Cracking the code

An attempt to explain the hubbub over genetics.

When was the last time you shrugged off some bad habit by saying, "It's in the genes"?

With the unveiling of a rough draft of the human genome last January, genetic determinism is being floated more than ever to explain human behavior and disease. Medical reporters gush about unraveling the human DNA code to find new cures and create designer babies. Of course, smart journalists point out why there are no single genes responsible for intelligence or violence. Still, even the most thoughtful genetics coverage carries the hidden wish to explain why we do what we do largely in terms of our genetic heritage — as we do ourselves in everyday conversation. When was the last time you shrugged off some bad habit by saying, "It's in the genes"?

Colin Tudge's The Impact of the Gene is the latest book attempting to explain the hubbub over genetics. A British science writer of some renown, Tudge takes the unique tack of explaining these issues through Gregor Mendel's groundbreaking studies in plant breeding. The 19th-century monk carefully bred peas to show how they passed on certain characteristics, such as color and roundness, from generation to generation. Although heredity had been exploited by farmers for centuries beforehand, Mendel was the first to scientifically chart how characteristics are handed down from parent to offspring — even through multiple generations. While his contemporary, Charles Darwin, showed how natural selection gives living creatures the traits they need for survival, it was Mendel who showed how such traits are passed along in the first place. By the time Mendel's and Darwin's ideas were fully digested by the scientific community, all that was left to do was find the mechanism that carries traits, which James Watson and Francis Crick did in 1953 with their double-helix model of the DNA molecule.

As Tudge points out, Mendel's low-tech but essential contribution to genetics is often overlooked. By using heredity to explain genetic science, Tudge brings much-needed clarity to a complicated field. Indeed, his description of how DNA works is among the most understandable to be found in the popular press — almost to the book's detriment. At times, such descriptions read like a well-written but bland intro-level biology textbook.

Moreover, the casual reader might feel mislead by the title. Tudge's assessment of the impact genetic research may have — from genetically modified crops and stem-cell research to the possibility of eugenics — feels tacked on. And his conclusion, that we should be advised by a cadre of morally wise prophets on how to use such technology, is downright flaky — and a cop-out of our collective obligation to find that middle ground between scientific innovation and moral responsibility. Studying Mendel's peas is a fine way to learn genetic science, but it offers little insight on how the idea of genetic determinism itself will influence human culture.

Joab Jackson writes for City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].

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