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Book Review: Genetics (a Ladybird Expert book)

25 June 2018
Appeared in BioNews 955

Nostalgia is a powerful driver of human behaviour. Over the past three years, Penguin Random House has tapped into this emotion by launching adult books with the unmistakable writing style, illustrations and appearance of the classic Ladybird children's books which were sold in their hundreds of millions in the last century. This initially manifested in an immensely popular series of parody titles such as The Sickie, The Mid-Life Crisis and The Hangover. But their foray into adult publishing did not end there. 

The Ladybird Expert Series is not to be confused with these parodies. It is a collection of new books for an adult readership, with titles including Blitzkrieg, Evolution and Consciousness. Each book is written by a scholar in that field, aiming to provide an accessible introduction to complicated historical, cultural and scientific topics. 

Genetics by Adam Rutherford is one of the latest instalments. Rutherford is a veteran geneticist, broadcaster and author. He wrote the critically acclaimed A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived and has hosted BBC Radio 4's Inside Science since 2013. He is an adept science communicator and an excellent choice of author for Genetics.

The book takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of the history of this scientific field. The journey commences with a description of Friedrich Miescher's discovery of nuclein in 1869 and ends with a brief outline of genetics as we are familiar with it today, including genome editing, synthetic biology and DNA storage. 

Predictably, there are pages dedicated to crucial figures in the development of genetics such as Gregor Mendel, Charles Darwin, and James Watson and Francis Crick. But there are also some topics covered which one might not expect in a beginner's guide. For example, Rosalind Franklin's role in finding the structure of DNA and the subsequent eclipse of her contributions are mentioned, and a full page is dedicated to a discussion on eugenics

There are also several delightful tidbits that may even come as a surprise to readers familiar with genetics. References to haemophilia are traced back to the Jewish Talmud, and the contribution of Odile Crick (Francis Crick's wife) to the development of the double helix can be found in the book. 

Despite the range of themes covered in this short book, its compactness (and the fact that only half the pages are dedicated to text, the rest to pictures) severely limits its depth and comprehensiveness. The book gives the reader an excellent snapshot of basic genetic terms and historical developments, but in most instances, leaves it at that. 

For example, when discussing genetic engineering, Rutherford states: 'Scientists invented techniques to cut out DNA from one species and insert it into another.' There is no further discussion of what the techniques are or how they work. When discussing CRISPR/Cas9, Rutherford notes that there is an ethical debate associated with the use of such technology but does not explain what are the issues at stake. 

The limited space in the book also results in a certain lack of nuance. For example, while Rutherford's statement 'Francis Galton was a racist' is certainly backed up by considerable historical evidence, there is no space to present Galton and his views in all their complexity. 

The language used in the book gives the writing an accessible, if somewhat irreverent feel at times. The line 'making an [sea] urchin ejaculate is alarmingly easy', when describing Theodor Boveri's research into chromosomes, would certainly not be found in even the most basic of science textbooks. But this book isn't a textbook and doesn't pretend to be. Darwin is described as 'beetling away' at his theory of evolution, and the concept of selective breeding is described in context of 'daft-looking pigeons'. 

The standout features of this book are Ruth Palmer's striking full-page illustrations, taking up half of every double-page spread. The pictures are detailed and eye-catching, perfectly capturing either the essence of the page of text that accompanies it (such as Franklin working in her laboratory), or a specific detail (such as Darwin's first evolutionary tree). The pastel colours and illustrative style are reminiscent of the pictures that formed a crucial part of the original Ladybird children's books. 

In conclusion, Genetics is a beautifully crafted glass hammer; masterfully written, stunningly illustrated, yet with no clear use or purpose. It requires the reader to possess an existing basic scientific vocabulary, yet is too sparse in its technical detail to provide a comprehensive foundation for a beginner wanting to understand genetics as a scientific discipline. 

It will give joy to those who collect Ladybird books or those who are looking for a new feature for their coffee table. It will only serve as the most cursory of introductions to the topic for the rest of the population. 

Jim Al Khalili, the author of Quantum Mechanics, another title in the series, commented on his instalment: 'Readers of the book will certainly not come away understanding quantum mechanics… but they will at least know why it's confusing and will have some great dinner-party facts to sound clever with.' 

The same can be said of Genetics

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