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am 1. Juli 2000
In June of this year the prestigious Times of London headlined a story: 'Rogue gene kills Lakeland ponies'. GENOME attempts to forestall such misleading media expressions. Ridley, a talented writer, has his work cut out.
Once called 'the stupid molecule', DNA is revealing its secrets. The exposure is due to the work of many scientists and related to the public by fine writers such as Ridley. Still, we remain mostly in darkness about the role of genes in our lives. Media accounts such as The Times' bring little clarity. The recent debate among the members of Britain's ruling house is a more amusing, but typical, expression of this situation. Ignorance is a disease which no medicine relieves. Education is the antidote and Ridley has provided a palatable dose in GENOME. How many journalists, teachers and doctors are willing to swallow it?
The medical metaphor reflects the underlying theme of GENOME. Much genetic research focuses on medical issues. The biotech industry anticipates immense profit from therapies resulting from the completion of the Human Genome Project. Ridley cites numerous cases of genes being 'identified' with particular illnesses. In nearly all cases, the media trumpets the find with stories of 'genes for [schizophrenia, Huntington's haemophilia, fill in your own]. The public has come to feel these molecular strings in their cells are hidden assassins. The importance of reversing this misconception leads Ridley to declare GENES ARE NOT THERE TO CAUSE DISEASE throughout the book. One is led to wonder which gene drives people to write headlines protracting the reverse view.
Ridley keeps a fine balance in the 'genetic determinism' debate. His chapter on chromosome 10 provides a captivating account of the endless feedback loops between genes, their structure and role, and the impact of the environment on both. His ability to explain why we must avoid seeking simple answers and shed preconceptions ranks among the best in print. It will take an immense amount of research and talented scientists to trace the intricate pathways of these elements. As a journalist, he displays a good talent for explaining what is known, and what needs to be studied further.
His account of the Britain's 'mad cow disease' episode is perhaps the perfect example of why the world needs more Matt Ridleys. Panicky politicians, spurred on by 'shouting media' in both this and the GM food debate, responded hysterically to the cost of nearly two hundred thousand cattle and strained relations between Britain and the European Union. A responsible media might have tempered this disaster. The public needs to make informed decisions and it's a pity that the media continues to ignore the easily readable messages Ridley has provided in this book.
There are really only two flaws in GENOME. The notes need to be closer to the text. Page references are a start, but there's an awful lot of page flipping to see where the information is coming from. The glaring blemish is in the Index. This book is far too important to omit so many references to what is in the text. Phrase after phrase appears, and when wishing to review it later, discovered the term wasn't even listed. It is to be hoped this was a money-saving gesture on the part of the publisher, and not laziness of the author. That said, the value of the book is too great to allow such small faults to discourage even the most mildly interested reader. GENOME is about you and me. I've read it more than once and discussed it with many. Hopefully, more of you out there will follow that example.
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am 18. Juli 2000
A simple review suits this book best. Aside from genomic professionals, we all likely need to understand more about what the mapping of (and understanding of) the human genome really means. In an entertaining, and understandable, way Matt Ridley offers GENOME as a way to allow you to understand the topic and its possible implications. They key to the book is the fact that much of what Ridley explains in the book about the implications of the mapping collectively are ONE OF THE BIGGEST EYE OPENERS that you can imagine. Likely nothing else in the world, in the next 100 years, will affect you and your children more than the knowledge that is coming from the mapping of the human genome.
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am 6. Juni 2000
The field of genetics is doubling knowledge every few weeks. So Matt Ridley had set himself an impossible task in writing one of the last books before the completion of the Human Genome project. Yet, he has created a book of unique value to all of us as the full impact of genetic knowledge begins to take over our world.
Forget 99 percent of what you have ever heard about genes. The school wasted your time with obsolete knowledge that wasn't in the ball park, in most cases.
What Ridley has done is given us a roadmap of the kind of territory and effects that occur within our genes, and among our minds, bodies, and genes. The interrelationships are extremely complex and diverse. Beware any simple judgments about what genetics mean, as a result.
What was most impressive to me was the remarkable potential to use genetic information to shed light on all kinds of issues. For example, the genetic record can give insights into the development of species, past expansion of nomadic peoples, language, personality, stress, memory, sex, instinct and the effect of the environment.
To give us each a full panoply of ideas about genetics, he adopted the interesting structure of having one chapter about each chromosome. The chapter is not exhaustive, but picks on one or a few aspects of what is known or is in the process of becoming known.
Fear not! I never took biology, and know little biological jargon. Yet the book portrayed the ideas and information simply and clearly enough that I don't think I got lost anywhere.
The only part of the book that I did not like was a completely unsatisfactory discussion of what free will is in the last chapter. Skip that and you'll enjoy the book a lot more.
