Theories of Population Variation in Genes and Genomes

May 28, 2009

Author: Freddy Bugge Christiansen

Edition: First

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Pages: 432

Price: £54.00

ISBN 9780691133676

On a plane long ago, I asked the late John Maynard Smith why he chose to study biology. "Because I couldn't hack it as a mathematician," he modestly replied. This statement would surprise those who consider Maynard Smith one of the UK's greatest numerate biologists, but it reflects why some people choose to become biologists or medical doctors, rather than physicists or engineers - they struggle with mathematics. Indeed, perhaps my statistics teaching at an earlier stage of my career to biology undergraduates was simply a subconscious desire to cover up my feelings of inadequacy in numeracy.

With this background in mind, and with some trepidation, I agreed to review this book. I first read the author's introduction where, comfortingly, he states "the mathematical requirements correspond to an introductory mathematics course given in undergraduate biology teaching".

The book begins with some basic reminders about genetics and population genetics, but does not linger and is soon discussing coalescence - that is, all extant copies of a gene in all individuals of a species are descended from an ancient copy, the coalescent. Coalescence formulation plays an increasingly significant role in modern population genetics, and these ideas, as well as the classical Fisher-Wright approaches, are described in the early sections.

While the mathematics can be intimidating at times, and I have to disagree with the author's proposal that first-year maths courses for biologists cover this (not in Leicester, they don't), one can skip the maths, take on board the message and subsequently not be lost.

Part one includes genetic variation, mutation, linkage and migration where the text is a mosaic of maths integrated into the biology, and part two offers a look at selection and population structure, which I particularly liked. There are long passages here with barely an equation in sight, with plenty of biological examples covering different aspects from micro-evolutionary experiments on flies to bacterial populations.

Each chapter has exercises associated with it. There is also an appendix on probability and statistics that may be helpful to some. The book is not as formally structured as other texts of population genetics, so the presentation is both unusual and effective, and the text is lively and never dry.

Who is it for? Final-year under-graduates studying population genetics, and PhD students.

Presentation: Very good.

Would you recommend it? Yes.

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