GNN - Genome News Network  
  Home | About | Topics
   
Genome
The Autiobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
by Matt Ridley

Reviewed by
James J. Ferguson Jr., M.D.

Book Reviews

 Printer Friendly

News by Topic
Book Reviews

As befits a former science writer for The Economist, Matt Ridley, with consummate literary skill, leads the reader through 23 chapters (get it? 23 haploid chromosomes!) distantly, if at all, related to the Human Genome. Much of the discussion gravitates into the Nature versus Nurture dichotomy, with frequent tangents into Evolutionary Biology. (It will not, unfortunately, be read in Kansas elementary schools.) On page 154 he reaches the jolting conclusion that "The Human Genome Project is founded upon a fallacy. There is no such thing as 'the human genome'. Neither in space nor in time can such a definite object be defined." One can hardly argue that the Genome is a constant, since it quite obviously changes with each generation. His cited references are eclectic and cover a vast, but at times disjointed biological landscape. He acknowledges that ignorance (of a subject) can drive science. But he fails to recognize the Mount Everest ("because it's there") motivation for Gene Structure analysis.

My perception is that Mr. Ridley expects more out of the Genome Project than its participants promise or even suggest. I am aware of no one who, in toto, predicts close genetic insights into speciation, fate, intelligence, instinct, conflict, self-interest, stress, personality, immortality, sex, memory, politics, death, prevention, politics, eugenics, and free will, the subtitles of many of Ridley's chapters. Not that these are not, in themselves, very interesting topics for discussion—they are in fact absolutely fascinating in their own right. But the linkages to genes and gene structural analyses are tenuous. Several of the chapters are, in fact, spell-binding. I was totally absorbed by his discussion of the origins and substance of the eugenics movement, and the horrors it has begotten, both in the United States and abroad, and why it never took hold in Britain. Ridley's description of prion diseases like scrapie, kuru, and bovine spongioform encephalopathy is riveting and, in Britain, most timely.

Related
Introduction
by Barbara J. Culliton
Counterpoint review by Kevin Davies, Ph.D.
His recurring mantra is: "Genes are not there to cause disease". But who would/could claim such, even though the target of localizing disease-causing genes constituted a large part of the motivation which prompted the undertaking of the Human Genome Project? He carefully, but tentatively, delves into Gene Therapy, if there is such a nascent entity in the brave new world we now inhabit.

I would much rather sit and chat with Matt Ridley about his ideas, than try to follow his complex reasoning in written form. I have no doubt that this book is amply provocative to encourage gene researchers to re-evaluate their motives, if there existed any cogent suggestion that their motivation is to be questioned, though I suppose such is always to be expected.

Ridley, Matt. Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. HarperCollins, 2000.

Back to GNN Home Page