10 August 2009
UCL and UCLH NHS TrustAppeared in BioNews 520
50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know
By Mark Henderson
Published by Quercus Publishing
ISBN-10: 1847246710, ISBN-13: 978-1847246714
Buy this book from Amazon UK
Molecular biologist, (Lord) David Phillips once described to me, rather ruefully, a talk on genetics he had just given in the church hall in Banbury. Having been invited to talk on anything he chose, he sensibly asked who were likely to be in the audience. When told, mostly farmers and their families, he immediately plumped for genetics. If anyone would either be interested in genetics or have a basis of understanding it would surely be them. Selective breeding and inherited characteristics were their stock in trade weren't they? They more than anyone would understand what he was explaining. In fact, some way into the talk he realised that no one had the faintest idea what he was actually talking about. He said the experience had made him completely rethink his views on the public understanding of science. The story came back to me as I started reading 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know.
Genetics is a subject characterised by ignorance, myth and misunderstanding. It has been used as the 'scientific' justification for every kind of abominable dehumanising piece of social engineering and experiment. The Victorian notion that science could perfect the human race started to be put into practice, carried on a genetics bandwagon – or as some people see it – tumbrel. Genetic data bases, at least as they are created by the UK police – are perceived (probably rightly) as threats to our status as citizens, with all of us seen as potential criminals, now (ironically perhaps) denounced by the inventor of genetic fingerprinting himself, Sir Alec Jeffreys. Genetics is being used to underpin the next phase in the industrialisation of farming, a not unmixed blessing to say the least. Much false hope as well as unnecessary anxiety is perpetrated by journalism ably abetted by University PR departments anxious for press coverage – 'killer cancer gene unmasked' and 'gene for obesity/homosexuality….you name it, identified'.
Mark Henderson's book is interestingly conceived and attractively executed. It is a nice attempt to do what journalists do – he is after all one of them – which is to try to put us in touch with what is going on. It is hardly news (some of it is 150 years old) although it may come as news to its readers of course. It has a journalistic feel, a lot of short pieces - they average around 4 pages each. It relies a lot on the wit and wisdom of ‘those in the know' and it tries to compress the sense of each section into a sound - or rather a sight- bite. And, it certainly covers a lot of ground – genetics as, or at least in: biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, culture, medicine, history, geography, technology, criminology, making money, law, ethics, philosophy, science fiction …. Along the way, it takes a shot at stem cells, cloning, designer babies, patenting, gene therapy, sex, selfishness, health insurance…I could go on for hours.
Genetics is 'the science of everything', at least everything living. That much is clear from 50 Genetics Ideas… It is also the supreme example of a science where explanation has been driven very successfully to the molecular level. And again that comes through. In style, though ostensibly, about ideas it is a book of ‘facts' or what pass for facts – not simply the facts that genetics has uncovered but about those who discovered them and indeed about their human implications. That some of the facts are not true often doesn't matter all that much, at least in a book like this. The 'heroic' approach to the history of science is pretty much the norm. Science needs its myths and founding fathers as much as any other institution. Revisionists are unwelcome. The book also tends to ignores the precept that, 'To understand the past requires first forgetting the present.' That doesn't make it unusual either. But there are things that jar. What happened to Mendel's experiments on Hawkweed? Science remembers what it wants to remember. And sometimes his facts are not only untrue but dangerously so. In a tacit defence of human cloning Henderson says: 'Clones would share their DNA with other people, but so do twins, who suffer no loss of individuality or dignity.' He doesn't know much about twins obviously - and for the clone would be added the additional burden of simply being the result of a self-regarding whim.
Of course, as with so much 'science writing' what you get out of it will depend on what you can put into it. Good teachers know that where you start depends on what your students know to begin with. And this takes me back to David Phillips. Surely the 'really big idea' in genetics is heredity. Should that not have been the starting point; it is certainly where genetics begins? If you have no feel for the idea and consequences of heredity, what do you thinks genetics is trying to explain to you? Explanation is what science is all about. In fact the book starts with evolution. But long before Darwin, clear, concrete examples of particular inherited characteristics were known, which ultimately genetics was able to 'explain'. Rabbinical law going back nearly 2000 years seems to have spotted that haemophilia was inherited by boys from their mothers. Pedigrees of polydactyly (possession of an extra finger) covering several generations were drawn up by de Maupertius in 1753. John Dalton did the same for colour blindness which he, and his brothers, had inherited. There were other instances. It is a bit surprising that Darwin, who after all came from a successful medical family, did not refer to them even in his book, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, published nine years after The Origin of Species. Much speculation is indulged in as to what would have transpired if Darwin had known of Mendel's experiments. In fact, Mark Henderson suggests that he had seen at least one reference to it. Perhaps it is more interesting to wonder about the consequences had those who studied inherited abnormalities known of Mendel's work. Some at least of the recorded abnormalities were instances of simple Mendelian inheritance.
With the benefit of the lens of modern science we can see only too clearly that Darwin's evolutionary theories implied the existence of genes even if their existence as actual things with a determinable size took another 75 years to emerge. The rightness or otherwise of evolutionary theory depends absolutely on the fact that particular 'traits' are both determined and inherited discretely and the genes responsible for them do not blend. I'd like to suggest that the book would have benefited from starting with heredity and ending with evolution.
Buy 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know from Amazon UK.