Genetic Twists of Fate

January 27, 2011

Suppose you and your buddy are accomplished human geneticists. You hold chairs, run labs and edit journals, and have made real contributions to the field. As the work advanced, you realised this stuff was pretty important - for health and medicine, and for self-understanding. Yet non-scientists you meet seem to have little idea what is going on: they cannot even tell you what a gene is. You can both write a bit, although your publications do not yet include anything aimed at laypeople. So why not write a book explaining clearly about genes, DNA and their significance? How hard can it be?

Maybe not that hard. You know this stuff really well. You have spent time explaining it. And the rules of popular science writing seem easily stated: make sure you tell good stories; include some compelling people to engage the reader; and use analogies and metaphors to convey key concepts. As the key concepts of genetics are not that difficult, there's an excellent chance you will produce a decent book, worthy of an esteemed imprint like, say, MIT Press.

It is a seductive, perhaps even a worthy train of thought. But following it risks pitfalls that this particular worthy tome fails to avoid. There is plenty of clear explanation of the basics, but the "let's be science writers" add-ons often go awry. The new analogies on offer are sometimes hard to follow. The body is a hotel and cells are rooms, trillions of them, with different furnishings. Well, OK. Transcription factors, which influence whether a piece of DNA gets read into RNA, are like the transistors on the motherboard of a computer. They are also, in the very next paragraph, rheostats. Huh? And bear in mind that, laid end to end, the DNA in one human would reach to the Sun and back more than 60 times. Come again? This is the sound of authors who aren't quite sure what will work, so decide to try a bit of everything.

The same goes, I fear, for the personal stories. Some are clinical cases, usually from news reports; some are anecdotes of scientific lives; some are well-known tales from the history of science. But in general, they are poorly integrated with the exposition. The unhappy end of Rita Hayworth's life, blighted by Alzheimer's disease, does little to illuminate the condition, however many Wikifacts you put in the text. Nor does it seem sensible to devote 10 pages of a tiny (14-page) chapter on evolution to a mini biography of Alfred Russel Wallace.

These would be minor blemishes in the first popular book on the topic. But there is another odd feature of Genetic Twists of Fate. The main text appears to have been written in an alternative universe in which no other literature on genetics exists. It would have been better for the authors to have read far more of the vast competition, then critique it, and try to go further. That might have produced a book that, for example, moved beyond the emphasis on simple Mendelian conditions that dominated medical genetics until recently, that took account of biologists' increasing difficulty in defining a gene, or included more of the startling subtleties of genomic organisation and regulation that have emerged in the past decade.

That work, presumably, would have taken more time out of a busy scientific career. But it would have avoided producing a book with the slightly uninspiring qualities of this one. It is generally fine, but is so similar to scores of others that if it had never been written, no one would have missed it.

Genetic Twists of Fate

By Stanley Fields and Mark Johnston. MIT Press, 240pp, £18.95. ISBN 9780262014700. Published 26 November 2010

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