Since being released on the world in 2012, the biotechnological tool CRISPR has been making headlines. Biologists used to rely on the relatively blunt tools of genetic modification, but this new tool is so precise and versatile that they now speak of gene editing instead. For people in a hurry, Nessa Carey here provides a primer on the powers and pitfalls of gene editing. Hacking the Code of Life is accessible to readers without much background in genetics, focusing more on the applications and the questions it raises than the nitty-gritty details of the tool itself.
So, quick question for you. What is life?
Sorry, that’s a trick question, for the answer to this is anything but quick. The mind-boggling complexity that is life, even something as “simple” as a bacterium, somehow arises from atoms and molecules. And yet, physics and chemistry as we currently know it seem incapable of answering how life’s complexity emerges from its constituent parts. With The Demon in the Machine, well-known physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies takes a stab at it, saying we are on the verge of a breakthrough.
If the design of the cover didn’t already give it away, the instruction to NOT PANIC on the dust jacket makes it clear this book is riffing on the famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And just as Douglas Adams’s book was intended to be an indispensable guide to navigating the galaxy, so The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe is an indispensable guide to navigating a world gone mad with pseudoscience, alternative medicine, fake news, and conspiracy theories. Don’t let the book’s bulk put you off, this is an incredibly engaging read with a most humble outlook on life.
In my recent review of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, I mentioned how the concept of heredity has become ever fuzzier the more we have learnt about how traits can be passed to the next generation. We have come from a very gene-centric period in biology, but biologists Russell Bonduriansky and Troy Day are ready to shake up the field. Neither a Lamarckian redux nor an attempt to downplay the importance of genes, this book successfully argues that the time has come to take into account non-genetic forms of heredity. Along the way, they provide a very interesting history lesson on how we got here in the first place.
After the recently published Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present left me little the wiser on how epigenetics actually works, I decided to track down a copy of Nessa Carey’s The Epigenetics Revolution. As one of two popular books published around the same time, it seemed like a good place to start. Peter Ward was right about one thing, this is indeed a landmark book, even if it is now a few years old.
As one of several intellectuals who wrote about evolution before Darwin, time has not been kind to the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Reviled during his lifetime by the influential Cuvier, after his death he became best remembered, and ultimately ridiculed, for the idea that characters acquired during an organism’s lifetime are passed on to its offspring. With the rise of the modern field of epigenetics, some of his ideas are making a comeback, albeit modified and adapted for the 21st Century. Palaeontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward would even like to go so far as to restore some honour to his name and consider epigenetics a neo-Lamarckian process.
After I read and reviewed Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, I thought I knew about the changes to the story of human evolution based on studies of DNA. And given that Ancestors in Our Genome was published a few years before that book, I was curious what it could add to what I had been reading so far. As it turns out, a lot. As with my previous review, I should preface this one with the same warning that things are about to get complicated…
When I opened this book and read its sales pitch (I paraphrase: “What if I told you of a new fortune-telling device that can predict psychological traits – it’s called the DNA revolution!”) I raised my inquisitive but sceptical eyebrow somewhat. Did I just pick up another piece of pop-psychology pulp? Oh boy, was I wrong! Behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin has written an incredibly interesting book with Blueprint, explaining how rapid advances in DNA sequencing technology are opening vast new vistas on the genetics underlying psychology. And is it ever so different, and more complex, than what hyped-up newspaper headlines have tried to sell us so far.
Historically, humans have long considered themselves special compared to the natural world around them. It shows, for example, in old depictions where humans are at or near the top of a chain of lifeforms, with only angels and gods above us. Darwin caused a tremendous ruckus by saying we were descended from primates, and evolutionary biology has since had a long history of diminishing our anthropocentric worldview. With The Book of Humans, self-professed science geek Adam Rutherford has written an entertaining exploration of human evolution, showing that, amidst the teeming multitudes of lifeforms surrounding us, we are really not that special. And yet we are.
If Charles Darwin were to walk into my office today and ask me: “So, what did I miss?” I think I would sit the good man down with a copy of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, telling him: “Here, this should get you up to speed”. Darwin struggled to explain how traits were being inherited from generation to generation. As New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer shows in this wide-ranging book, the story of heredity has turned out to be both diverse and wonderful, but has also been misappropriated to prop up some horrible ideologies.