How accurate is the book? In five chapters, I had read source books or articles referred to by Ridley, and each was well chosen for what he was trying to do and scrupulously described. Of course, we are still up against the fact that we know very little on this whole subject.
This is the most stimulating science book that I have read in a long time. I even liked in better than The Selfish Gene, which I thought was a terrific book (which is also referred to and discussed in this book).
I found that the book stimulated a lot of new thinking on my part. Fifteen minutes with the book led to four hours of conjecture on several occasions. I liked that feature of the book.
Have a great time reading this book and thinking about its implications for your own life!
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am 27. März 2000
Mr. Ridley's book explores an incredibly important yet neglected area of science in a mostly brilliant fashion. He discusses most of the difficult issues raised by discoveries in this area and generally deals with them in an open, honest fashion. This is an extremely important book which I have strongly recommended to everyone I know. Reading it exposes you to a great deal of knowledge about humanity which I personally didn't know. It's the kind of book where when people who have read the book see you reading it, they approach you in the subway and say what a great book it was.
Even so, it doesn't rise to the intellectual rigor of books like "Phantoms of the Brain" mainly because the author can't resist stating as "scientific proofs" things which are still very unknown right now. There is a danger that people will finish this book and go around spouting as "truths" everything Ridley says when this is an very new area of science.
There are several examples of this, for example, he describes a test where people smell each other and then say how attracted they are to them -- turns out, people are more attracted by the smell of people who are genetically different from them. Does this prove anything? Seems to me like it's just some very minor evidence. Also, it seems to me that because science hasn't yet discovered "how" these protiens actually "cause" things to happen in the body, there's a big gap here in the science and therefore in much of what Ridley says.
Anyway, get this book and read it, but keep an open mind. Remember that a good 10% to 20% of what Ridley says is going to be completely wrong. It might even be more, he could be a Copernicus here, describing reality based on what he currently sees, but the truth being infinitely more subtle, interesting and beautiful.
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am 28. Februar 2000
I'm not sure whether to give this book four or five stars...
FIVE STARS - because of how interesting the subject matter is. DNA, it seems, isn't a brilliant piece of software to make bodies. It's more a committee of chemicals each trying to propogate themselves, and often at odds with the other chemicals in DNA (97% of which don't actually do anything!) And this is the stuff that to a large extent makes us US!
FIVE STARS - because of how well written some sections are. Chapter 4, for instance, which talks about the researcher who not only can tell you IF you're going to get Huntington's chorea, but can tell you what age you'll get it, simply by counting the number of times a particular gene sequence repeats. I was left haunted by the question, if I had a high risk for H.C., would I get the test done, simply to know when the symptoms would start?
FIVE STARS - Because of the research. This is the most up to date book on the subject available at the moment. He cites research done as close as 1998.
BUT FOUR STARS - because although some parts were absolutely mind-blowingly interesting and could be considered _classic_ bits of writing, the prose in other parts seemed to get a bit heavy and tedious, and I had to put it down. I was surprised by my own reaction, having been so thoroughly entertained a few short chapters before. But it means I can't give it five stars, because that rating is for out and out classics. (Which this book nearly is. Damn.)
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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.
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This is an excellent overview of current scientific discovery and argument regarding that inheritently common, but innately variable blueprint of 23 pairs of chromosones we all share.
Our knowledge of our genes is progressing at a rapid rate, so much so, that by the time I finish writing this sentence, our knowledge of the human genetic code has been updated. If you wish to know what kinds of things are being discovered, this book is a very good place to find it.
Matt Ridley devotes each chapter to one of our chromosones-23 in all, and describes some useful dicoveries and speculations regarding each. From such things as the ability to digest lactose, blood groups, cancer suppressors, 'instinct',intelligence, ethics, free will, allergies, aspects of language, ageing, sex, cloning, test tube babies, Mad Cow disease etc, he describes in a clever and clear way the discoveries being made in the field.
I would give the book 4 1/2 stars,(but there are no halves in these reviews), as no book is ever perfect, but a point to remember is no understanding of our world, or our genes themselves, is ever perfect either. But we can find pieces to the puzzle, useful and uplifting, and that is what this book is about.
Ridleys style is clear and clever, my only quibble is that he displays perhaps just a touch of arrogance, and a subtle air of bias. But give the author his due, an author is entitled to his opinions and leanings, what is important is that he generally makes it clear when he does so.
The book is highly recommended for both those familiar with the jargon, and those with enthusiastic minds who wish to learn about it.
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am 7. Juni 2000
I didn't enjoy reading this book as much as I expected, but I picked-up a lot of interesting information from the book. The book is broken into 23 chapters, each with a fact about a gene on the chromosome being discussed. As the author describes the story, each chapter acts a whistle stop tour of the chromosome. It is certainly not a comprehensive tale of all that it known of the human Genome, rather it is a telling of those things that the author wants to relate, organized around the 23 chromosomes.
