SEL Books: QH431 .R475 1999
Science writer Matt Ridley hit upon a creative method for introducing lay readers to the human genome—to write its biography.
Each chapter focuses on a particular chromosome (Chromosomes 1 through 22, plus one chapter coupling X and Y together). For each chromosome, the author focusses on one or two genes, using it as a launching pad to explore a particular topic, such as fate, instinct, sex, conflict, or free will.
Of course, we learn a lot about the human genome, genetics, and evolution along the way, but it all leads to his central question: are we nothing more than the sum total of our genes? Ridley presents the Nature v. Nurture debate, and takes it further by introducing a third factor—free will.
Both “sides” of this age-old debate are on the side of determinism; our personalities are determined either by our genes or our environment. But do we have a say in this at all? Ridley presents compelling evidence that who we are is an amalgamation of all three influences, though not necessarily in equal measure.
This book was written more than eight years ago, so a greater body of knowledge on this subject has been amassed since then. The Human Genome Project completed its mapping in 2003, and scientists are using the information for a wide variety of research projects, including solving crimes, discovering relationships among all living things, mapping the evolutionary process, discovering more about our ancestors, following the movements of peoples across time and space (as in Mapping Human History, the “Pick” for September 2006), and, of course, disease treatment and prevention.
Yet, despite its age, I still recommend this book as a wonderful introduction to genetics. Its language is comprehensible and its tone inviting. This book is evidence that learning can be fun.