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GenomeReview - Genome
The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
by Matt Ridley
Harper Audio, 1999
Review by Anthony R. Dickinson, Ph.D.
Jul 17th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 29)

Although coming out some 10 years after the text was published, this new Harper Audio book is a very welcome addition to the library. For those wishing to come up-to-speed with the implications of modern genetics research, it is a must-read primer. However, I begin with a few comments as reviewer about what this book is NOT about. Ridley writes with ardent enthusiasm concerning the science, and the scientific applications of new biological knowledge, its principle actors and commentators - but this book is not about the human genome project (though without such, much of what he describes here would not be known). Neither is it a text aimed at teaching the reader biochemistry or molecular biology. Instead, Ridley presents an admirable review of the understanding of genomics (circa 1999), and the implications of that understanding for human development, disease, population dynamics, psychology, and the future of biomedical technology, any or all of which may well result in altering the course of evolution (if not only our understanding of it).

Presented as 22 chapters, each is named for, if not directly exemplifying, one of the 23 human chromosomal pairings -- X & Y are taken together between Chs 8-9. Lasting an average 33 minute segment, each discusses a different topic or expression of human behavior, often related to some specific gene sequence(s) (located on that chromosome), as thought at the time to be associated with the behavior being discussed. Delivered in the confident yet not authoritative voice of Simon Prebble (a good choice in my view), the text comes over as an easy listen, with lively and appropriate intonation, despite its frequent use of necessarily technical vocabulary and concepts. However, for the uninitiated, Ridley provides a more-than-adequate primer at the outset which covers as much as the novice geneticist might wish to know for the purposes of understanding the ensuing research findings and commentary review text, and their subsequent discussion(s) of their putative significance in our better coming to understand human nature.

My only concern with this audiobook release was its timing: whereas this book introduces much new knowledge, often imagined unknowable in the 3-5 years before it was written, much has changed since, and in the intervening years since its original publication (more than 10 years ago), as such is in need of significant updating. For example, in the chapter concerned with the development of intelligence ("Chromosome 6”), Ridley's principal thesis still stands available for experimental verification (or falsification if you prefer), but the key research offered in support of some of the claims made in this chapter have yet to be positively replicated, some even retracted by their authors, and thus remain to be vindicated. Likewise, much genetic work related to the cellular mechanisms thought to underlay learning, memory, and other higher cognitive functions, have now been further elucidated following the advent of new and very selective gene splicing techniques, recombinant knock-out vehicles and selective brain site expression markers. The inclusion of such new and exciting results derived from this new generation of transgenic animal experiments over the last 10 years, would revise much of Ridley's experimental data text considerably. Unfortunately, the Audiobook disc(s) received by this reviewer did not contains any bibliography or reference section, though I hope such is to be included in the commercial package for sale -- it would be useful to be able to check primary sources and papers for their original content.

These criticisms of the current reviewer are not to detract from the book's enjoyment, however, as an excellently narrated story. The author's repeated discussions of the nature-nurture debate (or rather the fallacy thereof), is introduced at several point throughout the book, and will (I hope) philosophically enlighten those still engaged in the discourse of biological determinism vs. social determinism. Ridley comes down firmly into neither camp for very long, is a critic of both, and suggests instead (correctly in my view), that the adherents of either would be more productive in their better understanding of human behavior if resolving their confusion between 'determinism' and inevitability. And without recourse to any Lamarckian notions or hereditary mechanism(s), it does still appear repeatedly to be the case that 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny', at least from a systems point of view.

So what else is there to read about here ? Be prepared for disappointment if hoping to discover a simple list of 'genes for xxx' (where 'xxx' is your favorite trait/behavior/disease of particular interest), with regards each chromosome of the human genome in this book -- this is neither the author's purpose (tho' useful and informative examples are occasionally offered), nor would it be very interesting if it was. Nor is it a textbook of DNA => germ cell => embryology => behaviour/trait recipe book. For those interested in the history of thought about evolution, and the changing influence of that thinking with our increasing knowledge of genetics (and the biological underpinnings of embryological development, cloning, maturation or programmed cell death), Ridley's text is chock full of the key characters -- their evidence, assumptions and conclusions -- each discussed in the context of the time (and its then current knowledge) in which they were proposed. For those interested in disease and the history (and future) of 'corrective' medicine, there is much likewise, with critical discussions of the extant additional commercial and ethical factors for consideration. For the eugenicists (and their opponents), every chapter offers much food for thought (and a special chapter ("Chromosome 21") to chew and digest upon !).

But whether one might prefer to look for the genes underlying the traits that might be of interest to them, or to instead investigate the structural/neurobehavioural 'effects' of a particularly focal gene of interest should it be expressed (deleted, swapped, recombined, or otherwise mutated), Ridley's text offers a much needed context for the discussions and implications of such research findings, and its relevance to the wider environment(s) in which genomes may present their effects -- whilst of course, not confusing its causality,... with inevitability!


© 2012 Tony Dickinson



Tony Dickinson, Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI, China).


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