Genome – Reviewed

Genome: the Autobiography of a Species in 23 ChaptersGenome: the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Patchy, but mostly excellent. This book boasts to have been the best science book, that Robin McKie read in 1999, on its front cover. This doesn’t really mean much to me if it was published in January. It is an agonizing 23 chapters, until I find out it was published in the final months of 1999.

This book is a gold mine for facts. Humans have an innate instinct for language, crawling and walking. Different blood groups have different susceptibilities to disease e.g. cholera. Scientists selectively bred male fruit flies that became so effective at manipulating female behaviour, that their ejaculate killed the female. The latter comes from the X-Y conflict chapter which was very good. There’s also the idea of the foetus as a parasite competing for the mother’s resources.

The chapter on intelligence was interesting, Ridley comes to the conclusion that intelligence is entirely inherited. Though this raises the question, of how intelligent a feral child would be or one that grew up without a good school or supportive family environment. In a different chapter, he discusses the idea of a ‘gay gene’, surmising that there appears to be a strong heritability of male homosexuality, based on the maternal uncle being more likely to be gay. The studies he cites, are relatively small sample sizes, though the nature of the beast is that larger samples will be hard to come by. He suggests that such a characteristic must offer some benefit to female fertility to offset sexual antagonism, which is intriguing. Later he rubbishes this theory and concentrates on birth order having an effect on homosexuality.

Ridley is mistaken, when he says that there will one day be a universal cure for cancer. In fact, the evidence says quite the opposite according to The Emperor of All Maladies. The author (Mukherjee) says that cures will tend to become more niche and tailored to each specific form of cancer. ‘Cancer’ is not one disease, it is a collection of hundreds that are not strongly related. It is also daft to suggest we don’t have cures now in the form of chemotherapy or surgery which are successful if the cancer is caught at an early stage. I think Ridley is referring to non-invasive treatments with no side effects.

Ridley also bizarrely posits his misconception, that contracting AIDS is a voluntary choice, akin to smoking and drinking. The small bugchasing community aside, I can’t see contracting an often fatal disease, at least in the period this book was written, to be anything other than a voluntary choice. Especially in the early 80s where information about the disease, namely its aetiology and effects, were equivocal in the non-scientific community. People were stigmatised for having the disease.

Somehow, the author ridiculously manages to conflate socialism with eugenics. He argues that eugenics is a good fit for a socialist political system. For an authoritarian state perhaps yes, but not a pure socialistic one. Maybe Ridley’s own ideology is coming to the fore here in his work, taking swipes at groups he doesn’t like. The chapter on politics or more accurately BSE/prions helped shed some light on the epidemic of the 90s. The existence of prions is somewhat worrying, in that even vegetarians who ingested no meat at all contracted the disease too.

Despite a scientific background this did test the limits of my technical knowledge at times, although I read the primer. I do wonder, how much of this book is still scientifically valid, given that it was written nearly two decades ago. Ridley is right on some of his predictions, like the expansion of gene therapy, though the way he goes on about it, you’d think it’d be mainstream now. Ridley also has the habit, of sometimes presenting his own conjectures though he does point out when he is guessing.

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