We've been under the spell of DNA for too long. Science historian and MacArthur Fellow Evelyn Fox Keller makes the case for radically new thinking about the nature of heredity in The Century of the Gene
. This short, magisterial treatise examines 100 years of genetic thinking and finds outdated elements of Victorian beliefs still permeating our scientific writing. Despite compelling evidence that cytoplasmic and other nonchromosomal factors play important roles in development and even in the inheritance of traits, most discussion still relies on the master-slave (or manager-worker) relationship between the nucleus and the cell. Keller wants to move on; her proximate goal is to proceed from talking about genes to talking about genetic talk, the better to understand our biases. Her excitement at developments such as the Human Genome Project, despite her initial doubts, is only heightened by the prospect of vast stretches of uncharted intellectual territory. Ultimately, of course, her program matches that of the scientific enterprise--to more fully understand ourselves and our world. What comes after The Century of the Gene
? It's an excellent question, and one that can only be answered once we leave behind the baggage of the past. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
A former MacArthur fellow and a professor of history and philosophy of science at MIT, Keller (Keywords in Evolutionary Biology) tackles the contemporary revolution in genetic science. Although originally a critic of the Human Genome Project (the effort to sequence the entire human genome), Keller doesn't dismiss it out of hand anymore. "What is most impressive to me," she writes, "is not so much the ways in which the genome project has fulfilled our expectations but the ways in which it has transformed them." In this tight, clearly written survey, Keller does a wonderful job of explaining and demonstrating how our knowledge of genetics has accumulated to the extent that we can fathom what we don't understand. In her articulate and insightful, if abbreviated, history of genetics and molecular biology, she suggests that most of our common assumptions about genes are either too simplistic or simply incorrect. It turns out, for example, that a single functioning gene may be split and found in several locations on a chromosome, and it's rare that a gene can be determined to have caused any particular trait, characteristic or behavior. Keller argues that scientists have gained a great deal by refocusing their attention from individual genes to the concept of an integrated genetic program. Keller's ideas are provocative, and she is interested in contributing to a popular discussion about the politics of genetic research, but because she skips a lot of the scientific basics, the general reader won't be able to grasp all of her points. Even so, her reputation as a scholar of genetics means this will appeal primarily to hard-core biology/genetics devotees. (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.