, this was always going to be a difficult starting point - how do you describe the barely explored Archipeligo of the Human Genome to somebody who is only vaguely aware of where the archipeligo is - at first, I suppose, you bring out the lantern slides, bright cloths and feathers of strange birds to get our attention - eventually though you have to address the underlying material - a writer as good as Ridley has shown he can do this without risking his audience nodding off or applauding his early departure from the podium. Even in this strangely disconnected book there is much to wonder at.