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The Century of the Gene
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 14, 2001
It is quite telling that shortly after this book's release, the scientific community was humbled by the relevation that the human genome is made up of about 1/3 the number of genes previously thought. Keller deconstructs the very notion of a thing called a gene, and instead presents to us a molecular world where vast networks of processs interact to produce the phenomena convenionally attributed to genes.
Even better, she presents her critique within a historical context that allows the reader to see how the current myopic model of gene primacy came to be, and how information conflicting with that model has very gradually moved from the periphery toward the center of mainstream genetics research.
Overall, I found the book to be well-written and sobering with respect to the parade of biological and behavioral attributes and conditions attributed to these things called genes.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2001
An interesting capsule view of the history of genetics and a penetrating discussion of the gene myth as it emerged, persisted, and then foundered in a more complex reality. The exploding field of genomics, and bioinformatics has left our perceptions a decade behind, and we are only beginning to 'come to' and realize we are in a different world of biology. Gene regulation, and the evolution of evolvability have to a large extent confounded one aspect of the standard Darwinian view, and we are confronted by a new bio-computational reality that leaves even our sense of the computer on the junk heap of primitive machines. A good reality check but the passage into the new worlds of DNA should induce courage to state the obvious inadequacy of Darwin's natural selection. Darwin seems incongruous at this point.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2001
An excellent introduction to its subject. The book provides a clear explanation of the idea of the gene and how genes "work". I particularly like the focus on the history of genetics, showing how the research inspired by the fruitful idea of the 'gene' leads us to the conclusion that the very concept has outlived its time. The importance of issues involving genetics--biotechnology, explanations of 'genetic' differences among people, patents on life forms, etc.--require the average citizen to make a little effort to understand the science involved. This book provides a good introduction to those issues and to some of the complexities. For example, if genes don't exist, then what are private companies trying to patent? The book is a short, accessible window on some of these questions.
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on August 28, 2013
This book has a place in the nerd compartment of my heart because it was the subject of my first ever academic publication. Granted it was only a book review that I published, but I was a lowly graduate student at the time. For what its worth, here's the full text of the published review, which appeared in the "Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences," way back when in 2001. Self promotion, one might say. Well perhaps, but at least it's a freebie - no hidden agenda to ask anyone to read my book.

The full citation is: Sankaran, N. (2002). Review: The Century of the Gene. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 57(1), 106-108.

Those who have read books by Evelyn Fox Keller may have already
noticed her engagement with the issue of the interrelationships between
language and science. These interrelationships have formed the context for
her discussions of a wide variety of topics, including scientific biography,
the role of gender in science, evolution, and molecular biology. In The
Century of the Gene she turns to language once again, this time to analyze
the meaning of the word "gene" through the twentieth century, not only
to explain key concepts but also to illuminate important problems in the
field of genetics and molecular biology.

Timed to appear shortly after the publication of the first draft of the
Human Genome Project, Keller's stated aim in this book is to "celebrate
the surprising effects that the successes of the [genome] project have had
on biological thought" (p.5). Simultaneously a history and a critical analysis
of a discipline, the book tackles the main issues in modern genetics and
genomics, looking at such fundamental questions as the form and function
of genes and their relationship to building an organism. Concluding with
a section entitled, "What are genes for?" Keller examines the future of
genetics in the context of the revelations of the genome project. As she
rightly points out, genetics and the gene have undergone a powerful transformation
in the course of the century, from 1909, when the term "gene"
was a relatively obscure term coined to represent a unit of heredity, until
the present, when the word pervades the popular press and where, with
the sequence of the genome in hand, scientists are realizing that our knowledge
about the information we store and how it plays itself out during our
lifetimes is far from complete. In light of these developments,Keller contends
that the word "gene" is limited in its explanatory power and argues for
the development of a new language and vocabulary which will enable us
to better deal with the complexity of biological information, organization,
and development.

