We’ve discovered the secret of life
- Francis Crick, 28th February 1953
First published in 1999 in Great Britain, Matt Ridley’s third book after the success of ‘The Agile Gene’ and ‘Francis Crick’, has been described by Wall Street Journal as, ‘A fascinating tour of the human genome… a riveting glimpse into the biotech century that is now dawning.’
In 23 chapters each featuring genes according to the chromosomes on which they are found, Ridley offers extraordinary insight into one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the century – the mapping of the human genome.
As one turns the pages, every name, fact and number that appears dry or at best marginally interesting when read in textbooks or reference material begins to come alive, the technical and scientific jargon skillfully seasoned with witty anecdotes, clever analogies and just plain good writing.
The book highlights the journeys, errors, successes and personality quirks of people who today are credited with cracking the mysteries of biology alongside showing how they were drawn into the field from the most unlikely areas. It seems strange to think that in 1943, just 10 short years before the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA, Francis Crick was working on the design of naval mines while James Watson had entered the University of Chicago determined to devote his life to ornithology.
The names of genes, enzymes and diseases familiar to every student of biotechnology pop up regularly throughout the manuscript, each with its own interesting little story serving to drive home the face that the human genome is neither passive nor constant. ‘The body’, Ridley writes, ‘is the victim, plaything, battleground and vehicle for the ambitions of genes’.
From cancer to Alzheimer’s Disease, the book covers the nature and cause of several diseases often depicting with chilling narrative the devastating effects a tiny mutation in just one motif of the 3 billion ‘letter’ code can have on the human body. About Huntington’s chorea, a syndrome which manifests depending on the number of repeats of the sequence ‘CAG’ on chromosome 4 the author says, ‘The scale is this: if your chromosomes were long enough to stretch around the equator, the difference between health and insanity would be less than one extra inch.’
Other chapters discuss the fascinating history and evolution of the human genome as well as the results of environment, nature and nurture on genes pertaining to behavior, intelligence and instinct.
The larger part of the book is given to the genetic points of view on topics like stress, age, sex, memory, sickness, cure and death. The last three chapters are devoted to moral and philosophical issues of eugenics, politics and free will.
A must read for anyone who at any time in the course of their study of biology has felt a sense of awe at the bewildering complexities of the human body, or any of my fellow students who have like me tried to answer questions about their subject with faltering arguments like, “No, it’s not… just about DNA…