Customer Reviews: Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (P.S.)
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on February 28, 2000
I'm not sure whether to give this book four or five stars...
FIVE STARS - because of how interesting the subject matter is. DNA, it seems, isn't a brilliant piece of software to make bodies. It's more a committee of chemicals each trying to propogate themselves, and often at odds with the other chemicals in DNA (97% of which don't actually do anything!) And this is the stuff that to a large extent makes us US!
FIVE STARS - because of how well written some sections are. Chapter 4, for instance, which talks about the researcher who not only can tell you IF you're going to get Huntington's chorea, but can tell you what age you'll get it, simply by counting the number of times a particular gene sequence repeats. I was left haunted by the question, if I had a high risk for H.C., would I get the test done, simply to know when the symptoms would start?
FIVE STARS - Because of the research. This is the most up to date book on the subject available at the moment. He cites research done as close as 1998.
BUT FOUR STARS - because although some parts were absolutely mind-blowingly interesting and could be considered _classic_ bits of writing, the prose in other parts seemed to get a bit heavy and tedious, and I had to put it down. I was surprised by my own reaction, having been so thoroughly entertained a few short chapters before. But it means I can't give it five stars, because that rating is for out and out classics. (Which this book nearly is. Damn.)
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on June 6, 2003
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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on February 21, 2000
Things have, indeed, changed. This book chronicles the opening of the Genome mystery and the path science has taken to reach today's level of knowledge. It also includes a far reaching discussion of the current discoveries of DNA and the impact (including a realistic cure for Cancer) that they will have on our lives in the future.
This is a far ranging discussion, moving from the genetic impacts on sexuality, personality, disease (or more appropriately resistance to disease), longevity, and other topics. It is an excellent, intriguing book for anyone who reads it. The scientific information can get a little overwhelming, but every turn of the page can reveal a new understanding about who we are and how our exploding genetic knowledge might shape our future.
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This is an excellent overview of current scientific discovery and argument regarding that inheritently common, but innately variable blueprint of 23 pairs of chromosones we all share.
Our knowledge of our genes is progressing at a rapid rate, so much so, that by the time I finish writing this sentence, our knowledge of the human genetic code has been updated. If you wish to know what kinds of things are being discovered, this book is a very good place to find it.
Matt Ridley devotes each chapter to one of our chromosones-23 in all, and describes some useful dicoveries and speculations regarding each. From such things as the ability to digest lactose, blood groups, cancer suppressors, 'instinct',intelligence, ethics, free will, allergies, aspects of language, ageing, sex, cloning, test tube babies, Mad Cow disease etc, he describes in a clever and clear way the discoveries being made in the field.
I would give the book 4 1/2 stars,(but there are no halves in these reviews), as no book is ever perfect, but a point to remember is no understanding of our world, or our genes themselves, is ever perfect either. But we can find pieces to the puzzle, useful and uplifting, and that is what this book is about.
Ridleys style is clear and clever, my only quibble is that he displays perhaps just a touch of arrogance, and a subtle air of bias. But give the author his due, an author is entitled to his opinions and leanings, what is important is that he generally makes it clear when he does so.
The book is highly recommended for both those familiar with the jargon, and those with enthusiastic minds who wish to learn about it.
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VINE VOICEon February 16, 2001
Fascinating stuff, this genetic science, especially now that we have mapped our DNA. This is a very well-written about genetics, in general, and some history surrounding the development of genetics and the human genome project. It is not, however, a history of the human genome project, which I assumed it was (one must be careful when buying a book based only on the title!). I was initially disappointed that it wasn't the story of the project, but I am very pleased at what I have learned from it. Especially intriguing is that the author talks a lot about what genes do and don't do, and how even a gene that is linked with a disease, say Huntington's disease, isn't really something you can call The Huntington's Gene. He's a very good writer. He can be fairly technical at times, but even when he is, he makes sure to also make an analogy, or re-explain in easier to understand terms. This is one of the best science books I have read simply in terms of writing that is lucid, structured, and keeps the reader wanting to read more.
One major compelling point to this book is that he does include some history, including the different scientists and who fought with whom, and who continues to fight in the struggle to be the first to discover something new, and also in the struggle scientists have between each other in terms of the philosophical/cultural ramifications of certain genes. Especially interesting is the chapter on intelligence. The author delves into the history of the first, early and completely inappropriate IQ tests developed in the US and Britain, and the horrible fallout from them since they determined that immigrants have low IQ (which is not surprising, later criticizers have said, since the tests were in English, and many immigrants didn't speak English). But certainly the idea of genetic intelligence is a very touchy one, but the author does bring up a number of studies that show that IQ is, in some ways, genetic; that intelligence is not completely cultural/education-based (but is also not completely genetic, either). Of the chapters in the book, I found this one the most interesting, and especially the valid and well-done studies that have looked into the link between genetics and intelligence (and intelligence meaning and including a variety of intelligences - analytic, kinesthetic, language use, etc.), whatever the culture being studied, in whatever country. Fascinating stuff.
