Archive for the 'Genetics' Category

Adam’s Curse: A Future without Men, by Bryan Sykes

SEL Books: QH600.5 .S98 2004

By turns fascinating and disturbing, Adam’s Curse explores the possible causes, ramifications, and solutions to a currently intractable problem–the human male is facing extinction.

The human male is facing two dangers–decreasing sperm count and the deteriorating Y chromosome. Dr. Sykes predicts that, if no solutions are found in the meantime, human males will disappear from the earth within the next 125,000 years (roughly 5000 generations).

This sounds like an awfully long time to come up with a solution, but when we’re talking about changes that occur slowly, planning ahead apparently can’t begin too soon.

Genome : The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, by Matt Ridley

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.

Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes, by Steve Olson

SEL Books: QH455 .O474 2002

In Mapping Human History, geneticist Steve Olson follows the migration of humans from Africa out into the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. He does not use the traditional “bones and stones” archeological approach. He looks one place for his evidence—inside our DNA.

Along the way, Olson takes great care to discourage those who might desire to use DNA testing to justify racial distinctions between groups. The human race has interbred among groups for thousands of years, and attempting to determine genetic markers that represent distinct races is virtually impossible.  We are so inbred that it is likely that every person on earth today has DNA from Julius Caesar, Confucius, and Nefertiti.

The book is broken down into sections representing different continents, and ending with one called “The End of Race,” which looks at Hawaii as a case study. The author also looks at connections between genetic studies of human connections and the evidence found in the archeological record and with linguistic studies of human connections. Languages apparently evolve in a similar manner, though there are not exact correlations, as one can easily adopt a particular language and culture independent of one’s genetic makeup. The evidence accumulated among these various disciplines can work together to provide a clearer picture of human movements over time.

I have long been fascinated by connections among cultural groups, and this book provided exactly the kind of information I’ve been seeking.

(Originally published in Connections, September 2006)