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Volume 11, No. 7—October 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

The Gene
We asked five experts to recommend the best recent books about the gene.

Lori B. Andrews, professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law and author of Future Perfect: Confronting Decisions About Genetics (Columbia, 2001).

"In 1990, the United States Congress launched a multi-billion-dollar scientific endeavor to sequence the human genome. Labeled biology's 'moon shot' by proponents and 'the Manhattan Project of science' by detractors, the Human Genome Project has spawned not just a scientific frenzy but also a library's worth of books. In Transducing the Genome: Information, Anarchy, and Revolution in the Biomedical Sciences (McGraw-Hill, 2001), Gary Zweiger, a geneticist at a leading biotech company, provides one of the best scientific explanations of gene hunting. He also gives the reader a behind-the-scenes look at the intensely commercial motives of government researchers and university microbiologists. While Zweiger supports the idea of patenting genes, he acknowledges that such patents may hamper scientific progress.

"In Owning the Future (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), Seth Shulman raises many concerns about gene patents, as well as about similar patents in the software field. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Shulman demonstrates, has moved from patenting inventions to patenting basic ideas and information. While patents have turned many scientists into millionaires, the patenting process may impoverish the rest of us, because the unimpeded circulation of scientific information is crucial both in academia and in health care."

Kevin Davies, editor in chief of Cell Press and author of Cracking the Genome: Inside the Race to Unlock Human DNA (Free Press, 2001).

"Like Dava Sobel's Longitude, Matt Ridley's Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (HarperCollins, 2000) is a rarity: a science book that appeals as much to nonscientists as to scientists, if not more so. In each chapter, Ridley plucks a single gene from one of the twenty-three human chromosomes and uses it to illustrate how genes influence life and behavior. With wry humor, he shares a wealth of fascinating material about the origins of species, the battle between the sexes, the genetics of intelligence, and environmental influences on personality. Though the book's subtitle bills it as an autobiography, it is essentially a selection of delightful short stories. Ridley does not attempt to discuss the politics of the Human Genome Project. But no book tells a more absorbing story about the race for mankind's genetic blueprint."

Peter Godfrey-Smith, associate professor of philosophy at Stanford University and author of Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature (Cambridge, 1996).

"Why Men Won't Ask for Directions (Princeton, forthcoming), by Richard Francis, is written for nonspecialists, but it challenges some of the most influential current ideas about the role of genes in explaining behavior. Francis goes far beyond typical criticisms of 'genetic determinism.' Recently, biologists have taken to using the concept of information to describe the role played by genes in biological development and evolution. Scientists often describe genes in language borrowed from computer science and linguistics—genes are seen as containing a 'program' and carrying 'meaning.' Many observers have applauded the use of these metaphors, but for Francis such concepts threaten to take biology away from materialist patterns of explanation, which focus on the ordinary causal powers of biological molecules. The material gene, Francis writes, is being replaced by immaterial 'genies.' I don't agree with Francis's analysis, but his argument is fascinating—and so is his whole book. Why Men Won't Ask for Directions is written with dry humor, and it contains lots of interesting anecdotes from the fields of biology and the history of science."

Alan Packer, assistant editor of Nature Genetics.

"In The Art of Genes: How Organisms Make Themselves (Oxford, 1999), Enrico Coen delivers a brilliant metaphor that illuminates the state of developmental biology. An embryo, Coen writes, is like a painting: Each step in its creation is influenced by the previous step, as well as by the whole environment. Just as there are no rules for painting a picture, other than in the crudest sense, so there is no explicit plan for embryonic development. To be more precise, the plan is inseparable from its execution. It is thus deeply misleading to speak of a 'genetic blueprint' for a human being. Coen grounds these metaphors in the gritty details of developmental genetics, elegantly summarizing how genes are turned on and off as embryos grow and take shape. His style is both accessible to the general reader and clever enough to attract his fellow geneticists."

Nathaniel C. Comfort, professor of history at George Washington University and author of The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock's Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control (Harvard, 2001).

"An important recent change in gene thinking is the shift in focus from genes to entire genomes. Genes are not particles, switches, or lines of computer code; they are dynamic, highly interactive systems. Richard C. Lewontin's The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment (Harvard, 2000) is a slim tour de force of the new genomic thinking. In an evenhanded set of essays, Lewontin extends this dynamic view of heredity to the interactions of genes, biology, and environment. In Genetic Medicine: A Logic of Disease (Johns Hopkins, 1999), the distinguished pediatrician Barton Childs applies these dynamic principles to medicine. As the English physician Sir Archibald Garrod recognized a century ago, each of us (except for identical twins) houses a unique genetic constellation. Our particular genomes affect our susceptibility to disease and injury and our responsiveness to therapeutic treatment. Childs presents a vision of an individualized medicine in which physicians would use genomic profiles to tailor drug therapies to different patients. The concept of a genomic medicine echoes nicely the Hippocratic notion that disease and health result from unique confluences of heredity, physiology, and environment."

John Palattella


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