There's a real variety of information presented. Some of it mechanical, some of it historical, some of it antecdotal. I keep finding myself relaying information (or factoids) that I picked up from the book. So, from this perspective, I learned something and find myself reusing what I learned.
So far so good - right? Well, here's the criticism. I found the writing sometimes technical, the stories sometimes hard to follow, and the connecting of the dots by the author sometimes a stretch. As for the too technical objection - well, this is certainly understandable and what did I expect. The readability (or follow-ability) of the stories is another matter. Sometimes the stories are quite riveting and well-connected. Others, however, seem to follow tangents and have a tenuous relation to the chromosome.
The last criticism, where it seems that the author is connecting the dots, worried me some. I often realized that where I believed that I had been reading fact, I had actually been reading the authors ideas and conjecture. This would be fine were it clear that this is the case, but it wasn't always evident.
So, overall, I learned a great deal, but didn't always enjoy the book.
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am 29. März 2000
A survey of ancient Egyptian literature deciphered and commented upon, written forty-five years after the decipherment of hieroglyphics, would have contained precious little. Ridley's book is a review of texts written in DNA that have, up to now, been deciphered and written about. The first few chapters bring his lay readers up to speed with a brief but incisive history of the decipherment and its implications for the life-sciences. Until 1955 we had mere gross analysis of the texts of life; biologist were, up to that point, like librarians who were studying the books in an archive without the help of a linguist who could understand the writings inscribed on their myriad pages. The books were very well catalogued on the basis of outward appearances; it was found that the books made copies of themselves that, while not identical, followed certain rules discernable from visible qualities. Some lines of books ceased to reproduced as they no longer fit in the niches where they were to be stored. This much and more was known just as, before Champollion, Egyptian texts had been classified into fuzzy categories based on context and appearance. Biology became a hard science when, in 1955, Watson and Crick laid the keystone into the architectonics of the DNA molecule. Naturally, the new biology is a science still in its infancy just as chemistry was fifty years after Avogadro. The genome project, whose activities inspired Ridley's book, is like Mendeleyev's first fumblings with the periodic table. There is much to learn; what we know is largely based on deleterious effects of faulty genes as Ridley makes clear but cannot avoid capitalizing on; but much is known that, under Ridley's masterful narratization, becomes a can't-put-it-down fascination for all of us who can read English (you will be taught basic DNA) and have enough sense to be curious about the plans for our own construction. This book is a must for those who would update their high-school or college biology course in one entertaining read. Prepare, however, to have some of your dearest stereotypes and dogmas extirpated.
Whatever minor faults there are in the book (the most annoying to me was an ill-concealed British jingoism) can be let pass in a gush of enthusiasm for a brilliant job of public education bestowed on us by this book and its author and publisher.
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am 6. März 2000
This is one of those books you find yourself mentioning to your friends. The 23 very readable chapters, one for each chromosome, are a clever presentation of what's been learned (or being learned)about the human genome. If half of what Ridley recounts is true, we truly are living in exciting times, since much of what he talks about is quite new news.
Criticisms: Ridley is not actually a scientist, but he sure likes to act like he is. All through the book, he makes numerous declarations about new discoveries, errors in previous "facts", and the current thinking about what the new discoveries really mean, but doesn't really say what the basis for these declarations are. Now, I'm sure that he can fully support every statement he makes in the book, but it's a bit annoying that so much in this book reads as if these are all Ridley's ideas. No doubt, some are. Most, we hope, must be the ideas and work of someone with real credentials. Yet there's lots of things written that aren't attributed to anyone with credentials. If there weren't so many instances where Ridley tosses out the previous "facts", it might not be such a big deal. But if you're bringing in a new set of facts, the least you can do is mention who it is who's behind the facts. In the end notes you'll notice part of what I'm getting at here: Ridley says (several times) that "The best book on such and such is XYZ". Now, I'm wondering what journalist is qualified to make that judgement.
Ridley knows he's a good writer, and he tries hard to make you know it too, to the point of being intrusive and self-promoting. Like the "junk DNA" that apparently makes up a big chunk of our genes, imbedded in "Genone" is Ridley's screaming "Look at me! Look at me! I'm writing! Don't you wish you could write like me! ".
Did anyone else detect a prissy, slightly snobbish tone in this book? How about what seems like unnecessary promotion of British scientists? I didn't realize that almost all the great findings in this field were by the Brits. For example, in describing Watson and Crick's DNA work, he says that most of the important discoveries were made by Crick (the British half of the pair). Now is this a fact, or just Ridley's opinion.
This is a very interesting, worthwhile book to read. Even if half the stuff turns out to be not true (and should we be surprised, since for most of the "new facts" there's an upended "old fact", and these new facts may one day suffer the same undignified fate as the old facts which preceded them?) it's still an entertaining glimpse of what's going on in this field.
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