Some might be turned off by some of the author's intentional visibility of self. I greatly enjoyed that instead of merely reporting the facts, he also comments on them from his own view, and also includes contrary views from contrary scientists. While many diseases are linked to certain genes, the rest of the human behavior, while genetic (at least somewhat) is vaguely and very imperfectly known, so it is helpful for me to hear the author's opinion about what some findings could mean for the future of healthcare, school curricula, racial tensions, etc. I don't always agree with the author, but I am very glad to have his voice in it. And also very glad that his voice is based more on reason, than any particular ideology - I certainly cannot tell whether he is religious or anti-religion, whether he might be Christian, Buddhist, Jewish or anything else, or whether he is liberal or conservative. It's welcome to have his voice, and to have his voice be reasonable and even-handed. I found myself thinking much more about certain points simply because he offered an opinion (and/or offered the opinions of scientists who disagree with each other). A great book overall, and a wonderful introduction into what genetics is and isn't, and how far it has come in the last 5 years. Important reading, and very well-written.
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on April 18, 2001
A brilliant and eminently readable introduction this book explains the concept of the human genome. Ridley does a remarkable job of introducing you to how genes work, what their interactions seem to be, and the relationship between heredity and free choice. He makes a compelling case that in the end our genetic code contains limits (humans can not fly on their own) and probabilities (how likely we are to get breast cancer or Alzheimer's) but there are so many specific individual choices that no two twins are identical. If identical twins with identical genetic inheritances interact with their environment and their life experiences to become two substantially different people then imagine the range of differences between all of us.
There are so many thought-provoking sections of this book that it is hard to single out any one item. Let me just note that the chapter which discusses mad cow disease and its human analogue, the laughing disease of New Guinea which was a major cause of death among the Fore Tribe. Ridley's explanation of the role prisons play in causing these diseases is lucid and yet the science behind it is daunting.
For those who care about science education Ridley's approach to the mystery of knowledge explains a great deal about why the fact and memory based modern American approach to teaching science drives children away from the field. Consider just this passage: "The theme of this chapter is mystery. A true scientist is bored by knowledge; it is the assault on ignorance that motivates him -- the mysteries that previous discoveries have revealed. The forest is more interesting than the clearing." We need a science education based on learning about the unknown rather than memorizing the known. Ridley explains these principles again and again throughout the book.
If you care about the most important scientific revolution of the last twenty years this book is a very good starting point.
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on April 5, 2000
I purchased this book for 2 reasons: 1.) I am a lay person interested in the human genome, 2.) Matt Ridley wrote an incomparable book called Red Queen, his treatment of sex and evolution. I was hoping for a similar treatment on the topic of the genome. What a disappointment!
The first problem was the identification of the chapters with the 23 chromosomes. That limited him to about one gene per chromosome with which to illustrate the topic of the chapter. Unfortunately not all the genes for learning, development and so on, are on the same chromosome. So in a book about science the actual science was almost totally absent. He then used old and current history/gossip to fill in the rest of the chapter. All the chapters were like this so there was no real common unifying argument running through the book. There was no focus ! In one chapter he digresses for around 10 pages on the eugenics movement. While that certainly is a valid topic for a science book of some sort, it does not have anything to do with the actual discoveries of the human genome.
The old history and current efforts were heavily laden with what I can only call insular British snobbery of the worst sort. In the Red Queen he actually presented opposing views and then presented a collegial set of arguments to show why he disagreed. In this work he seems to have done away with the presentation of ideas, and simply reduces other ideas he disagrees with to a few lines he then sneers at. Science reporting by scorn. He sneers at global warming, but doesn't say why, he sneers at the language studies conducted with monkeys -- and then turns around in a chapter and extols animal learning. The only sneer he does expand on, is his contempt for the British government's efforts to ban British beef due to mad cow disease (yes this too is part of a book on the human genome).
He seemed at particular pains to savage Americans, and to paint himself as a Briton living in England. He described one millionaire in the bio game as a 'high school drop out, former professional surfer, and Vietnam veteran' ? Now if his point is this person lacks an academic background then he is correct, but that is not stated -- the implication is that this person is worthless simply due to his unorthodox background. The tone of the whole book leads me to believe this book is in fact aimed at Ridley's British colleagues. He hopes to prove to them that though he has journeyed in the land of the barbarian (USA) he in fact has not been corrupted. That is the only way I can make sense of the tone of the book and the totally bizarre inclusion of Alexander the Great as a way to describe the ancient Egyptian god Ammon.
His forays into other areas could be a wonderful addition and support to a heavily science laden tome -- but these forays are almost all there is. He then wanders off topic to preach on items that he supports or that he is against. When he does not stray from the topic he tends to talk down and lecture his audience. He is against the use of presenting diseases as the means to explain a gene -- but then he repeatedly does this himself. He seems to miss the point that disease often helps to point out what went wrong and how. He forgets that his audience is unlikely to be sensation seekers, so he feels the need to periodically admonish us in what looks like 22 point type that genes aren't there to cause disease.
