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Book Review: The Society of Genes

18 April 2016
Appeared in BioNews 847

The Society of Genes

By Professor Martin Lercher and Professor Itai Yanai

Published by Harvard University Press

ISBN-10: 0674425022, ISBN-13: 978-0674425026

Buy this book from Amazon UK

Until relatively recently, most genetics research was focused on identifying specific roles for individual genes. This is understandable – the effort and resources needed to produce genetic sequences were considerable and so it made sense to proceed one at a time.

Yet this strategy avoided exploring the gargantuan number of interactions and connections between genes that ultimately produce the lion's share of life's complexity. Now, thanks to modern genetic sequencing techniques, we can start to examine how genes combine to produce life in a much more holistic way.

'The Society of Genes' explores this concept of genetic interaction through a series of examples that describe how genes work together – and what can happen when they don't.

The book is aimed at a lay audience, although the authors say they hope that those with greater genetics knowledge will also find useful arguments and insight within. With a lay audience in mind, there has been a conspicuous attempt to find real-world metaphors to help ease in new concepts, with mixed results. Although some help to define relationships between genes and their effects quite elegantly, just as many feel forced, distracting from the topic they are trying to explain.

The book is clearly, if not beautifully, written, and remarkably concise. If you're looking for a 'what's hot in genetics in 2016', this book wouldn't be a bad place to start. It covers a huge number of topics – from the basics of genetics to genome editing, antimicrobial resistance and the functions of junk DNA.

There are some fascinating insights provided – for example the concept that people have not one genome but multiple, as each cell contains its own, potentially unique copy. This allows for a thorough exploration of the topic of cancer and how it develops through acquired mutations within individual cells.

While the general argument of a 'society of genes' – as opposed to Richard Dawkins' famous selfish genes – is compelling, the idea is not altogether novel and wasn't reinforced particularly strongly throughout the book. It felt more like a succession of interesting snapshots of topics in genetics, rather than a logical presentation of evidence for the author's case.

The authors also seem to have come up against a recurrent problem. It is far easier to explain concepts of genetics, selection and evolution in terms of the intentions of genes wanting to reproduce and survive, than probabilities and chance, but the former approach ultimately obscures the truth.

Although early in the book there was a disclaimer admitting to deploying such a heuristic, rather than always staying as close as possible to the truth, it was somewhat overwhelmed by the many descriptions of genes striving for survival.

We need books like this. Popular coverage and discussions of genetics all too often focus on the 'one gene per function' model, which misses so much of the story of how life is intricately balanced. This book is not a bad attempt to remedy the situation, and could provide a good introduction to modern genetic thought. However, it doesn't quite pull everything together into a coherent story and has too many awkward metaphors, meaning that it unfortunately falls short of its ambition to serve as a successor to Dawkins' 'Selfish Gene'.

Buy The Society of Genes from Amazon UK.

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