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The Cartoon Guide to Genetics
by Larry Gonick and Mark Wheelis

Reviewed by
Tabitha M. Powledge

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Visit looking for books on genetics, and the search engine will fetch you more than 5,000 hits. Of Amazon's three top bestsellers, numbers two and three are hefty, costly disquisitions on, respectively, molecular and medical genetics. The number one bestseller, however, is quite a different kettle of amino acids: an inexpensive paperback titled "The Cartoon Guide to Genetics."

"Cartoon Guide" has been there a long time. First published in 1983, updated in 1991, in print and still THE genetics bestseller a decade later, this primer is obviously doing something right.

Despite its title, the "Cartoon Guide" is a deadly serious book. In fact, it may have disappointed more than a few purchasers who were expecting Genetics Without Tears. This is the real stuff from Genetics 101, or at least the first few weeks of it. The amount of detail is impressive. Mendel's crosses in his monastery garden get as thorough a treatment as I have seen in any introductory text. Ditto the intricacies of DNA and RNA structure and crucial processes like crossing over, replication, transcription, and translation. There's even some material on gene regulation.

A major disadvantage of the cartoon approach to a highly technical subject is that the book is a deceptively easy read and therefore invites racing ahead. But racing ahead here is likely to result in a brain devoid of genetics information. Even the humble monk requires that readers pay attention. The authors employ the venerable and irreplaceable Punnett squares to work out Mendel's crosses. But they don't call them that and don't do much to encourage audience participation in working them out, which is essential to absorbing Mendelian genetics.

There are few natural divisions in the text—the equivalent of chapters—that encourage the student to pause and review. For formal course work in genetics, a supplementary workbook would help the lessons of "Cartoon Guide" to lodge more firmly in the neurons. A formal text, with chapter-end questions and exercises, also wouldn't hurt. Readers pursuing independent studies via the guide are advised to pursue them slowly, and a workbook wouldn't hurt them, either.

Presumably many purchasers are drawn to "Cartoon Guide" expecting an amusing way to learn difficult science. You may find anthropomorphic enzymes uproarious, but on the whole the jokes seem a bit lame to me. Expect Blondie, not Doonesbury.

The major strength of "Cartoon Guide" is that the drawings by Larry Gonick are close to brilliant at presenting the physical events of the cell and the gene. Mitosis is a cinch to grasp, and meiosis is pretty good too. So is DNA and RNA structure and protein assembly and folding—in fact you can count on Gonick for visual clarity whenever the subject is a biochemical/molecular process. The drawings convey far more information to the graphically impaired, among whom I am numbered, than illustrations in the average expensive textbook. Highly recommended on those grounds alone.

For the most part, the molecular genetics of the past two or three decades gets short shrift. Recombinant DNA in E. coli, early developments in gene cloning, introns and exons—these are all nicely explained, but that's about it. No cDNA, no mitochondrial DNA, no HOX genes, no alternative splicing, no knockout mice, no DNA chips, no cross-species sequence comparisons, no gene families, no bioinformatics. No mention of PCR, which appeared the same year this book was first published, which some think is the most important methodological advance ever in biology, and is now widely available to high-school students. And, horror of horrors, no Human Genome Project—not even the word "genome" itself. Time for a new edition. Or, better yet, Volume II.

Freelance writer and editor Tabitha M. Powledge writes mostly about genetics, neuroscience, and science and medical policy.

Gonick, Larry & Wheelis, Mark. The Cartoon Guide to Genetics. HarperCollins, New York, 1983, updated 1991.

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