Finally this odd, confused book simply ends. He reaches the end of his 23rd chapter and simply stops. No summary, no wrap-up, no hopes or ideas for the future. The impression given is that someone just turned off the power, or that he completed the required number of words and that was all the time he wished to spend on the book.
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on October 31, 2001
REVIEW: This book gives basic genetic lessons in 23 short chapters told in story-like format that are interesting and at times entertaining. For a number of years, I've wanted to understand the basics of the genome, but I didn't want to have to study a textbook. This book is the perfect solution. In explaining the genome, heridity, evolution and related issues, the author uses familiar examples, like cancer, alzheimer's disease, and mad cow disease, etc. (but the book isn't just about diseases). Ridley is expert at using analogies and at giving just enough detail so that the lay person understands his basic points yet appreciates much of the complexity of the genome and its operation. While you won't be able to run a genetics experiment after reading this book, you will have a much better appreciation of the effects that our knowledge of the genome will have on our future. Very highly recommended for those interested in the field.
STRENGTHS: The book is not a text book. The chapters are relatively short and easy to read. The author is excellent at using analogy for increasing understanding of difficult/complex material. Writing style and depth of content perfectly match the target audience.
WEAKNESSES: The book would have benefited greatly from some graphics (at least my version of the book didn't have them). Some readers may be put off by a reacurring sub-topic in the book that discusses philosophical and ethical issues of our exploration of the genome (however, I also found this discussion interesting). While there is minimal use of technical words, a glossary would also have been helpful too.
WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: Everyone that is not an expert in genetics and would like to understand the basics of the genome, heredity, evolution and related issues. Those who refuse to believe that our genes play a major role in who we are and how we behave (including personality) will either be converted or will probably dislike what this book has to say.
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The field of genetics is doubling knowledge every few weeks. So Matt
Ridley had set himself an impossible task in writing one of the last
books before the completion of the Human Genome project. Yet, he has
created a book of unique value to all of us as the full impact of
genetic knowledge begins to take over our world.
Forget 99 percent
of what you have ever heard about genes. The school wasted your time
with obsolete knowledge that wasn't in the ball park, in most
What Ridley has done is given us a roadmap of the kind of
territory and effects that occur within our genes, and among our
minds, bodies, and genes. The interrelationships are extremely
complex and diverse. Beware any simple judgments about what genetics
mean, as a result.
What was most impressive to me was the remarkable
potential to use genetic information to shed light on all kinds of
issues. For example, the genetic record can give insights into the
development of species, past expansion of nomadic peoples, language,
personality, stress, memory, sex, instinct and the effect of the
To give us each a full panoply of ideas about
genetics, he adopted the interesting structure of having one chapter
about each chromosome. The chapter is not exhaustive, but picks on
one or a few aspects of what is known or is in the process of becoming
Fear not! I never took biology, and know little biological
jargon. Yet the book portrayed the ideas and information simply and
clearly enough that I don't think I got lost anywhere.
The only part
of the book that I did not like was a completely unsatisfactory
discussion of what free will is in the last chapter. Skip that and
you'll enjoy the book a lot more.
How accurate is the book? In five
chapters, I had read source books or articles referred to by Ridley,
and each was well chosen for what he was trying to do and scrupulously
described. Of course, we are still up against the fact that we know
very little on this whole subject.
This is the most stimulating
science book that I have read in a long time. I even liked in better
than The Selfish Gene, which I thought was a terrific book (which is
also referred to and discussed in this book).
I found that the
book stimulated a lot of new thinking on my part. Fifteen minutes
with the book led to four hours of conjecture on several occasions. I
liked that feature of the book.
Have a great time reading this book
and thinking about its implications for your own life!
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on June 6, 2000
I didn't enjoy reading this book as much as I expected, but I picked-up a lot of interesting information from the book. The book is broken into 23 chapters, each with a fact about a gene on the chromosome being discussed. As the author describes the story, each chapter acts a whistle stop tour of the chromosome. It is certainly not a comprehensive tale of all that it known of the human Genome, rather it is a telling of those things that the author wants to relate, organized around the 23 chromosomes.
There's a real variety of information presented. Some of it mechanical, some of it historical, some of it antecdotal. I keep finding myself relaying information (or factoids) that I picked up from the book. So, from this perspective, I learned something and find myself reusing what I learned.
So far so good - right? Well, here's the criticism. I found the writing sometimes technical, the stories sometimes hard to follow, and the connecting of the dots by the author sometimes a stretch. As for the too technical objection - well, this is certainly understandable and what did I expect. The readability (or follow-ability) of the stories is another matter. Sometimes the stories are quite riveting and well-connected. Others, however, seem to follow tangents and have a tenuous relation to the chromosome.
The last criticism, where it seems that the author is connecting the dots, worried me some. I often realized that where I believed that I had been reading fact, I had actually been reading the authors ideas and conjecture. This would be fine were it clear that this is the case, but it wasn't always evident.
So, overall, I learned a great deal, but didn't always enjoy the book.
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