As with her other books, this one is quite brief, and as always, its
brevity should not mislead readers. In science, as in fashion, elegance lies
in understatement, a weapon that Keller wields with great facility. The
price paid for such sophistication is accessibility; this book is not for the
casual layperson or even a novice student hoping for a quick course in
genetics. The Century of the Gene serves as an important signal to biologists
in all spheres of investigation to start thinking and thinking hardabout
the implications of their discoveries and the language in which they describe
it, but it is a warning that only insiders would recognize. Unless one has
a basic notion (albeit in Keller's estimation a flawed and incomplete notion)
of what a gene is, it is difficult to grasp the power and subtleties of her
arguments for revamping the concept or providing genetics with a new
vocabulary.

It should be noted also that, for all her arguments about the inadequacies
of the word and its connotations, not once does Keller offer an alternative.
This is perhaps not necessary, or even desirable, in a book like this because
Keller is examining the problem as a historian and philosopher and not as
a bench scientist, but the fact is worth noting because it reveals the inherent
difficulties in executing a proposal such as hers. Without the basic working
definition of the gene as we understand it today as a structural and functional
unit of hereditythere is nothing for us to hold on to, as we try to
make sense of the information that we uncovered through the Human
Genome Project. As fuzzy and shape changing as the word "gene" is, it is
still an essential ingredient to understanding biology, heredity, and evolution,
for lay people and biologists alike.
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on December 31, 2014
This book reveals a sophisticated understanding of how scientists come up with formal explanations and definitions. Inevitably, as the technologies and observations progress, yesterday's concepts become outmoded and, eventually, restrictive. Evelyn Fox Keller explains how this progression occurred (and still takes place) in our understanding of biological inheritance. She displays a fine sense of the motivations behind pre-DNA theoretical postulates that no longer make sense in light of modern sequence data. Altogether, a splendid account of the gene theory, its problems, and indications of where new concepts are likely to arise.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2013
How is it that the Kindle Edition of this book refers to the print edition to view the figures? No previous warning before buying. My rate does not relate to the content of the text.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2002
This is a very concise and readable historical review of the gene concept from its origins in the nineteenth century to the live debate which is taking place now due to some fascinating work done by cutting edge contemporary researchers. Keller is an excellent writer and a thought provoking thinker. Her analysis is thorough but easily accessible by anyone with a high school knowledge of the biological sciences. It's not ground breaking philosophy of science but it's a refreshing change from the kind of superficial analysis of this trendy issue provided by the mass media. An excellent weekend read for the thirsty mind.
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17 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Here we have a brief history of events such as Mendel's laws, Watson and Crick's description of DNA structure and the reading of the draft of the human genome. These events define the 20th century as THE CENTURY OF THE GENE. Beyond that this book is distinctly mean with it's praise. The book is less history and more lecture; and largely directed at the scientific community itself. The author admonishes biologists for their "gene talk" and wants the discussion to be more structured, reasoned, and realistic. She takes the role of the gene Grinch when she steals the thunder of all the recent popular talk about the wonders of the gene by saying that "the gene is not a physical object" and there needs to be more "acknowledgement of how large a gap between genetic 'information' and biological meaning [there] really is". It is in making this point to her colleagues that we the lay reader, lose her, and then lose interest.
THE CENTURY OF THE GENE gets fairly technical and it remains on a narrow focus - the usefulness and validity of the "gene talk" favored by many popular science writers. Books such as TABOO and GENOME, where genes are "linked" or "tied" to some human attribute, would therefore not be on this author's recommended reading list. That's fine for Ms Fox Keller's standing within the scientific community, but if she wishes to bring to the attention of the wider reading audience her genuine concerns with these popular science books, there is one thing she should have taken from them. They are called "popular" because of style and readability. Unfortunately for THE CENTURY OF THE GENE, the same can not be said.
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16 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2001
Keller has a different writing style then most "factual" books. Her attempts at literal hooks (ie. introduce ideas that explained later in the chapter) are more frustrating then informative. If the ideas are so imperitive to understand, she should explain them immediately after she introduces them. This is more of a historical look into the gene than a factual. If you want to learn how the gene works and its role in DNA computing - this is not the book to buy. Even more annoying is her constant "insight" into how surprised researchers of DNA were to learn that genes are complex. Of course they are complex. I wish she would have mentioned it once and continue writing useful information.
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