Non-Fiction Reviews


The Wonder of Genetics
The Creepy, The Curious, and the Commonplace

(2010) Richard V. Knowles, Prometheus, 9.99, pbk, 337 pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14214-8

 

15% of pregnancies spontaneously abort (thought the author does not say more than that given that some mothers are not aware that they are pregnant and have had a spontaneous abortion) and half of these, Richard Knowles points out, exhibit chromosomal abnormality such as Down's syndrome (mongolism). Further, about one in two hundred (0.5%) of live births have some form of chromosomal irregularity. Then again, 2 3% of the (US) population are mentally challenged (IQ below 70) and as many as 80% might have a genetic basis. And of course there are many other genetic disorders due to a (or the expression of a) faulty gene. For this reason many parents may find themselves wanting to come to grips with genetics. Some, of course, who are biologists and having dusted off their school and college textbooks for a quick refresher, can jump straight into the academic literature. However for many starting with a simple primer so as to slowly get up to speed is required. Here Richard Knowles scores as a straightforward easy-to-read introduction to the topic.

Then again there are those lay folk with an interest in science, not to mention school children (mid-teenagers), who may be seeking an accessible introduction to the topic as genetics affects us all, the plants and animals we eat, our pets and so forth. Again Richard Knowles introduction will be most useful.

Knowles' approach has been to provide 37 chapters, all of which are quite short, each addressing a single topic or question. Chapters cover matters such as: the (genetic) difference between males and females, why so many miscarriages, genetic diversity, marrying cousins, genetic identity (whose baby is it), genetics in agriculture, growth hormones, stem cells, radiation; nature versus nurture, DNA profiling, the human genome project, genetic misconceptions, and genetics in politics... among a number of other topics.

The style of writing is very easy to read. There are a few (just a few) references and further reading suggestions at the end of each chapter. This is always most welcome but I would have liked to see a separate advanced reference list too; perhaps as part of a separate appendix at the book's back along with teachers' notes/references, but then one cannot have everything.

There is even a shot chapter on creationism versus Darwinian evolution. For a reader from Western Europe this sits somewhat uneasily within the rest of the book for two reasons. First is that creationism is not nearly as big an issue (it being more of a non-issue or far less evident though still worryingly extant) in Western Europe than it is in the US. Secondly, because for some reason the author has just (hugely) summarised the evolutionary case. I would have liked instead to have seen a more genetic approach: the evolution of proteins (hence genes) as evident across species (including genetic systematic taxonomy); the use of 'genetic clocks' (that, for example, show that the human population experienced a near extinction event (population bottleneck) many thousands of years ago). Here I felt that there was a missed opportunity, but then again I am not familiar with the depth of creationist views in the US and it may be that the author pitched it right?

Of particular interest to Science Fiction aficionados is the chapter on genetics and the movies (films). The exemplars given here being: Twins, Dave (though I disagree a little with the author here having met a couple of (non-biological) doppelgangers in my life and going to school with a couple of identical twins (within a term anyone who knew them could physically tell them apart but it did take a few weeks)); The Elephant Man; The Boys from Brazil; The Bad Seed; Godzilla; Trading Places; Jurassic Park; and GATTACA plus the Darwin-creationist film Inherit the Wind.

In short, The Wonder of Genetics is a useful introductory text presenting the basics of genetics. It is a good starting point for anyone who is not a biologist who finds that they need to begin to get up to speed with the subject before they go off into more intermediate and advanced literature. It will also make for a sound addition to school libraries (assuming that is after decades of budget cuts both sides of the Atlantic that there are still such things as school libraries).

Jonathan Cowie


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