Review: Genome by Matt Ridley

Genome

 

I’m pretty sure I started to read this one in the middle of studying for some biology exam, and Genome became something like a study break. (Because I’m still technically reading about restriction enzymes and genes on chromosomes, right? Right.) So many interesting topics about the genome, organized in a fun way. BIOLOGY FOREVER. ❤

Introduction

With the first draft of the human genome due to be published in 2000, we, this lucky generation, are the first beings who are able to read this extraordinary book and to gain hitherto unimaginable insights into what it means to be alive, to be human, to be conscious or to be ill.

By picking one newly discovered gene from each of the twenty-three human chromosomes and telling its story, Matt Ridley recounts the history of our species and its ancestors from the dawn of life to the brink of future medicine.

Discussion

Clever organization of the chapters for each chromosome. We have 23 pairs of chromosomes in our cells, and Ridley has arranged the book based on these chromosomes: from the largest chromosome (chromosome 1) all the way to the smallest (chromosome 22; the twenty-third pair are the sex chromosomes, which are actually fairly big and so lie in the middle of the book). He centers the chapters around these chromosomes, and specifically, on one particular gene or topic of interest. For example, Chapter 5 was all about asthma susceptibility genes on chromosome 5, and the broad theme was on the environment and gene-environment interactions. The flow from chapter to chapter is also effortless, as we start learning about DNA, chromosomes, and genes in Chapter 1, evolution in Chapter 2, and more focus shifting to human behavior and characteristics (like intelligence and diseases) in later chapters. Overall, I thought the organization was interesting, logical, and very fun.

Biology can be easy to understand! The one thing about science that makes it difficult to approach is that there’s a ton of jargon. Ridley has taken away the majority of that jargon, replacing “nucleotides” with “letters” that make up “words” in the “book” of the genome. Sometimes he’ll brush past certain biological pathways by mentioning that A activates B, B releases C, and C leads to our output of interest (where letters are actually letters and not some complicated words), and other times he’ll appeal to the more science-loving readers by going through which specific neurotransmitters, proteins, etc. are involved. It’s a good mix of general and specific information, and I think that allows a broader audience of readers to pick up this book and read it with ease.

“The genome is a book that wrote itself, continually adding, deleting and amending over four billion years.”

Bringing textbooks to life. I love learning about the history of certain experiments, studies, and researchers, and Genome provides a lot of that. I learned about how mad cow disease came about and how it works, and what governments around the world did at the time of the disease outbreak; I learned about cloning, and how scientists had thought it impossible until Dolly the sheep was cloned; I learned about eugenics, and how North America as well as many places around the world actually approved laws to make people with mental disabilities infertile. And everything came alive in this book: Ridley paints a realistic picture of three of our ancestors walking across the plains, even though we only have fossil records as evidence. His writing style made ideas and concepts that probably appeared in many of our textbooks much more memorable and enjoyable to read about.

Conclusion

Genome is a fun read that focuses on human physiology and behavior through the lens of our DNA. If you like learning about the history of scientific discoveries or why we have different personalities, susceptibility to certain diseases, etc., I think you’ll enjoy this book!

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6 thoughts on “Review: Genome by Matt Ridley

  1. All of your recent reviews are really making me wish I took time to read non-fiction! Maybe I should make that a goal for next year. When I was looking up the author, I realized he also wrote “The Red Queen,” a book I had to read in college and really enjoyed. (I was probably the only one who actually read it, but anyways.) That makes me think I would like “Genome” as well. Although I didn’t take traditional biology in college, the genetics unit in high school was my favorite.

    • Ooh, I haven’t read The Red Queen! But if you like Ridley’s writing style, I think you should give Genome a try. Also something easily devoured in chunks. 😉 (Although he has this habit of writing “nevertheless” like “never the less” (or “nonetheless”, I can’t remember now) which bugged me SO MUCH.)

  2. Oh yay! I’m really glad to hear you liked this one. I read it in high school and enjoyed it enough that I still own the book. However, I recently read The Evolution of Everything by Ridley and I wasn’t very impressed. It made me wonder if I’d misremembered how good Genome was, but it seems like you enjoyed it too 🙂

    • I wish I had encountered this book in high school! This would make for great supplemental reading. 😁 And that’s too bad about The Evolution of Everything – I saw that one on GR, and I thought that the blurb was a little too philosophical/abstract for me to grasp…

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