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Jacob's Ladder: The History of the Human Genome Hardcover – July, 2004

4.4 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Although sequencing the human genome has brought speculation about all kinds of results--from curing to cloning--another sort of scientific payoff is in the works. In Jacob's Ladder, former UCLA professor Henry Gee shifts focus from the applied science of genomics to the basic research questions that can be addressed with this new information. "To describe the sequencing of the genome as a technical feat," he writes, "is to miss the point." Gee is most excited about the possibilities of understanding what makes us all human, rather than the individual genetic variances that make us individuals. He examines the genome as a motif representing the "pinnacle of human self-knowledge." Further, he claims that the philosophical shadow of Darwin has made us forget that one of the central questions of our being is how all of us are made from nothing, or rather from everything. To redirect thought, he closely describes how genes control the development of every human, both within and before each individual lifetime. While Gee's ideas are large enough to support a book on this by now well-covered subject, general readers will likely be put off by his somewhat dry and academic style. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

So we've sequenced the human genome. Now what? Gee, a writer for Nature and former professor at UCLA, tackles this question in his examination of how nature generates "form from the formless." Gee takes his title seriously, describing not only the history of human understanding of biology, but also the history of the evolution of the genome itself. Stories of homunculi and Darwin's legendary journey to the Galápagos lead seamlessly into discussions of the first life to appear on earth. Gee uses comparative genomics to draw a vivid history of the evolution of life, tying together the usually distinct fields of embryology, genetics and evolution. The crowning gem of this work is the last section on the new network theory of genomics. Gee draws the reader into the new field of computational biology and shows that having the sequence of the human genome is just the beginning. By modeling how the thousands of genes act on and with each other, we can finally begin to answer questions like, where do new species come from? How does a single egg turn into a human baby? How does natural selection affect the genome? Why is there any variation at all? The author knows the details of molecular biology, and he's not afraid to use them. The text is littered with terms like "blastocyst," "T4 bacteriophage" and "Hox genes," though all are carefully defined. Because of this level of sophistication, this fine book is difficult enough to be more suitable for the amateur scientist than for the dabbler. 25 illus. not seen by PW.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (July 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393050831
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393050837
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,858,284 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Robert Adler on May 9, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In _Jacob's Ladder_, science writer Henry Gee sets out to survey the thinking and research on evolution and genetics that led to the sequencing of the human genome and today's focus on genetics and genomics. He also tries to look into the future to make out the outlines of where our newfound genetic knowledge and power may lead.

If you're interested in a serious survey of the story of genetics starting in antiquity, before getting into the human genome and current research, this is the book for you. You'll learn a lot about embryology, about early theories of development and evolution, and about researchers and thinkers whose contributions to this field, broadly construed, you may not have known about, from Aristotle to Caspar Wolff.

I thought the book really got interesting when it began to deal with the question of the evolution of form. How all the intricate forms that define an organism come about, in terms of evolution, genetics and embryology, remains one of the great unanswered questions of biology. Much of _Jacob's Ladder_ is shaped by Gee's fascination with this issue. His answer, that the answer will be found through understanding and modeling the structure and dynamic functioning of genetic networks, makes excellent sense.

I also felt that Gee's speculations about what we as a species may do with our newfound ability to modify our own genes and genetic networks well thought out and provocative.

If you would like to understand the rich soil from which the next year's or the next decade's genetic discoveries and interventions will spring, this would be an excellent place to start.

Robert Adler, author of _Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation_ (Wiley, 2002), and _Medical Firsts: From Hippocrates to the Human Genome_ (Wiley, 2004).
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Format: Hardcover
Once human DNA had been completely charted, some used to think, we'd have answers to just how fertilized eggs turn into humans, and even what it is to be human. Sequencing the human genome would be the foundation that would explain everything that cells do to work together and produce a human. It hasn't come close to doing this, of course. There is too much going on within even that simplest first fertilized egg cell for us to understand. Certainly, there has been much learned, including some humbling lessons; our DNA shows we are still very close in many ways to the mice that share our mammalian evolutionary heritage, and we are even close to fish and other vertebrates. But scientists didn't start asking questions about the issues in genomics only when genes or DNA were discovered. In _Jacob's Ladder: The History of the Human Genome_ (Norton), Henry Gee has looked at the ways people tried to understand what genes do even before they knew there were any such things. His book is valuable in showing that many of the questions that are still being asked today were being asked by the first men to record their thoughts about how reproduction was accomplished.

Aristotle knew about eggs, bird eggs, and he knew about menstruation. He formed the idea that when menstruation stopped, the unshed blood stayed in the woman and when it met with semen from the male, it was sparked into life. This dogma was first challenged in 1651 by William Harvey, who is more famous for having charted the activity of the circulatory system. He had the insight that life came from an egg, even in mammals. Of course he had no understanding of cells, or eggs and sperm being cells. He thought the egg was formless matter that somehow gave forth form.
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Format: Hardcover
Since the announcement of the coarse mapping of the human genome, the media have deluged us with promises of great advances. Medicine, agriculture, psychology, even biotechnology, all seem to be potential beneficiaries of the the unravelling of "what makes us human". Henry Gee, in presenting a sweeping background to these attractive promises, sounds a cautionary note. How is it, he asks, that from the moment of conception a process is unleashed that produces a living child in a mere 200 days? From the merging of two single cells, each carrying their share of the information that built you and i, what led to each of us being distinct individuals, yet bearing an inheritance reaching billions of years back in time?

Although the event is common, with 150 human births occuring every minute, Gee explains that understanding of the process was long in coming. From Aristotle, who thought babies came from menstrual blood to the Enlightenment, which accorded either eggs or sperm with possession of generations of nested individuals, there was a long, tortuous path to understanding conception. Behind that understanding lay much investigation, theorisation and speculation. Gee naturally positions Charles Darwin with a pivotal role in that understanding, but wants us to be aware of the host of other researchers and their contributions. A major hurdle was the distinction between "external" births such as chicken eggs and the delivery method of dogs, horses and humans.

Ironically, it was challenges to Darwin's great insight that led to major advances in genetics. William Bateson sharply criticised Darwin's notion of "gradualism" in forming new species. Bateson thought that gradual change should be visible in animal populations and went looking for them.
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