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Customer Review

115 of 121 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tremendously entertaining, enjoyable romp through genetics, June 6, 2003
This review is from: Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (Paperback)
This is the book that I wish Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works" was. Matt Ridley unfolds the human genome for us in a crisply written and precise "Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters." OK, I don't know what the Hades that means, but this guy is a good writer, a smart scientist, and a friendly teacher of what is a really cool, but intimidating, branch of learning.
Ridley's got a little shtick, which he openly mocks himself, where his 23 chapters each represent one of the 23 human chromosomes. It's kind of an interesting little angle, you want to like this guy, anyway, so the shtick mostly works, although I don't really have a sense that each of our 23 chromosomes is a particular type of chromosome at the end of it.
Genome is a lot of good science explained with a clear, well-constructed hand. In an excellent seven-page introduction, Ridley answered for me all sorts of questions that my scientifically-literate yet communication-challenged science friends have been unable to answer, to wit:
"Imagine that the genome is a book.
There are twenty-three chapters, called Chromosomes.
Each chapter contains several thousand stories, called Genes.
Each story is made up of paragraphs, called Exons, which are interrupted by advertisements called Introns.
Each paragraph is made up of words, called Codons.
Each word is written in letters called Bases."
Very nicely done, brings it to an understandable level for the literate layperson, and establishes a very solid foundation from which he is able to unfold the rest of this story.
He handles the basic science very well, and mostly shys away from the "Believe It or Not!" school of science reporting, though the occasional oddity does pop up. One thing I found fascinating is the existence of "chimeras." Which is one creature ( a human, a mouse, anything) that has two different genomes in it: "Think of them as the opposite of identical twins: two different genomes in one body, instead of two different bodies with the same genome." This means that you could be the single body of two different people that had accidentally fused in the womb. Really weird thought experiment, no?
He places humans and our development in the context of our nearest genetic cousins - the chimpanzees and the gorillas and so forth. And elucidates a number of compare and contrast thoughts: "What it means is that the mating system of the species was changing. The promiscuity of the chimp, with its short sexual liaisons, and the harem polygamy of the gorilla, were being replaced with something much more monogamous: a declining ratio of sexual dimorphism is unambiguous evidence for that."
Ridley's wordcraft is superior. Enjoy all the learning, implications, and human foibles he packs into this one sentence on language acquisition:
"Thus, although no other primate can learn grammatical language at all - and we are indebted to many diligent, sometimes gullible and certainly wishful trainers of chimpanzees and gorillas for thoroughly exhausting all possibilities to the contrary - language is intimately connected with sound production and processing."
It is really just masterful. Even more enjoyable if you read it in an English accent on account of Ridley's living there according to the dust jacket.
In sum, if you are looking for an introduction to genetics, DNA, and our genome, and are the omnivore type of reader with a decent head on your shoulders, this book is for you. I enjoyed it tremendously and it's given me a very good grounding for my further reading into evolutionary psychology.
Enjoy strongly!
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