Decoding DNA and its impact on humansSome of you may recall the review of Feb. 26 of another book by Matt Ridley, “The Red Queen.” That book outlined the case for believing that sexual reproduction was an evolutionary technique for outwitting parasites and ensuring the ability of genes to reproduce.
That dry outline cannot begin to do justice to the book and to Mr. Ridley’s engaging style. I still pick up the book occasionally to reread chapters; the author is a skilled “popularizer” of complicated scientific concepts.
Another book by Mr. Ridley, “Genome,” explains the significance of what the author calls the most important scientific concept of our day, the decoding of the human genome, the DNA “book” that tells cells how to replicate life on this planet.
Mr. Ridley selects one gene from each of the body’s 23 chromosomes to describe its workings and its effects on humans. Although the entire human genome has been decoded in rough draft, the understanding of just what those arrangements of four molecules on a double helix all mean will occupy biologists for decades or centuries to come.
As was the case in his book on sex and evolution, he takes pains to debunk the criticism that genetics and evolution are simply a new expression of a Calvinist concept, that humans have a preordained destiny.
The huge strides in genetics recently have indeed triggered arguments from several corners that a) humans are nothing more than the products of their genetically determined impulses, b) genetics is bunkum and that nurture, not nature, determines the fate of individuals and c) the whole argument is ridiculous because man was created fully formed on the sixth day of creation.
Amid the explanations of what’s going on in the helix, using a minimum of scientific jargon, Mr. Ridley also discusses the interplay of genes, parental upbringing and societal pressures.
He also makes the excellent point that popular treatment of genetic advances has probably focused too strongly on diseases with genetic backgrounds. The human genome, he reminds us, is about what usually goes right, not just what can go wrong.
But one 12-page passage illustrates that some genetics can be cruel predestination. His description of Huntington’s chorea, a fatal wasting disease that usually strikes in middle age, is a bleak and haunting reminder of human frailty amid the promises of a better life in the future.
By Matt Ridley
Perennial (HarperCollins) 1999
Kyobo Book Center price:
20,330 won ($17.50)
by John Hoog