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This graphic docu-novel takes us to a far-away planet whose populace is suffering from some vague difficulty related to the genetic consequences of their asexual means of reproduction. There we find an alien scientist named Bloort 183 who is describing the mechanisms of earthly -- and in particular human -- genetics to his ruler in the hope of finding a way to overcome their species' difficulties. The take home lesson for the alien leader is that the recombination of genes associated with sexual reproduction increases the rate of evolutionary development and adjustment to environmental challenges.
Relatively little of The Stuff of Life's is actually spent on its sci-fi frame story; the vast majority of its 150 comics-pages are devoted to an explanation of contemporary genetic science and technology. This begins with a quick review of current scientific ideas regarding the formation of the earth, the beginnings of life, and life's evolutionary history and continues with a remarkably detailed explanation of how genetics works at the molecular level. This section of the book is very well served by the comic-book format, since chemical interactions are more easily described pictorially than by text. Next the book moves up to descriptions at the cellular level to explain how new combinations of genes are created in sexual reproduction. This is followed by a chapter on the laws governing genetic inheritance, beginning with an overview of Gregor Mendel's classic research. The concluding chapters deal with applications of genetics such as genetic engineering, the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of genetic diseases, and the use of genetics to investigate human prehistory. Occasional breaks are taken from all of these topics to introduce basic facts about the history of the discipline and its foremost contributors.
Generally speaking, The Stuff of Life manages to remain entertaining while managing to teach an impressive amount of science at a level of sophistication beyond that found in many conventional popular science books. Arcane entities such as RNA nucleotides, DNA polymerase, and adenoviral vectors are represented by comfortingly humanized caricatures. Wisely, the book's creators resisted the great temptation to exploit the discussion of sexual reproduction as an opportunity for peppering it with risqué jokes and drawings. In fact, the book has practically nothing to say about human sexuality and instructs the reader to "Go ask your mother" (p. 67) for information about the process through which sperm meets egg.
The Stuff of Life is slightly marred by a few unfortunate instances where it tries too hard to be comprehensive and introduces additional concepts without sufficient explanation. The book does contain a glossary, but it does not cover all of the technical terms used. There were a few times I wished the book had an index as well, but none of these complaints really detract much from its great success at popularizing genetics.
© 2009 Berel Dov Lerner
Berel Dov Lerner, Ph.D. teaches philosophy at the Western Galilee College in Israel
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